becoming_christian_citizenHillsdale, Michigan. The Paris killings a few weeks ago have unleashed a number of reflections about Islam and its tendency toward violence. Robert Tracinski makes a point that I have seen in various places:

It is obviously true that all major religions have had violent periods, or periods in which the religion has coexisted with violence. Even those mellow pacifist Buddhists. These days, especially the Buddhists, who are currently fomenting a pogrom against a Muslim minority in Burma.

But in today’s context, it’s absurd to equate Islam and Christianity. Pointing to the Spanish Inquisition tends to undermine the point rather than confirm it: if you have to look back three hundred years to find atrocities, it’s because there are so few of them today. The mass crimes committed under the name of Islam, by contrast, are fresh and openly boasted about.

Having been to Turkey a couple of times and having seen how a secular Muslim society operates, I don’t want to make the mistake of generalizing about Islam on the basis of that experience, though it may be instructive to think about the capacity of Muslims to adapt to secular government especially when an economy is productive. On the other hand, I do wonder if folks in the West are blind to the violence that Christians continue to inflict on Muslim communities because we are conveniently comfortable with the nation-state. Our Christians kill non-Christians as soldiers rather than as non-state actors. Consider the case of Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s movie, “American Sniper” (about which I have only read):

“I’m not the kind of person who makes a big show out of religion,” Kyle writes in the book. “I believe, but I don’t necessarily get down on my knees or sing real loud in church. But I find some comfort in faith, and I found it in those days after my friends had been shot up. Ever since I had gone through BUD/S (SEAL training), I’d carried a Bible with me. I hadn’t read it all that much, but it had always been with me. Now I opened it and read some of the passages. I skipped around, read a bit, skipped around some more. With all hell breaking loose around me, it felt better to know I was part of something bigger.”

In his book, Kyle wrote about how his family shaped his faith during his upbringing.

“My family had a deep faith in God. My dad was a deacon, and my mom taught Sunday school,” Kyle wrote. “I remember a stretch when I was young when we would go to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday evening. Still we didn’t consider ourselves overly religious, just good people who believed in God and were involved in our church. Truth is, back then, I didn’t like going a lot of the time.”

Islam is mentioned a few times in his book, though the faith doesn’t have a starring role in the film except when Kyle is asked to defend a shot after a wife claimed the victim was carrying a Quran. In his book, Kyle writes that he told an Army colonel: “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.” The Muslim call to prayer appears twice in the film, but it doesn’t probe the differences between Sunnis and Shiites the way Kyle does in his book.

“I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting,” Kyle wrote. “I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying f**k about them.”

A 2013 New Yorker profile mentions Kyle’s faith as a deep motivator in his work: “Like many soldiers, Kyle was deeply religious and saw the Iraq War through that prism,” journalist Nicholas Schmidle wrote. “He tattooed one of his arms with a red crusader’s cross, wanting ‘everyone to know I was a Christian.’”

Stories of Kyle’s shootings earned him the nickname “Legend.”

“I don’t spend a lot of time philosophizing about killing people. I have a clear conscience about my role in the war. I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one — not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over all my sins.”

Of course, Kyle is by no means representative of U.S. soldiers. But neither is it controversial to assume that many of the men and women who serve in the U.S. military are Christians and devout ones at that. William Cavanaugh, for instance, worries that Christians are so willing to serve the nation-state’s military:

Some Christians in the US use theological justifications for supporting war. More commonly, Christians support war for the same secularist reason that Americans as a whole support war: for “freedom,” a freedom that was born out of revulsion to the so-called “religious wars.” As I write in the introduction to my book, “In the West, revulsion to killing and dying in the name of one’s ‘religion’ is one of the principal means by which we become convinced that killing and dying in the name of the nation-state is laudable and proper.”

