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Lecture Outlines Religion’s Role In Military

For the Heights

Published: Sunday, February 12, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

Annie Budnick 2/13/12

Annie Budnick for The Heights

Devlin 101 was filled with students and guests Thursday, Feb. 9 to listen to Rev. Richard Erikson and Jonathan Ebel discuss the importance of religion in the military. Sponsored by the Boisi Center for Religion and the American Public Life, the event sought to provide a deeper understanding of the multifaceted role that religion plays in the lives of United States servicemen.

After receiving his M.Div. and M.A. in theology degrees from St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Mass., Erikson was ordained a priest in 1985. He has served in the U.S. Air Force as a chaplain since 1982. He served seven years as an active duty chaplain, which included a tour in Iraq. Currently a colonel, Erikson serves as the mobilization assistant to the Air Force Deputy Chief of Chaplains in Washington, D.C. His other military responsibilities include helping develop the Strategic Plan for the Chaplain Corps, assisting in mobilization, and serving on the Reserve Chaplain Corps Council.

Formerly a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy,  Ebel currently serves as an assistant professor of religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 2004 and specializes in U.S. religious history. His research focuses on the relationship between religion and war, violence, and conflict throughout American history. He wrote a book on religion and American soldiers in World War I and coedited a book on the religious aspects of violence in an attempt to understand parts of American history in terms of its ideas and identity.

Ebel began his segment by talking about how military cultures and religion mirror each other. He stressed how both institutions have a strong physical presence in the U.S. but also exert influence far beyond their actual structures.

"The motto of the evening, ‘For God and Country,' is the motto for the American Legion, founded by American veterans of the Great War in the spring of 1919," Ebel said. "Those men and women imagined that they had fought a war for God and country, that their friends had died for God and country, and that their job was to continue struggling in the world for God and country."

Ebel stressed that these men had experienced defining events in history, and that this gave them a distinctive understanding of the history of their country, as well as its present. It was "the fires of combat that presented soldiers with special revelations regarding God and country."

In trying to understand why there was such a tie between God and country, Ebel explained some of the similarities between the two: "the power to create and destroy," the emotions of pride, love, and anger, and the importance of symbolism and sacred space.

Often referred to as American Civil Religion, it is critiqued because "it elides God and country," Ebel said. "It is an elision that history shows to be both appealing and profoundly dangerous. The soldier occupies a place within American Civil Religion as an object of veneration and imagination." Ebel said that this was because of the virtues that soldiers symbolize, especially the idea of subordinating one's will to that of the nation.

 Drawing on three very different examples, Ebel showed some of the effects of this on today's soldiers. He talked about Staff Sergeant Salvatore Guinta as the first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War and the high level of stress placed upon him as a man who is viewed as a living hero. Ebel then turned to Staff Sergeant David Sint, a man who joined the military after Sept. 11 and served three deployments before committing suicide. Lastly, he talked about Corporal Pat Tillman, who died under uncertain circumstances that were likely friendly fire. Ebel contrasted how these three men were understood by American society and how they each represented something very different about it.

Erikson also focused on the role of chaplains within the military. He stressed the importance of spiritual wellness, as he did all a priest does spiritually, pastorally, and then some, serving members of different faiths as best he could.

"It is humbling to be in war and not be armed," Erickson said. "We are issued Geneva Convention cards, identifying us [chaplains] and our rights, that are supposed to protect us, but in Iraq there was a bounty on chaplains."

Erickson also spoke about the inherent tensions involved in being in war. Because "the next moment is not promised, [soldiers] wonder about what the meaning of life is," he said. This receptivity to God was unlike anything he experienced in civilian life and was one of the reasons that he found his job so important and so fulfilling.

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