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Do you love Jesus enough to be a General in the U.S. Army?

September 22, 2012

In my work in Professional Military Education (PME), the issue of religion can be a touchy one, not least because I lecture about Islam quite a bit. This year the Department of Defense has gotten in a fair amount of hot water over the shoddy and sometimes downright stupid ways some of our PME institutions have dealt with Islam – and, as I’ve explained elsewhere, DoD’s current efforts to clean up this mess are proper, if overdue.

Religion is a touchy, and hot, topic across DoD and the U.S. military these days, also because a fair number of our men and women in uniform embrace evangelical Christianity. Some of them can be a tad dogmatic about it – it’s hard to avoid Bible study sessions at Army and Air Force bases especially – and some of the dogmatic ones can be pretty high-ranking. A few years back, Army Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin made waves with some rather pointed comments about Islam, generally of the “my God is bigger than their God” variety which are commonly heard in the military – just not usually near an open mic. Now in retirement, LTG Boykin is active in right-wing circles and has continued his controversial comments about Islam, and a lot of other things. Now that he’s out of uniform he’s free to say whatever he likes and, to be fair to Jerry, he was a legendary snake-eater and an icon in the Special Operations community, who never pretended to be anything but the Jesus-lovin’ good-ol’-boy he is.

The “my God is bigger than their God” thing has unfortunately crept into the PME world too, notably at the Air Force Academy. The issue has gotten a lot of press attention, little of it positive, and as my colleague Tom Nichols has pointed out, it raises some basic, and potentially disturbing, questions about separation of church and state, and what role overt religiosity has to play in U.S. public life, the military included.

To get my biases out front, I’m not the kind of person who lies awake at night worrying that co-workers have a too-big poster of Jesus with a rainbow on their cubicle walls. I’m of the view that, while we need to keep church and state separate, the Constitution enshrined freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. I’m a church-going guy, though I don’t advertise that fact at work too loudly; I’m not going to witness to a colleague or student on the job.

Which makes the current scandal about overt Christianity in the U.S. military all the more painful. Back in 2000, an Army lieutenant colonel did a research paper at the Army War College, that service’s premier graduate-level institution, entitled “Jesus as a Strategic Leader.” Issues of religion aside, the paper is poorly done – I would have failed it; more importantly I would never have allowed a student to submit such a biased and unscholarly thing in the first place. In terms of research, it’s derived largely from the Gospel of Mark and the writing is … well, calling it boilerplate would be kind (or, in this case, a blessing). Not to mention the fact that the Jesus my priests taught me about wasn’t someone I can really see as a “strategic leader” in the sense the Army War College teaches about; I didn’t pay a lot of attention to sermons growing up, but I do recall a fair amount of “turn the other cheek” stuff coming from the tongue of J-Boss.

The paper’s content would make anyone who’s not a hardline evangelical Christian wince, as well as make the heads of the more secular among us simply explode. In terms of academic quality, this is crap, pure and simple. You can get a sense of what it says, without torturing yourself by reading the whole thing, in the conclusion:

Jesus was a phenomenal strategic leader. He set a wonderful example to follow – especially for those who want to lead, or are charged with leading others.

As I study leadership and reflect back on all the good and bad leaders I have seen and worked with over the years, it is remarkably apparent that truly good and great leaders have followed and applied many of the principles that Jesus practiced, whether they knew it or not. On the other hand, the bad leaders I have known violated many of the leadership principles of Jesus.

This study was an incredible journey and revelation for me. I strongly recommend that any leader or aspiring leader look to Jesus as a role model of selfless, inspiring, transformational leadership. In my view, there is no better example of strategic leadership to follow and emulate than Jesus.

If a Muslim student tried to write something about “Muhammad as a Strategic Leader” and laid the fundie stuff on thick like that, he’d be written off as a loon and possible subversive. But apparently it was fine for the author, LTC Gregg Martin, and he clearly didn’t suffer any negative career consequences, since he’s now General Martin.

It gets better. Now-Major General Martin in July was appointed President of the National Defense University, after having served as President of his alma mater, the Army War College. That’s right, he’s now heading the “big dog” in our PME system, in Washington, DC.

MG Martin could be a great guy and a stellar officer, I’ve never met him. Additionally, I wouldn’t want his current gig for all the whiskey in Ireland, since NDU is in a world of trouble which has been covered painfully in the press. Its future appears less than bright. Nevertheless, I have a few questions about what made him so eminently qualified to head two PME institutions in succession, particularly given his faith-based position on the very politically sensitive issue of religion in DoD.

P.S. The opinions expressed here are my own and (obviously) not those of the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.

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6 Comments
  1. John –

    My first reaction was to go to the link to the paper itself, because this seems like a prank.

    I could not imagine that any professor at any institution, military or otherwise, would approve the topic or accept the paper. In the preface, Martin thanks a COL Barko, who a quick Google search turns up as retired (but with no evidence in his background of expertise in teaching or on the strategic leadership of the divine figures of major religions), and who is now a senior executive at the Army War College Foundation.