But isn’t it better for Christians to kill as members of a state’s military rather than as fighters in some sort of holy cause? Isn’t better that we count soldiers like Kyle not as Christian but as American? The reasons we do are fairly obvious and not necessarily unhealthy. The U.S. is not a religious polity (despite a lot of civil religion). The churches did not call for a crusade against Islamists or secularists in Iraq (even if they did support a military mission for the sake of freedom). The U.S. military requires no religious oaths (even if it does supply chaplains — who may be witches). The policy that governs the military comes from elected and appointed officials for whom religion is not a criterion for service (even though plenty of church members complain that politicians evacuate their religious convictions when holding public office).

This form of secularization is one that protects Chris Kyle from being classified as either a terrorist or a Crusader. That distinction between religion and rule is also at the basis of the modern nation-state, one that some conservatives also lament because of the way it takes over the loyalty and identity of its citizens (i.e., regards them chiefly as subjects of the state and disregards personal or higher loyalties).

I for one, as a Protestant and a conservative of some kind, think the secular nation-state deserves a little more appreciation than it receives from Christians and conservative. It’s powers are so vast that it can turn a religiously motivated killer into a mere state actor. And as a Christian I can say wholeheartedly, that’s a good thing. Of course, if you’re one of those Christians (the Augustinian and Constantinian kind) who used to regard the magistrate and the sword he wielded as a divine ordinance but prefer the Anabaptist option of pacifism, the nation-state is not such a good thing. But since I’d rather live in a world with Jimmy and Bunk rather than one policed by Stanley Hauewas, I’ll gladly settle for Islam as the most violent religion and the U.S. as the most militarized nation.

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  1. Nice article, Dr. Hart. I wish you would write more here.

    I’m curious as to why you said the United States is the most militarized nation. Russians might argue in favor of that honor. Military spending as a percent of GDP is similar. (Both countries also contend for the honor of jailing the greatest percentage of their citizens.) Russian popular culture glorifies its military in ways that you don’t see even in the United States, and some of that was pre-Putin. (I know about this mostly through watching Russian movies and YouTube music and entertainment videos, some of which go back to times long before YouTube.) There was a lull in military glorification in the post-Afghanistan decade after the fall of the Soviet Union and prior to the rise of Putin — a period when their military was mocked and despised on film. It was similar to our post-Vietnam era in some respects. Those similarities make it hard to pick one country or the other, but that’s why I’m wondering why you picked our country as the most militarized.

  2. For the simple fact that our Defense budget is reported to be the same as the next cumulative 12 governments behind us. Russia does not possess military bases in Mexico nor Canada….nor Japan, nor Chile, nor any host of places. They once had a presence in Cuba. We, on the other hand, are pushing a cockeyed agenda in the Ukraine, a Russian ally of 1000 years and counting while maintaining military bases around the world far out of proportion to either the threat involved or our ability to pay for said bases. The intellectuals once talked of Realpolitik as though it made sense and perhaps to vanquish the Soviets, it did. Russia is not Soviet now, though its ambitions are vigorous. Our current Surealpolitik is counterproductive because it possesses the same 15 minute attention span and historical amnesia of our back-scratching popular culture.

  3. Dr. Hart said “the most militarized nation.” Most of the items in D.W. Sabin’s list are not relevant to that phrase.

    However, since he brought it up I would point out that the military aggressor in Ukraine at the moment is Russia, and that Holodmor isn’t a nice thing to do to a 1000-year ally. Nor is planting your population in other countries so that you can use them as a pretext to protect, invade and rule, as happened with the Baltics, Ukraine, Texas, and South Ossetia.

    Realpolitik in the Kissinger era was a way of avoiding military actions and accommodating ourselves to the powers that be, RATHER THAN trying to vanquish the Soviets. In other words, it was the policy that I would have expected a D.W. Sabin to advocate. I suspect we have here a case of historical amnesia.

    I also see historical amnesia in the people who think we somehow have the means to destroy ISIS, or Iran, and in those who think Ukraine is of no concern to us.

    But power corrupts, and that includes the military power to impose our will on other people, or the police power to impose a national health care system on a nation. Sometimes it corrupts the brain and makes people stupid. Sometimes I think we would be better off if our country didn’t have all that power.

