God, Country, Service: Civil and Religious Loyalties in the US Army, 1775–1973

AHA Session 104
Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Ronit Y. Stahl, University of California, Berkeley
Ronit Y. Stahl, University of California, Berkeley

Session Abstract

Although historians continue to debate the precise role of warfare in creating early modern European states, nearly all concede a correlation between warfare and their growth. The establishment of standing armies, and the administrative processes needed to sustain them, centralized power to the state, and both demanded and created the loyalty of those living in the territory claimed by the central government. Unsurprisingly, the American rebels of 1775 - 1783 witnessed a similar type of relationship between the Continental Army and the national government, even if local loyalties did not transfer as readily to the new United States. In the nearly 250 years since its founding, the army has served continuously as an intersection point for the loyalties the government wishes to foster, and the loyalties its members possess on entering the service.

Religious loyalties have been the most persistent alternative loyalties the army has seen. This might be expected: military organizations and religious institutions both levy theoretical demands for an absolute loyalty from their members. Yet religion need not directly challenge the patriotism and pan-ethnic nationalism the American state requires. Indeed, the government has frequently resorted to religion to build loyalty among its soldiers, attempting to construct national loyalty via expressions of "moral duty" or "God's will." The army, as an arm of the state, has expressed clear religious preferences over time, even as it has been Constitutionally prohibited from establishing a state religion. Thus the government condoned cultural pressure on soldiers to abandon religious loyalties perceived as "un-American." At the same time, religious minorities used military service to authenticate themselves as "American," a process that eventually resulted in the tri-faith structure of mid-twentieth century pluralism. This circumscribed pluralism, which included Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, excluded other religious loyalties or the lack of religious loyalty as "un-American." The relationship between one's religious loyalties and one's national loyalty remained a key feature of service in the U.S. Army for more than two hundred years, continuing to the present day.

The three papers in this session explore the intersection of civic and religious identities in military institutions that shaped the contemporary relationship of the American state to individual American citizens. They collectively suggest that the pressure of the American government upon its soldiers regarding religion was not "incomplete," "conflicting," "resisted," or otherwise binary. Given that Americans in uniform have always contained multitudes, religious and civil loyalties have been concurrent, like ocean waves. When religion and nationalism were in harmony, the wave amplified. At other times and in other circumstances, one swamped the other.

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