- Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition: Evangelicals and the Military since World War II
Until fairly recently, the profoundly important role of evangelical religious belief in contemporary American life—in shaping domestic policy, in the foreign-policy arena, and in the military realm—was largely unrecognized by most American historians as well as by the mainstream media. As a result, historians and journalists alike had trouble contextualizing those moments when evangelicalism’s centrality became unavoidably obvious.
A case in point is President Reagan’s 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in Orlando, where, to fervent applause, he famously characterized the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and as “the focus of evil in the modern world.” The media reported the address as simply another instance of Reagan’s hyperbole, and the textbooks and general histories of the Reagan era that are beginning to appear usually handle it in the same fashion. In fact, as readers of Anne C. Loveland’s important new book will quickly realize, the love feast in Orlando simply ratified what by the early 1980s had become a powerful and symbiotic link among evangelicals, the military services, and the aggressively militaristic foreign-policy approach that Reagan epitomized, at least during his first term. But at the time, this context went largely unremarked except by close observers of the hermetic world of American evangelicalism.
In recent years, however, this situation has begun to change, as American religious history comes of age, and as more books and articles appear exploring many facets of American evangelicalism. 1 Included in this outpouring are numerous works focused on the post-World War II decades, and now Anne Loveland, T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at Louisiana State University, has added another valuable book to this list.
Loveland’s thoroughly researched monograph traces the growing role of evangelical and Pentecostal believers in the American military from World [End Page 686] War II through the early 1980s. In the 1940s, most Protestant military chaplains came from the mainstream liberal denominations, as did most military officers. (In 1950, 40 percent of all officers were Episcopalian.) The occasional officer or chaplain from an evangelical or Pentecostal background felt isolated and marginalized. Over the years, however, this situation changed radically. America’s religious profile evolved dramatically in the postwar era, as the mainstream denominations hemorrhaged members and evangelical, fundamentalist, and charismatic groups grew by leaps and bounds. Inevitably, the military services reflected this shift. Evangelical chaplains became more confident and aggressive. They formed associations and increasingly brought their fervent, evangelistic, dogmatic brand of religion to bear in the military, which they rightly viewed as a prime target of missionary activity. As the bulletin of one evangelical parachurch organization, the Overseas Christian Servicemen’s Centers, discreetly put it (p. 68), loneliness and “the possibility of premature death” rendered military personnel vulnerable to the temptations of alcohol, gambling, and sex—but also to evangelical proselytizing.
This shift gained momentum from many organizational sources working toward a common goal. Evangelical denominations such as the giant Southern Baptist Convention and Pentecostal groups such as the burgeoning Assemblies of God Church actively recruited chaplains to serve the religious needs of their members in the military. By 1987, 163 military chaplains came from churches affiliated with the NAE, while the Assemblies of God Church alone boasted 88 military chaplains. Parachurch organizations such as the NAE, the Navigators, an evangelical organization dating from World War II, Bill Bright’s Campus Crusade for Christ; and the pentecostalist Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International (FGBFI) focused their energies on carrying the gospel to servicemen and women and on gaining increased influence in the military services.
The rapproachement between the military and evangelical Protestantism was significantly advanced by a succession of top military leaders who translated their personal experience as “born again” or “spirit-filled” Christians into the policies they espoused from their positions of power and influence. Loveland devotes separate chapters to several of these individuals. General William K. Harrison, “the...