Religous Militantism

Has religious militantism ever accomplished anything good? I suppose one could turn back to the Old Testament and find the children of Israel destroying cities, especially as they entered Israel. One could certainly argue that that militantism was good–at least as a base line, good in the sense that God was clearly at the head. But outside of the OT, has religious militantism ever accomplished anything good. Mormonism, of course, went through its stage of militantism, though it was muted as compared to some other religious, militant phases through history.

Still, even our brief flirtation with militantism has been an embarrassment. I suppose the best example would be Mountain Meadows. However, I think to properly frame events like Mountain Meadows one must place it in the frontier context. Militantism was not just a religious phenomenon on the frontier, it was a way of life. Many felt they were in hostile territory, and they were. Mormons especially felt this hostility. Some of their reactions were measured and appropriate, even if forceful. Other reactions were fed by paranoia and exaggeration. By and large though, we survived our militantism buried in the the rough and tumble west.

What is more shocking to me is the resurgence of religious militantism among Americans generally starting, in my view, in the 50s with the Cold War and a newly reborn religious militantism after 9/11 (obviously the KKK movement was fed by Christian militantism but it was mostly a small subset and not, I think, a general feeling among Americans). If we take the Cold War as an example, we can see that much of the reactions were well founded and appropriate. We needed to protect ourselves against an advancing enemy–communism. However, we also see exaggeration and paranoia. If you haven’t read Skousen’s The Naked Communist, you really should for a good view of some Mormons’ paranoia during the era. It was the paranoia that sent innocent people to jail and destroyed several careers unnecessarily. Much of this was collateral damage in the war against communism, and much was very regrettable but probably worth the price. While much of it, in hind sight, was pure tragedy conducted by those willing to take advantage of our fears.

However, as a nation and as Mormons, we don’t seem to have learned our lesson. The lesson is: mixing religious themes with militant goals leads to serious problems. The more we turn our current conflict into a holy war, the more we will justify ends that we will later regret. Certainly there is a dangerous war going on. And clearly we hold the moral high ground to terrorists willing to kill innocent people with wanton abandon. However, these facts do not support a theological grounding for all American military policy. These facts must be separated out from political decisions because moral high-ground brings its own danger: excessive and brutal force in the name of a religion (Christianity) that would never support such actions.


  1. Let us not forget the Danites! or Brigham’s Destroying Angels.

    There seem to be two distinct flavors of religious militancy: 1) Religious nationalism. Examples might be WWII Japan, the Crusades, the Jewish invasion of caanan. This is often correlated along ethnic lines. And 2) reactionary religious militancy of which the Danites are a great example.

    I agree that things don’t typically end well with any religious militancy (extermination order), however it is a huge part of our collective culture. It has also been successfully employed (often leading to genocide) to the present day.

    …and while militancy and militerism are words, am not too sure about militantism.

  2. HL Rogers says:

    I have always reserved the right to make up words that I think capture a concept better than existing words.

  3. It takes a special kind of stupid to look at 9/11 and subsequent events and conclude that we’re the religious militants in that picture.

  4. Keep in mind that history is written by the winners. In that senes Religious Militarism is successful as the records are done by those who won the wars. Look to those on the recieving end. Was it good for them. Families torn apart, generations vanished, property stolen and redistributed, souls tortured for varying beliefs.

    From that aspect I would say no, religious militarism does not work.

  5. HL Rogers says:

    gst: thank you for the kind and very insightful comments. This post does not deal with Islamic Militantism–that would be another post entirely. Your vitriol makes me think that you are perhaps one of those Christian militants at heart, you know the “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” type. But I could be wrong…

    On Islamic Militantism, I tend to agree with Thomas Friedman that the terrorists are more Lenninist than they are Fundamentalist. Their worldview seems to come less from their religion and more from their desire to subjugate the masses and rule through fear. In that way the religious battle cry is simply an easy way to gather people around them–though that has also been a feature of miltantism.

    And lest anyone worry that I was seriously taking credit for the word “militantism” that is the term dejure for Islamic scholars.

  6. HL Rogers, I did a google search and by golly, people are using the term. I formally retract my snark du jour, which is all the more painful as I misspelled militarism in the original.

  7. Well, now that the NY Times editorial page has explained it to me, it’s perfectly clear: It IS us who are the religious crazies! Apparently those other guys are just killing us and themselves to advance worldwide Leninism.

    This is why I don’t buy your claim to have detected religious fundamentalism creeping into our military policy. You have made clear that you wouldn’t recognize real religious militancy if it blew up your own office building.

  8. danithew says:

    What an interesting time for me that you bring up this topic. I am currently reading a lot of books about Islamic fundamentalism, Islamism, Islamic radicalism, etc. I’m reading as much as I can about people like Sayyid Qutb, Mawdudi, Faraj as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc. I don’t know if I’ll revisit this thread or not … but as I’ve been doing all this reading I’ve been thinking about the role (if there is any) of militantism in Mormonism.

  9. Danithew, of course there is a role for militancy in modern Mormonism! For instance, I belong to the Adam-Ondi-Ahman Martyrs Brigade. You can detect us by our vitriol (see comment #5).