  4. Mr. Gorentz,

    I would still make the point of the post even if statistics turned out to make the U.S. not the most militarized nation. It’s still better that American soldiers kill for the sake of some national interest than for the sake of Christ.

  5. Your article highlights one of the two arguments articulating the policy behind the establishment clause of the U.S. constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishmnet of religion . . . “).

    The first argument is that an establishment of religion casts a shadow over citizens of minority religions — making their beliefs and status “second class”, forcing them, as citizens, to support a creed that is not their own, and requiring the state through an expression of support for one religion to inhibit the free exercise of other religions.

    The second argument, which is addressed implicitly in your article, is that an establishment of religion necessarily corrupts the established religion by linking it to the exercise of secular power.

  6. So Gorentz,
    Do you actually think the Russians, after hundreds of years of relations with Ukraine, would actually give up their naval port on the Black Sea, give up Odessa, give up Yalta and do it in a smiling manner?
    If so, you are quite mad and illiterate historically. Catherine and Peter drove south to buffer themselves from Turkey and spilled a lot of blood to defend themselves. To think they would idly stand by and watch Nato stride in and take over is preposterous.

    This emerging Cold War resurgence is an counter-productive pursuit adding more Ass-Hats to a government that has a 10 minute attention span. Is Russia pure in this case, certainly not but but our government’s provocative efforts around the globe are a cumulative fools errand. It is long past the time that we begin to take care of our own business rather than “going abroad in search of monsters”.

  7. Mr. Sabin,

    No, I don’t think Russia would give up Odessa and Yalta with a smile. Nor did the USA give up 54°40′ with a smile. Nor would it have given up the region between the Appalachian mountains and the Mississippi River with a smile, or without threat to its national security. So it took land from the Native Americans in dastardly fashion. And having spilled blood over it, it wasn’t going to all of a sudden get high-minded about it.

    You seem to be all Mr. Realpolitik for Russia, but Ukraine isn’t going to give those lands up with a smile, either. I don’t think there is any good way out of this situation that will result in smiles all around. Ukrainians spilled a lot of blood already, too, which is why they’d like to control their own country.

    Lithuania is now bringing back conscription, not that it could stop the Russian juggernaut. But Russian mothers love their sons, too, and if Russian’s military aggression is made costly, that can make a difference.

    Putin is going to label everything “provocative,” so you have to take this idea of provocation with a grain of salt.

    Putin has already made his repressions our business, e.g. by having American social media companies do censorship on his behalf. That is a threat to our own business and our own freedoms. Everything is connected to everything.

    One thing that has always made me uneasy, though, is the idea of putting missiles in the countries that border Russia. Putin and the Russians would seem to have a legitimate complaint about that, even if Putin didn’t have military aggression on his mind.

    BTW, I always like having an excuse to explain that I watch Russian film over American film in a ratio of about 1000 to 1. I watch stuff from the best days of Russian film-making (ie. the post-Stalin Soviet days) as well as more modern stuff from the Putin era. Lately I’ve been watching historical documentaries/re-enactments that are produced by StarMedia. I do some of this while running on our elliptical machine. Some of these have both Russian and English subtitles, so I watch a segment with Russian subtitles, then re-watch with English, then maybe re-watch with Russian. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at detecting Putin’s agenda in film, and I’m aware that Russian historians are restricted in what version of history they are allowed to tell, but some of these StarMedia productions are pretty good, IMO. It’s hard to see what Putin gets out of them.

    This series on the Korean War, for example.

    Yes, it’s anti-American, but it’s not mindless anti-Americanism like you get from American university types.

  8. It sounds to me, Dr. Hart, as if you are saying a) because the US is run as a secular, representative nation state, b) the US is not and should not be regarded as a “Christian nation” in any way, and so c) the violence perpetrated by the US is not “Christian violence,” no matter what the degree of support for that violence among the churches is, the religiosity of individual members of the military may be, or how much civil-religious discourse gets lavished around the US’s wars.

    Is that a fair summation?

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