“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other…. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
—James Madison, Political Observations, 20 April 1795
“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886
The vast majority of Americans, one might infer from the polls, tend to view foreign policy issues as a distant set of concerns detached from their everyday reality. The U.S.’s military technological superiority and all-volunteer system have since the post-Vietnam War era afforded most Americans the luxury of not having to concern themselves with such matters because they have little apparent personal stake in them.
This is a misperception, however, especially for Americans who value reproductive and LGBTQ rights as well as equality for religious minorities including humanists. Theocratic political and religious leaders are working to reverse hard-won progress on these issues, in part based on fears that they contribute to the weakening of the country’s security. These fears are rooted in their literal interpretation of the Bible, in which God causes or allows catastrophes to be inflicted on individuals or nations when they stray from his commandments, laws, and decrees.
The resurgence of the most retrogressive elements of religious traditions as a response to security threats and socioeconomic stresses is a phenomenon common to the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and perhaps human psychology. It can be viewed as a conscious and subconscious response to trauma and an acute sense of lost agency. This anxiety is resolved by reestablishing divine favor with an apparently wrathful deity. In more concrete political terms, religion has the power to inspire, unify, and harden the resolve of nations against external and internal threats, whether actual or perceived.
The more the U.S. becomes embroiled in conflicts around the world, therefore—in the Middle East especially, because of the religious nationalist and eschatological importance of historical sites disputed between Jewish and Christian Zionists and Muslims in particular—the more likely it is that theocratic elements will become increasingly empowered and aggressive in their efforts to roll back what they view not only as an affront to their deeply held religious beliefs but also a threat to our national security.
The ascendance of these forces is already apparent. Although President Trump undoubtedly views religion simply as an instrument of power and is fulfilling the policy objectives of his theocratic allies in exchange for the loyalty of their flocks (employing the ironic Christian parlance), his Vice President, Mike Pence, is a Christian fundamentalist, as is his CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, among other senior-level administration officials and legislators such as Senator Lindsey Graham. It is particularly disturbing that a CIA Director who has referenced the Rapture (in which Christians suddenly ascend to Heaven to escape an impending Armageddon) has such influence over the U.S.’s strategy for countering Iran’s expanding military influence in the Middle East (a necessary but complex task requiring a balance of diplomacy complemented by military deterrence).
Increasing anxiety in the realm of foreign and national security policy, centered primarily within the context of a mutually reinforcing conflict between American religious nationalists their Islamist counterparts, is not the only variable relevant to the theocrats’ ascendance—domestic stresses including, especially, a decline in the social stature of this constituency and the socioeconomic advancement of women and LGBTQ Americans, have also had a major impact. Security threats, however, are powerful drivers of a disturbing trend toward Americans’ increasing embrace of authoritarianism and political repression, enabled in part by religious conditioning.
American Historical Perspective
Efforts by American leaders to forge religion as a political instrument against their foreign enemies and, by necessary extension, domestic elements they perceive to be morally subversive, have precedent in U.S. history.
Lori Lyn Bogle, professor of U.S. military, diplomatic, and religious history at the U.S Naval Academy, writes in her book The Pentagon’s Battle for the American Mind that during the Cold War era,
A “cult of toughness” developed in opposition to the “feminization” of society… The rhetoric of the new effeminate American male played heavily in the charges of [Senator Joseph] McCarthy and other “red hunters” who built their cases on “the assumption that patriotism and masculinity were synonymous.” The equating of sexual perversion with communist subversion grew in intensity as a “lavender [homosexual] scare” developed… The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) responded by intensifying sexual surveillances…and the armed forces began purging their ranks of those who exhibited the slightest “tendency” toward homosexuality.
Billy Graham [father of Franklin Graham, an Evangelical leader who continues to provide vital political support to President Trump and who, ironically, recently dismissed concerns of his potential collusion with Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election] praised all those who, “in the face of public denouncement and ridicule, go loyally on in their work exposing the pinks, the lavenders, and the reds who have sought refuge beneath the wings of the American Eagle.”
In his book The Spiritual-Industrial Complex, Jonathan P. Herzog, describes this system as:
[T]he beneficiary of state sanction and commercial talent. It worked to foment a religious revival that was conceived in boardrooms… steered by Madison Avenue and Hollywood… and measured with a statistical precision… Leaders… put the resources of American bureaucracy behind religious revival and spiritual rededication.
Religion was thus America’s ideological armor.
Herzog quotes Edward F. Willett, a national security official under the Truman administration:
“Russia is a nation with the Messianic goal, the driving force around which a crusading spirit can be built up…” America would be severely disadvantaged in a battle of asymmetric zeal… A counterfaith, then, was desperately needed, something to arouse American fervor in the impending conflict.
The Pentagon’s efforts to operationalize this theory led to “one of the most revolutionary experiments in American military history—a plan to morally and spiritually engineer the U.S. Army.”
Within the auspices of the Fort Knox Experiment,
[Brigadier General John M.] Devine made Sunday attendance of religious services mandatory for the first four weeks of training… on weekdays they conducted mandatory classes and lectures.
Devine not only charged his chaplains with religious instruction, he made them moral police… Recruits were served no alcohol on base, and Devine convinced local bartenders to refuse them service when off duty. …Condoms were confiscated, since they violated the camp’s emphasis on abstinence.
The objective of those who sought to infuse the U.S. military with a socially conservative or theocratic belief system was not only to cultivate what its proponents considered to be the model American troop but also to expand these methods of social and political indoctrination into the broader American society, in part via the influence of these community leaders.
It becomes clear through this history and its 21st century iteration that Americans who value individual liberties—including the right to sexual and reproductive freedom and to worship the deity of their choosing or no deity at all—must engage in the vital work of conflict prevention and resolution if we wish to sustain the advancement of these freedoms. This means refusing to cede the political battlefield to theocrats either in the realm of domestic or foreign and national security policy, which, however, detached from our everyday concerns the latter may seem, are in reality inseparable from them.
Allowing the theocrats to dictate in the realm of foreign and national security policy will exacerbate and perpetuate America’s conflicts with the Muslim world in particular and will lead to the further erosion of our rights at home—indeed, even within the privacy of our own homes.