The Stiffness of Your Moral Backbone: Christianity’s Once Cozy Rapport with the U.S. Military

What does it take to make a man? In January 1991, two weeks before the start of the Persian Gulf War, U.S. Air Force Chaplain Garland L. Robertson wrote a four paragraph letter to the editor of The Abilene Reporter calling into question the use of force against Iraq. Was this a just war? The query troubled the mind of this distinguished military chaplain, whom his associates at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas called “a straight-arrow who does not smoke, drink or swear.” As chaplain, Robertson helped young men and women deal with the inner conflict between their own moral beliefs and the country’s policy. For himself, the composite questions of loyalty and his personal beliefs forced his hand in addressing a moral dilemma: God or country? Robertson chose God and paid the price for it. Following clashes with his supervisors, three psychological exams, and an office relocation to a small windowless storage room during his appeal, Robertson was given the boot without pension for being a bad leader.

Despite the often controversial role of contemporary military chaplains, who must balance loyalty to both their religious denomination and military branch of service, religion and the armed forces historically have not always been at odds. There are even instances of quite the cozy relationship in which both parties benefited from each other’s perspectives. Following the World Wars, religion and the military found common ground in providing life guidance to young soldiers. This was a time in which the President of the United States added the words “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Unlike today, the evil was not religion, but those who shunned religion for more worldly pursuits.

This pamphlet, in both language and design, promotes a symbiotic relationship between church and state, as seen by the equal depiction of a church steeple and the American flag on either side of the title.

This pamphlet, in both language and design, promotes a symbiotic relationship between church and state, as seen by the equal depiction of a church steeple and the American flag on either side of the title.

The pamphlet Christians Stand Guard, which could be purchased for ten cents, provided young soldiers—unaccustomed to living away from home—with a rubric for living good, honest Christian lives in a world chock full of evil temptations. For religious leaders, this pamphlet endorsed Christian values, called on young men to evangelize, and urged them to lead by Christian example. For the military, it kept soldiers in check. Why not sponsor a pamphlet urging young men to stay away from gambling, booze, and prostitutes? Such a scenario led to the creation of a pamphlet written and designed by the Director of the United Fellowship of Protestants, Joseph C. Dana.

Although speaking to a dated audience of heterosexual males whom it was assumed would take a wife and multiply, the pamphlet served both religious and military purposes in its espousal of living an honest life. “As a Christian, as well as an American, your work on guard involves much more than just learning how to be a good soldier, marine, sailor, or airman… You have the primary duty of preserving your own self-respect as a Christian young man.” Despite living in a different era, the ousted Chaplain Robertson understood this American paradigm. In an interview discussing his service in Vietnam as a reconnaissance pilot, he said, “In order to be a good Christian, you had to be a good citizen. To be a good citizen, you did what your country asked.”

Christians Stand Guard asked young men to use their money wisely. Unlike at home, the pamphlet reminds soldiers that “your money in the service won’t spend itself.” All necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter Christians Stand Guard details (1)_001are already furnished by the military, leaving young men with pay that they can choose to spend however they see fit. “You’ll choose whether to send that ten dollars home to the church, or gamble it in a card game.” The option is entirely up to the soldier, but the choice will make the difference between “coming out of service bankrupt in both purse and life and returning enriched in cash and character.” Some of the most colorful language in Dana’s pamphlet comes with the litany of worldly vices that will tempt the young Christian do-gooders every step of the way.

“You are certainly not a gambler,” the pamphlet claims. “As a Christian you never felt too comfortable about Christians Stand Guard details (1)_001it,” but playing marbles and sticking a dime in the football pool were only minor matters that “didn’t affect your sense of honor and honesty.” Now that the “wrong people know that you now will have money which you can waste if you wish, every effort will be made to take it away from you.” The pamphlet warns against these crooks looking for an “innocent victim to be taken to the cleaners.” Instead of falling victim to these gambling professionals, “you will insist upon spending your own money wisely.”

“You and your parents have already decided upon your ideas and practices with regard to ‘social drinking’.” The pamphlet cautions young Christians from falling to the temptation of Mud in your eyeAmerica’s major liquor problem: “drinking for the sake of drinking, drinking to excess to prove one’s manhood, drinking for lack of something to do, [and] drinking to blank out bad memories.”  In addition, the pamphlet notes that people “seldom ask the age of a man in uniform.” This double pressure will likely claim as victim a significant portion of the young soldiers. It is up the Christian stewards to not only resist the temptation but lead “some fellow who needs the strength of your character to bolster his.”

“Being accepted as a man by women will cause very real problems for you.” Until now, young men have Christians Stand Guard details (1)_002looked at marriage as a distant enterprise. “Now you are a man. Men marry women.” The pamphlet acknowledges that marriage is a viable option and it must not be taken lightly. The greatest cause of ruin to a potential marriage is one final temptation: prostitution. Now that these young men are paid soldiers, the “professional street-walkers, and their sneaky little hand-boys, the pimps,” will be looking to cash in. “Don’t ever think that this cute thing with the soft voice, who is so easy to pick up, is just some sweet little girl overwhelmed with your charms.” If you want to be a man, avoid these vices that society claims will make you one. Instead, lead your fellow soldiers in society as you would on the battlefield, with dignity and self-respect.

In an era of gray wars, in which the line between good and evil is blurred, the relationship between religion and the military has become a rocky one. Add to that contemporary demands for universalism and hostility towards religious exclusivity and one can begin to understand the present difficulties in espousing one religion in any arena where other interests are at stake. Chaplain Robertson, shunned for espousing his beliefs because they contradicted government policy, hit the nail on the head when he asked, “Are we [chaplains] ministers of the church or ministers of the state?” For military chaplains who must toe the line between both loyalties, the question is a difficult one. What we must ask ourselves is: in an age in which religion does not hold the same clout as it did half a century ago, what will fill the void in guiding young Americans who have just entered the service? Organized religion has its slew of critics, but it must be commended for attempting to craft good-natured, honest men and women.

Front and back covers of pamphlet.

Front and back covers of pamphlet. The onlookers seen on the back (left) cover illustrate the author’s emphasis on leading by example, as the uniformed Christians are seen doing.

Interested in Christianity? Read about the history of a Christian summer camp in Tennessee here.


Joseph C. Dana, Christians Stand Guard, Washington, DC: General Commission on Chaplains and Armed Forces Personnel, undated.

Joseph C. Dana, “Just Like Back Home,” in The Chaplain, vol. 9, no. 4 (July-August 1952): 6.

Eric Schmitt, “Military Chaplain Fights A Battle Over Loyalties, The New York Times, December 21, 1993.

“Catch-23,” The New York Times, January 2, 1994.

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