A Good Book in Camouflage

The little book, with the camouflage cover, is everywhere. There are more than 50,000 copies with the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's on military bases across America. It's in the homes of military families, who are praying their dear ones come home. It's circulating at the Pentagon. Even the president has allegedly read it. "An aide to President Bush called me and said, 'Henry, I think you'd like to know that the president is on his face before God every morning, and he's using your [book]'," its author told NEWSWEEK. The author is Henry Blackaby, a 72-year-old Canadian minister who is largely unknown outside Christian circles and who wrote the book together with his son Richard more than a decade ago. The book is the ever popular guide to prayer called "Experiencing God Day by Day."

The Blackabys had already written and published the devotional when Henry was invited to speak in 2005 before a group of U.S. military chaplains. The chaplains were so inspired by Blackaby's talk, the story goes, that they asked for copies of "Experiencing God Day by Day" to give to the men and women in the Army. Blackaby took the request to heart: he tapped some of his friends in the business world, received $176,000 in donations, redesigned the cover to match the Army's camouflage uniforms and, with the help of his publisher, printed 100,000 copies to be distributed to the Army free of charge. The camouflage edition of "Experiencing God Day by Day" is now in its fourth printing; 250,000 copies have been shipped all over the world. They are available, gratis, to all branches of the military, as well as to lawmakers and government officials. The civilian version retails for $15 and usually hovers near the very top of Amazon's Religion and Spirituality best-seller list.

Military bases are flooded with religious literature, Christian literature in particular, and "Experiencing God Day by Day" is notable mostly for its serious tone and its orthodox approach to evangelical Christian theology. The book presents a daily verse from Scripture and a commentary on that verse; its intention is to help readers keep God ever present in their minds. "For me, the book is a little reminder to take a deep breath and reflect on something other than the war for a few minutes," says Maj. Eric Weiss, who is now stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia.The devotional is also a deeply evangelical text, and as such holds Christianity above other religions. "If you did not grow up in a Christian home," reads the entry for June 10, "you can decide, as Joshua did, to reject your heritage of unbelief and begin a generation that serves the Lord."

There would not seem, on the face of it, to be much of a problem with a group of private citizens sending a Christian prayer book abroad to lonely and spiritually hungry men and women who are, for the most part, Christian. But if you look closely at the "Experiencing God" phenomenon, says Jeff Sharlet, there is. Sharlet is a journalist who has been covering the Christian right for many years and is author of "The Family," a forthcoming book about fundamentalist elites in America. "The military stands for our democratic nation, not for any religion," he says. The ubiquity of this devotional "creates the appearance that this is an approved religion, that it's favored by the state." Not only is such an appearance isolating for military men and women who happen to not be evangelical—even mainline Protestants on military bases say they can feel marginalized, Sharlet says—but it also continues to create the impression abroad that the United States is engaged in a holy war. One man's comfort is another man's crusade, and such is the sad state of the world.