December 10, 2009
Soldiering, Memory, and the Faiths of Americans
— Jonathan Ebel
The Reverend Peter Gomes and evangelist Bradlee Dean have very little in common. Gomes is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and the pastor of Harvard’s Memorial Church. Dean is the founder and leader of You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, a ministry that stages character education assemblies in public high schools in the upper-Midwest and across the nation. Gomes’ services feature the voices of Harvard’s University Choir. Dean’s gatherings are often punctuated by the hard-driving rap-core music of the band Junkyard Prophet in which he plays the drums. In terms of their political and social views, a vast chasm separates Gomes on the left from Dean on the extreme right. Yet both men took time this past Veterans Day to preside over services that conjured the ghosts of war.
On November 11, Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, and General George W. Casey, Jr., Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, joined Peter Gomes in Harvard’s Memorial Church for a service honoring Harvard’s war dead and marking the installation of a plaque recognizing Harvard’s recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The service included the singing of the National Anthem and America the Beautiful, a two- minute moment of silence and “tolling of the church bell,” and the “sounding of Taps.” According to an article in the on-line edition of Harvard Magazine, Casey noted in his remarks that “Our veterans inspire us to not take for granted the values, the ideals, and freedoms that we have in this great country. They remind us that those freedoms are not free.” Gomes added that Memorial Church seeks to “keep [veterans’] memories green and continue our witness for peace.”
On November 12, roughly four hundred paying guests joined Bradlee Dean and the members of You Can Run But You Cannot Hide at the Sheraton Ballroom in Bloomington, Minnesota for the ministry’s annual “Appeal to Heaven.” U.S. Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) was to have been the guest speaker, but withdrew due to pressing business in Washington, D.C. and instead provided a four-minute, pre-recorded video message. Dean’s ministry seeks to serve God and to honor the Americans soldiers who “bled the battlefields red” by calling faithful American Christians to arms against secularism, socialism, pluralism, and tolerance. According to Minnesota Independent reporter Andy Birkey, Dean used his “Appeal to Heaven” sermon to mobilize audience members for “war.” Dean said, “It’s time to say, ‘We are done complaining, and it’s time to start fighting.’ But you say, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to look like with a sword in my hand.’” Dean assured supporters. “You are going to look great!” Attendees could support the “Appeal to Heaven” at either the “sergeant,” the “lieutenant,” or the “captain” level. The latter two categories received tickets, two and four respectively, to meet and be photographed with Congresswoman Bachmann.
It is comforting (to me at least) to dwell on the myriad differences between these two gatherings: one a refined, tastefully-orchestrated service, the other another chapter in the hyper-nationalist, young-earth creationist ministry of Bradlee Dean. No amount of mental gymnastics could bend Dean’s anti-gay moralism and his hermeneutic of conspiracy into the inclusive ministry of Gomes and the award-winning historical work of Faust. But these irreducible differences make all the more interesting the fact that both services stood and both ministries continue to stand (architecturally on the one hand, rhetorically on the other) on the common ground of soldiers’ lives remembered. Moreover, both services quite consciously directed those memories toward social and political goals: a witness for peace, a “war” against liberals.
This convergence of far right and not-as-far-left on the memory of fallen soldiers raises thorny questions about American civil religion and the place of the soldier in it. Where does remembering end and exploitation begin? Is there a proper way to remember or “honor” the soldier? Is there an end to which her or his sufferings cannot or should not be directed? Is the bumper sticker that enjoins us to “Honor Vets, Wage Peace” any more or less flattening and ventriloquistic than incessant militaristic paraphrasings of Lincoln’s Gettysburg hope “that these dead shall not have died in vain?”
The paradoxes of soldiers’ lives lived and lost spin out in startling variation: powerful yet powerless, central yet marginal, remembered yet forgotten. Those trained in theorizing and practicing American civil religion do well to attend to these paradoxes and to the men and women who stand at their center. In so doing they will be attending to the emotional core of American civil religion and studying the place where the myths and embodied practices of that religious tradition are most sharply in conflict. An increased attention to relationships between “the soldier” and “the Gospel” and “civil religion” might yield a deeper understanding of the complex, often convoluted ethics and the implied theologies of civil religion in the United States and, as importantly, of the religiously-charged political and social expectations that have worn down so many survivors of America’s wars.
For more on You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, see Jonathan Ebel’s essay in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion:
Jonathan Ebel is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois. His first book, Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War will be published by Princeton University Press this spring.