The Religious Lives of Soldiers

What inspired you to write Faith in the Fight?

The idea for the book began with some work that I was doing on Billy Sunday’s April 1917 New York City revival campaign. The revival coincided with America’s declaration of war against Germany and Sunday, not one to miss an opportunity, turned up his anti-German rhetoric to extreme levels, even for him. It struck me as I was reading excerpts from Sunday’s sermons and articles in the New York Times that we know a great deal about Sunday’s thoughts and the thoughts of clergymen and editorial boards of denominational periodicals, but that little was written about the religious thoughts and lives of the men and women who went over to Europe to wage the war. This is one instance of a broader problem that spans any historical discipline—certain voices, usually those of the powerful, are recorded and comparatively easy to study; other voices, those to whom the powerful are often speaking, are not—and it seemed to me that we should care whether and how soldiers theologized their involvement in a conflict that so many were theologizing quite publicly.

That was my initial inspiration, but if the sources hadn’t been so fascinating, so compelling, the initial spark may well have faded. Instead the sources drew me in, giving me hundreds of stories and in some case reshaping the questions I was asking. When I began my research in the spring of 2001, I suspected that I would find soldiers reflecting at length on the “design” of combat—who was in control, who or what determined which men survived and which did not—but I was truly surprised by the ways that many soldiers thought about death, salvation, and the afterlife. Much of the material is wrenching to read, but perhaps easier to write about because of its emotional energy.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

The voices of American soldiers matter in the religious history of the United States; American soldiers’ religious experiences of the Great War had profound and lasting effects on individual soldiers and the society to which they returned.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Yes. I had far too many quotes from the soldiers. I wanted to keep as many voices in the book as I could, but that didn’t work out. First they dropped into the notes and then they dropped out completely. I also wrote a chapter on relations between soldiers and chaplains that ended up working far better as a stand-alone article than as a chapter in the book. It came out in Church History in March of 2009.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

I can think of three right away. First, this is a book that looks closely at men and women involved in a military effort and there seems to be an idea out there that histories involving the military are important primarily, if not exclusively, to military historians. There are certain kinds of questions about warfare that do (and ought to) belong to military historians, but the men and women who carry weapons, treat the wounded, lose their lives, were born outside of the military and return in flesh or in memory to society beyond the military. Their experiences in the military may well reflect the “before” and will certainly shape the “after.” So, many kinds of scholars, especially scholars of religion, need to do more to weave experiences of war and military life into our narratives. Second, to turn things around a bit, histories of war and the military are often written as if war were a completely areligious practice. We have occasional stories of exceptionally devout generals (or presidents) and aphorisms about atheists and foxholes, but few historians seem interested in weaving religion into narratives of American war-craft whether as a way of thinking about decisions to enter war and particular approaches to war or, at the ground level, thinking about soldiers’ experiences. This is changing slowly, but there is still much work to be done. Finally, with regard to the Great War in particular, I think that we haven’t spent enough time balancing the Hemingways, the Fitzgeralds, the cummings, with a whole raft of other experiences of the war that cut against the disillusionment thesis. I expected in the early stages of research to write a book about religious disillusionment. The book I wrote is very different.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Not really. I hope, as I think many academic authors hope, that my book will reach a number of different audiences some within the academy and some not. That said, there is a yawning chasm in American religious history when it comes to the wars of the twentieth century and it would be nice if Faith in the Fight reaches an audience interested in thinking and writing about intersections of religion and war in America’s past and present. With as much talent as we have in the field right now there should be dozens of great forthcoming books on the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War writ large, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iraq and, to my knowledge, there aren’t. It has been almost seventy years and still there isn’t a good religious history of American involvement in the Second World War.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I grew up in Minnesota. Pissing people off terrifies me. I’m only slightly more comfortable with the concept of pleasure. Such is the lot of the culturally Lutheran. In all seriousness, informing people is a worthwhile goal for any author; informing people well or artfully is exceptionally difficult. I hope that readers learn many things from Faith in the Fight and that they understand why it and studies like it need to be done. If a reader enjoys the book, so much the better.

What alternative title would you give the book? How do you feel about the cover?

I can’t think of another title. It has been Faith in the Fight for long enough now that I can’t imagine renaming it. And I like the cover a lot. I found the artwork, a Knights of Columbus recruitment poster, through the Library of Congress and I’m very happy with the way the design team at Princeton worked with it.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written?

Yes. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. I really wish that I had the time to read more fiction and/or the talent to write it.

What’s your new book?

I have three new things in the works right now. My friend John Carlson and I have co-edited a volume on religion and violence in American history. We have seventeen wonderful contributors, including Martin Marty, John Corrigan, Stanley Hauerwas, Eddie Glaude, Jr., Brent Plate, Sohail Hashmi, James Turner Johnson, and Jean Bethke Elshtain; and we have chapters covering a whole range of historical moments from diverse ideological and disciplinary perspectives. When John and I started talking about this book back in 2007 we envisioned it primarily as a resource for classroom use, but the shape that it has taken over the past three years—and the continuing relevance of the general topic—should make it appeal to a broader readership. The book is under review now and I am very excited to move it along through that process.

I am also working on a book that carries forward my interest in the religious aspects of soldiers and soldiering but with a case study approach and a lens that includes US wars from the Great War to the Global War on Terror. The issue at the heart of this book is the misappropriation of “the soldier” and of soldiers’ voices in what some would call American civil religion or American religious nationalism. I think that approaching this topic from the perspectives of history and of religious studies has the potential to reveal a great deal about ties that bind and have bound soldiers and civilians and the nation, and why it is that those ties are so strong.

This may seem like something of an outlier given my interest in religion, violence, soldiering, and nationhood, but I am also making good progress in researching a book on religion, migration, and the Great Depression in America. (I started framing this project well before Lehman Brothers vanished, the McMansions went empty, and hedge fund managers went into hiding.) Like the Great War, the Great Depression hasn’t been engaged much by students of U.S. religious history. Also like the Great War, the Great Depression posed some powerful questions about divine and human efficacy. When I began archival research in earnest last summer I thought that I would find some fascinating stories and, so far, I haven’t been disappointed.