    This is eerily like the JFSC problem, where the only quality check on the academic work of military officers came from other officers. According to the date on the paper, it was written by a member of the class of 2000, which is when MG Scales was handing over to MG Ivany (who is a now a college president in Texas). I’m not sure which is worse: that no one noticed, or maybe that someone *did* notice.

    To be fair to Carlisle, the paper is 12 years old. But if this isn’t a case for better academic oversight of PME, nothing is. (Well, okay, the JFSC scandal is, but still…) Having heard General Scales rail against tenure and dismissing the worries of civilian faculty about speaking up and risking the wrath of students, I’d be interested to know if someone brought this into his office (or what he would have done if someone had). This is the kind of raw nerve faculty would rather not touch almost under any circumstances, but someone should have.

    The regrettable thing is, the paper is quite long, and then-LTC Martin clearly put some work into it. But I’m stunned that no one at Carlisle spoke up and pointed out that this is not actually appropriate graduate work. How did that happen?

    • Tom: I concur in the strongest terms that this is not about MG Martin, per se, and it is definitely not about faith; rather, this raises uncomfortable questions about academic standards at AWC and beyond. I wonder what the always talkative MG Scales would have to say about this one …

    • Palamas permalink

      Concur with both Tom and the blog author here … criticisms of the paper should not and cannot be spun as an “attack on faith.”, nor is it criticism of now MG Martin as a writer or studetn. But having just read through the paper, I am as amazed as Tom is, regarding the fundamental question of what constitutes appropriate graduate work in national security studies.

      To study Jesus Christ as a strategic leader in the context of 1st cetury Roman occupied Judaea is absolutely an appropriate topic, just as we might study Mahatma Gandhi in terms of his strategic leadership in overseeing Indian independence. To take the parables as they appear in the Synoptic Gospels and to study them for strategic insight–since many of them directly touch on the political questions of the day–an appropriate topic. To take the account of Christ in the Gospel of John as a strategic leader–how the narrative takes us through how Jesus in his preaching ministry evades the ruling authorities, emerges at key points during major festivals in Jerusalem to deliver powerful messages, and then fades away without arrest or detention–an appropriate topic. I don’t think we should have to put a box around Christ and make him off-limits (just as careful study of Mohammed or Moses as strategic leaders also makes sense).

      But reading through the paper … no discussion of Josephus, Christ’s contemporary whose historical writings are critical to understanding the period, to put Christ into a larger historical context in which he operated as a figure–and whose narrative fills in many of the details (particularly of the parables)? No reference to the vast literature that has emerged on the relationship of Jesus and his followers to the Zealots, the Roman Empire, and the established authorities? Any analysis of the deliberate use of Greek and Aramaic terms on leadership, power, and authority (hat tip here to Rev. John McGuckin on this). A bibliography mainly consisting of inspirational and motivational literature?

      Professors need to be professors, even at PME institutions, and this means helping to shape research agendas, sourcing for papers and even choice of topics. This includes pushing back on student preferences as to what they might want to research. It also means either 1) having the expertise to assess material or 2) the willingness to consult with other colleagues who do. But if professors aren’t comfortable in doing these things, then the whole academic enterprise is jeopardized.

  2. Reading this alarming article I thought…”get the mainstream press on this ASAP.” On second thought…this unconstitutional thinking and teaching may get more support from the myopic and tainted.
    My Dad George S, Eisenberg, a 91 year old WWII vet and recipient of the Purple Heart, knows first hand about turning to God, let alone picking the god that will bring you the best results. When queried on most aspects of the almighty, his mantra has always been, “If you need a helping hand, look at the end of your arm.” Neutral, succinct and strategic!

  3. George Meyer permalink

    Nobody wants to attack faith. Step back a minute here.

    An Evangelical Christian believes that the Bible is a perfect document, like Muslims believe that the Koran is perfect. Belief in “the divine authority of the scriptures” is one of the (few) things that characterize all Evangelicals.

    If you force Gen Martin to quote other sources, it’s the same as forcing him to admit that the Book might not be perfect. You’re asking him to put his faith in a box and be ‘academic’ for a while.

    People who really believe in their religion don’t compartmentalize their life like that. They don’t put their beliefs to the side in service of their career, academic or otherwise.

    So I put this to the author and commentators: Some tough decisions have to be made here. If you really don’t want to attack faith, don’t expect to maintain any sort of academic standards. If you want academic standards, than anybody who believes in a ‘perfect book’ shouldn’t get a degree, full stop.

    You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  4. > I’m of the view that, while we need to keep church and state separate, the Constitution enshrined freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

    I’m going to need you to back this up, or else I’m going to lose an awful lot of respect for you that I’d rather not lose. It wouldn’t affect you at all, but it would leave me just that much more cynical.

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