Evangelical Christians enjoy using military lyrics when singing about their faith. In Sunday school as a youth, I belted out Gospel favorites with my classmates. “Onward Christian soldiers,” we shouted in triumphal reverie, ” marching as to war.” Even the girls didn’t mind the Lord’s call to muster their faith with, “Rise Up, O Men of God.” We prepared our hearts for worship singing reverentially “We’re Marching to Zion.”
Ralph Reed, in cahoots with confessed briber Jack Abramoff, formerly served in the 1990’s as the Christian Coalition’s executive director. He advised his followers to dampen their enthusiasm for fierce military rhetoric when describing their faith. “Early in the 1990’s, I occasionally used military metaphors for effect,” confessed Reed in 1996. So did powerhouses like the Christian Service Brigade and Campus Crusade for Christ.
Reed sensed the peril of going overboard with military metaphors. Christians sounded like U.S. Marine recruiters. Reed “sent out a memorandum to our grassroots leaders urging them to avoid military rhetoric and use sports metaphors instead.”
Whereupon evangelical men stormed the gates of huge sports stadiums as Promise Keepers taught them how to exercise muscular Christianity. It was Jesus for wanna-be jocks, as faith’s journey was suffused in athleticism’s lingo. But the war language still had a residual effect. Christian men urged each other to “blitz” the Devil for Jesus and “sack” extra-marital cheating. Time is running out. The battle against sin is “sudden death,” with victory going to those who score for Christ. The battle against the Devil, evangelical Christians believe, is no skirmish. It is an all-out war.
Growing up in western Michigan, I rabidly rooted for the Detroit Lion’s quarterback Bobby Layne who fought a gridiron war against Bart Starr’s Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day. Both teams in the late 1950’s practiced “smash-mouth” football. They ran “up the gut.” That’s how my Sunday school stories often read, too. We must hit the Devil with every weapon of faith Christ’s gives us, smashing his hordes backwards.
The language we use is not harmless. Words carry power. Those wrapped in Old Glory, who grew up as I did girded with the Lord’s armor, are attracted to President George W. Bush’s rhetoric against evil. “Saddam” sounds something like Satan, doesn’t it?
Just before Christmas Bush delivered five speeches defending the war in Iraq. Who wouldn’t agree that our world is safer with Saddam Hussein deposed? Polls report most Americans aren’t convinced that Saddam’s toppling has made the world less terror-filled.
Evangelical Christians, however, form a pro-Bush voting bloc. They readily heed his call “to consider the stakes of this war, to realize how far we have come, and the good we are doing, and to have patience in this difficult, noble, and necessary war.”
Christianity Today magazine correctly reports that pro-war evangelical Christians show great patience with the President’s military policy. They are increasingly out-of-sync with most Americans who believe the war is like a spreading gangrene upon our national soul.
Bucking this trend, evangelical Christians budge little from standing in line with President Bush. Reports Christianity Today in its February 2006 issue, “In 2003, 77 percent of white evangelicals approved of Bush’s decision to launch the war in Iraq. By last October, evangelical support for the Iraq war was down to only 68 percent.” Evidently, military metaphors describing how Christians must respond to evil carry a massive punch against the enemy in Iraq.
What has always been bothersome to me is that so much of the Bible is soaked in bloody war. Even a novice in biblical studies can find texts that legitimize using military language to justify the faith. In Sunday school we learned how evil Egyptians drowned in the Red (Reed) Sea because God collapsed raging waters upon them. We sang with Israel that God acted like a Divine Warrior. “The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8) we chanted as we memorized key biblical passages in Sunday school. “Divine Warrior” is one of the favorite biblical names when addressing God.
With desert sand turned maroon with the blood of Israel’s enemies, we read of the continual carnage in the book of Joshua. People really do believe the quip for an easy justification of ruthless biblical terror. “That was before God became a Christian.” The Apostle Paul instructs Christians to put on the full armor of God in marching against the Devil and all his hosts. So, even at the point that “God converted to Christianity,” He evidently didn’t let go of a nasty militaristic streak.
My former professor, eminent evangelical historian George Marsden, in the second edition of the classic Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford University Press 2005), describes what happens when war metaphors are mixed with nationalism. The nation’s cause becomes sacred. Any who question Bush are not only unpatriotic but also show they lack Christian character. They are not on the Lord’s side.
Evangelical Christians describe the United States in the same hushed tones they reserve for God as their Divine Warrior. Marsden uncovers an opening in their armor. For evangelical Christians, “although the American nation is certainly distinguished from the church and is in principle seen as much less than Christian, in practice it is often treated with reverence as though it were Christian and as an agency used by God in literal warfare against the forces of evil.”
This is how our president thinks. He articulates this conviction clearly. In the battle against evil in Iraq, our country’s nationalism is considered pure and noble. Evangelical Christians, “seem more than willing to endorse raising the United States to sacred status,” Marsden observes. Consequently, who among evangelical Christians dares question our nation’s patriotic war in Iraq against evil? Perhaps God does. Doc: warpath
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads CREATIVE GROWTH MINISTRIES, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
Mar. 3, 2006 Opinion
Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens