One Flag, Many Faiths

"I walked the floor of The White House night after night until midnight," President William McKinley recalled. "I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance." McKinley was trying to figure out whether to annex the Philippines, captured by U.S. troops in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Finally, it came to him: "There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them ... "

Never mind that most Filipinos were already Roman Catholic, or that they didn't want to be occupied. In a brutal insurgency that dragged on for three years, more than 4,000 Americans and half a million Filipinos died; American soldiers first deployed the torture known as water-boarding, and may have first used a version of the term "Gook" to describe the Asian enemy they were trying to save.

The many critics of George W. Bush like to paint him as a Holy Warrior. They point to his unfortunate choice of the word "crusade" to avenge 9/11, his frequent use of the term "evil" and his statement, to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, that he does not need to consult his father, the 41st president, because he appeals to "a higher Father." But he is hardly the first president to beseech the Lord in time of war, as McKinley's story shows. On the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg, knowing that a Confederate victory in Pennsylvania could mean the loss of Washington, Abraham Lincoln dropped to his knees and prayed. "I must put all my trust in Almighty God," he explained. "The burden was more than I could bear." In the White House, Lincoln said, he was often driven to his knees "by the overwhelming conviction that I have nowhere else to go." Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush liked to quote that line.

American war leaders have been counting on divine intervention since Washington's nearly vanquished Army escaped the British under cover of a providential fog the summer of 1776. From the beginning of recorded time, soldiers have called on God in the heat of battle. And in America, God and war have a particular kinship: presidents in time of conflict invoke the Lord's name as a way to rally the people, but also as a comfort and consolation for the loneliness of command. Evoking God in the midst of mass killing is inspirational to some and offensive to others. Divine sanction has been used to give meaning to the Constitution's promise of equality as well as to license genocide. Depending on the moment and the character of the particular president, asking the Lord's help in time of war can be a sign of hubris or humility.

The impulse to blend God and war owes much to the American temperament: Americans have always feared one (today, nine out of 10 call themselves believers) and loved the other (the United States has fought in dozens of armed conflicts in the nation's two-and-a-third centuries). Not a few old warriors have admitted to thrilling to the words of "Onward, Christian Soldiers." At times, Jews and Muslims have been just as bellicose as Christians. The God of Abraham is and has always been a martial God.

But how to reconcile such violence with the Biblical commandment to love thy neighbor? Early Christian philosophers like Augustine and Aquinas struggled to shape the concept of a "just war." Over time, theologians have honed the theory into a kind of moral checklist: the cause must be just (self-defense, not mere conquest); the war must be lawfully declared (no sneak attacks) and a last resort; it must have a reasonable chance of success, and the use of force must be proportionate to the ends (no intentional killing of civilians).

Still, faith in "American exceptionalism"—and God's alleged recognition in the eyes of some that we are indeed exceptional—has inspired our leaders to wage wars that, with the benefit of hindsight, seem anything but just. Believing, as Bush put it last Fourth of July, that "freedom is the gift of God," the president has made it his mission, and America's, to spread liberty and democracy far and wide—by force of arms, if necessary. The antiwar left has been quick to point out how such a strategy has failed in the past. Activist and Boston University professor Howard Zinn has noted that shortly after Gov. John Winthrop evoked Jesus by proclaiming the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be a "city on a hill" in 1630, a force of colonists moved out to massacre the Pequot Indians. America's "manifest destiny" was used as a justification to invade Mexico in 1848, and Cuba and the Philippines in 1898, and to wipe out whole tribes of American Indians throughout the 19th century. Zinn quotes McKinley's secretary of War, Elihu Root, in 1899: "The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, of peace and happiness."

More often than not, though, modern presidents—including Bush, who told Woodward "I'm surely not going to justify war based upon God"—have resisted providing a religious justification for taking up arms. Instead, they have relied on faith to give them, and the country, the strength to endure sending American men and women into harm's way. The judgments made in the Oval Office are so consequential, and sometimes fatal, that presidents need to believe they are serving some higher purpose. "Belief in God, for me at least, gave me hope and kept me going," George H.W. Bush told NEWSWEEK Editor Jon Meacham in an interview in 2005. "I don't show it very much—don't like to talk about it—and maybe I should have been ... a little clearer about my heartbeat. But I felt it—felt it very, very strongly."

A few presidents have tried to conceal their dependence on prayer. On some nights during the Vietnam War, after picking bombing targets in the Situation Room, Lyndon Johnson would secretly pray with monks at a nearby monastery. Others openly gloried in God. Franklin Roosevelt joyously sung Anglican hymns, including "Onward, Christian Soldiers," with Winston Churchill aboard a battleship in the North Atlantic in August 1941. "We are Christian soldiers," FDR told his son Elliott afterward, "and we will go on, with God's help." (The Nazis thought God was on their side, too. Hitler's troops had engraved on their belt buckles GOTT MIT UNS—God With Us.) When FDR conducted a mass prayer on D-Day—with Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of the enemy—the parents of 50 soldiers from Corpus Christi, Texas, crawled two blocks on their hands and knees in an act of penance. The showiest Christian Soldier may have been Woodrow Wilson during and after World War I. "He thinks he is another Jesus Christ come upon the earth to reform men," said the French statesman Georges Clemenceau.

Presidents sometimes wrestle with uncomfortable truths. Lincoln noted that both North and South "read the same Bible and pray to the same God." In his gloomy moments, Lincoln saw war as divine retribution, wondering aloud in his second Inaugural if God was using the "scourge of war" to punish America for the sin of slavery. Closer to the battlefield, the combatants are not always so reflective. Stonewall Jackson would wander in the woods, praying aloud—alarming, not reassuring, some of his troops. Robert E. Lee routinely dismounted to pray with his soldiers. On his scorched-earth "March to the Sea" through Georgia in the winter of 1864, Gen. William T. Sherman was pleased when many of his 60,000 soldiers began singing the Doxology in unison—"Praise God from whom all blessings flow." "Noble fellows," said Sherman. "God will take care of them."

Or so soldiers have prayed from age to age. "Remember, there are no atheists in foxholes," the Rev. William Thomas Cummings, a Roman Catholic priest, told American Army soldiers on the eve of the battle that preceded the Bataan Death March, shortly after the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in 1942. (It's not true, of course: there are atheists in foxholes, but the line has echoed in the culture.) Captured and abused by the Japanese, the American POWs began prayer services every morning at 5. Later, Sen. John McCain, who as a downed Navy pilot was tortured and held for five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, recalled "many times I found myself asking to live just one more minute rather than one more hour or one more day, and I know I was able to hang on longer because of the spiritual help I received through prayer." But no American warrior was more literal in his faith than Gen. George S. Patton. As his armored columns rolled into Belgium in December 1944, rain and snow slowed the advance and gave the enemy cover. Patton ordered his chaplain to write a prayer for good weather. The skies cleared for eight straight days; American air power decimated the Nazis. Patton gave his chaplain a Bronze Star.

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