October 7th was the Commemoration of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg who many consider the father of American Lutheranism and the most influential German-American in colonial American history. Given the current cultural/religious environment, I thought that I would share my contributions to a formal response to an article written by a former United States Military Academy professor of philosophy, Dr. Tim Challans.

Three years ago I wrote the following to a fellow chaplain who sent a formal response to Military Review. I encourage readers to listen to Pastor Gerecke’s audio tapes.   

Dr. Tim Challans’ article, “Leading Our Leaders,” Military Review, Sep-Oct 09, identifies religion, religious leaders and Army chaplains as inappropriately engaged in matters of policy, moral leadership, ethics, military regulations, and counseling. Dr. Challans asserts that chaplains are only retained for, “services to service members . . .” and questions the necessity for any type of chaplaincy in contemporary America.

There are several facts that Dr. Challans may want to review. There are about 6.5 billion people in the world. Of that 6.5 billion, about 5.6 billion believe in God as represented in a variety of religions[i]. The US has a somewhat higher percentage of God believers at about 92%[ii].  As an example of religious demographics, the Roman Catholic Church has about 75 million adherents in the US and about 1.1 billion worldwide.

Policy makers including President Obama[iii] and past Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright[iv], are acutely aware of religious influence in private, national and international affairs. Most obvious to strategists is the current engagement in the Global War on Terrorism. They posit that victory is possible via an ideological counter to extremism[v].

Historians find this of no surprise. Religious leaders have influenced culture, society and governance for millennia. A cursory overview of world history will include more than a few references to religion and religious leaders. Some are noted for their inhumanity (the Inquisition); others for their societal changes (Reformation) while others still for their convictions and sacrifice (Masada).

Sun Tzu reminds the military strategist that to defeat your advisory one most know yourself and your enemy[vi]. Applying this principle to our current engagement would include understanding our adversary’s cultural and religious values as well as our own. One may reasonably conclude that strategic leaders must include religion and religious influences as they develop policy.

This is no radical or new idea. For instance, the West has a long-standing tradition of military engagement shaped by what is called “Just War Theory,” a moral value adopted from the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, a 4th Century Christian theologian. Many, if not most, western ethicists assert that St. Augustine’s principles for military engagement remain applicable in the 21st Century.

Although some argue, as does Dr. Challans, that chaplains/clergy ought remain in their religious lanes providing religious services, there is ample evidence indicating that religious leaders have rightfully engaged in a variety of human activities in order to manifest the divine will in society. Dr. Challans sites Al-Qaeda as one such religious organization. I propose that there are counters to such an understanding of God. For instance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer made significant contributions beyond the narrow confines of “religious services;” yet, few regard their activities as inconsistent with true compassion rooted in religious convictions and beliefs.

Whether or not the facts of the conference in Florida are accurately stated by Dr. Challans is for others to answer; however, the Army chaplain corps has consistently respected the religious beliefs of others including our enemies. One such example is from the Nuremberg Trials. The Army sent Chaplain Henry Gerecke[vii] to minister to the men on trial for war crimes. Chaplain Gerecke faithfully ministered to these men who had so viciously waged war on the world.

The matters addressed by Dr. Challans are more about personal theology than about religion and influence. Most people in the world, and most Americans, believe in God. Their various understandings about God are expressed in a variety of ways and religious practices. Strategists who allow personal theology to cloud their world view are in danger of committing a fundamental error that Sun Tzu warns will lead to defeat. No matter how ardently one may bemoan the inappropriate role of religion and inappropriate roles of religious leaders, the reality remains.

Dr. Challans apparently refuses to accept this reality and proposes that, “we should push some of these rocks back uphill.” It seems that the rock he wishes to push is the very foundation stone for much of our nation’s core values including: education, law, health and healing and humanitarian well-being.

Rev. Gregory Williamson
Chief Mission Officer
The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod

[iii] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/04/us/politics/04obama.text.html?_r=1 President Obama’s Cairo Speech addresses the Muslim world requesting a new beginning. Apparently, the CINC believes that Islam has vital influence in statecraft and world affairs.

[iv] The Mighty and the Almighty, Madeleine Albright, 2006, Harper Collins Publishers, NY, NY.

[v] Bill Rammell, Minister to the UK Armed Forces, 3 AUG 09 Rammell: Defence contribution is crucial to UK counter-terrorism policy “However, he cautioned that there is no purely military solution to terrorism and that countering terrorism requires countering its financing, recruiting, communications and ideology – none of which can be done at the point of a gun”  General David Petraeus, 13 AUG 09, Showing a diagram of counter terrorist strategy on the slide, General David Petraeus says that the Allied Forces needed “to challenge them for popular support, go after them, attack their ideology, disrupt their command and control, cut their links to senior leaders, reduce the flow of money available to them, take away their weapons cashes and explosives, cut the flow of foreign fighters.” In Iraq, the Coalition cut the support for terrorists from safe havens in Syria through this way. In Afghanistan, similar approaches are taken to cut supports from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Baluchistan in Pakistan.

[vi] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 6th Century BC, “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

[vii] http://www.stjohnchester.com/Gerecke/Gerecke.html. This site has audio recordings of Chaplain Gerecke’s experiences and ministry among the Nazi officials while they were on trial.