  10. gst,

    The key word is creeping. Luckily, our military has a proud tradition, both of non-partisanship and the maintenance of separation between church and state in its institutions.

    So there is a corrective, when people start crossing the line like General Boykin. Of course, I agree with you that the Islamic holy warriors have no such corrective since their countries have weak institutions.

    Another recent example is the Air Force Academy probe. When things started to get out of hand, reason eventually prevailed. Even football coach Fisher DeBerry, never an apologetic figure (I went to school with his kids when I lived at the Academy in the early 80s – hard to believe he’s still there), recognized in a statement last month that he had gone a little too far:

  11. I find it interesting just how many of our hymns have either a military march feel, or the lyrics have military symbolism.


  12. Tom Manney says:

    Gst, fine. Let’s keep pointing at the other guys and not even try to try to be humble and honest about our own comparatively lesser militarism. Another era of high religious militarism was in Jesus’ time when Israel was an occupied nation, and the tenacious refusal in America to consider the motes in our own eyes is reminiscent, in my view, of the bloodthirsty “whited sepulchres” in the New Testament.

    All is well in Zion, yea Zion prospers.

  13. Seth Rogers says:

    Claiming the USA doesn’t have a religious militant streak by comparing us to the Middle East is like watching Jerry Springer and then concluding that you are quite the moral person because you don’t sleep with your cousin’s cat.

  14. danithew says:

    HL Rogers … just a point I’ve noticed, in relation to Islamic militarism. That is, it’s hard to know what is the best terminology to use in referencing it. It has been referred with terms such as fundamentalism, radicalism, Islamism, ethnonationalism, terrorism, etc. Each term seems to have its problems or is not entirely satisfying in some way. Analogies are a problem too. Many refer to Islamic militants as Islamic fascists or make a comparison to fascism … but Islamic militants are often opposed to nationalism — they would usually prefer to establish the umma or a broad Islamic nation/empire. That is one of the main factors I am examining … the feeling of many Islamists that nation-states have been imposed on the Middle East by Western powers and that the current system is deliberately designed to cripple the Islamic people.

    One of the main practical obstacles that comes between Mormons and militantism is the attachment of Mormons to the nation-state and the belief that we should support our governments. We largely respect a nation-state and police monopoly on violence. I’m not saying that’s a problem or that it’s wrong at all. It’s just something I’m thinking about. The question I guess I have is whether or not Mormon militancy would ever arise if Mormons reached such a critical mass that we could contemplate establishing a “Mormon state” so to speak (in the manner that Muslims consider the possiblity of an Islamic state).

    Another major obstacle to this is our centralized hierarchy. If Mormons became militant, Mormon leaders could be held responsible and the church organization could be punished directly. So Mormon leaders could be under immense pressure to excommuniate any Mormon militants that arose and to dissociate the Church from any militant acts that could occur. Islam is much less centralized and organized — so it is possible for mainstream Islam to deny any complicity or responsibility for the actions of the militants.

  15. Tom, I’m heartened by your concession that our religious militarism is “comparatively lesser” than that of our Islamist enemies. It’s more than HL Rogers was willing to grant (suggesting that our military policy is “theological[ly] ground[ed],” that we’re turning the conflict into a “holy war,” and exercising “excessive and brutal force in the name of … Christianity,” while the Islamists’s worldview isn’t particularly informed by their religion).

    However, I’m curious as to how you would rate our “comparatively lesser” religious militarism. Suppose that our Islamist enemies rate a 95 on a scale of 100 (I’m making a five point concession to Thomas Friedman’s fatuousness). How does our religious militarism compare? Do we score 75 points? 50 points? 1 point?

  16. danithew: whether or not Mormon militancy would ever arise if Mormons reached such a critical mass that we could contemplate establishing a “Mormon state” so to speak (in the manner that Muslims consider the possibility of an Islamic state).

    Cannot a parallel be drawn to the Danites in Missouri and the attempt to establish Zion?

    Also, can a parallel be drawn between the secular the Bathist trans-national socialist movement of yore to the radical religious militants that want to restore the caliphate?

  17. HL Rogers says:

    danithew: I agree that the exact label for Islamic terrorits is difficult to pin down. Much of this I think has to do with both the complexity and the certain unique elements of their actions (nothing unique in murdering innocents but some unique elements in their lack of nationalism for instance). I find Friedman’s analogy to Leninism very compelling as the Islamic terrorists seem most intent on establishing a totalitarian regime with few personal freedoms. And I am suspicious as to whether their new regime would include religion as anything more than a way to oppress. That being said the religious militant nature of their crusade has obviously resonated with many religious zealots in the Islamic community. However, I think it both elevates religion and denigrates their immoral acts by exploring the complexity and compartmentalizing the religiousness of it.

    In Mormonism it seems to me that there are two dominant strains of miltantism: one strain exists or existed out of a perception of neccesity (thus in response to mob attacks in Missouri and Illinois and an approaching army in Utah, or the need to protect yourself on an untamed frontier). The other strain seems encouraged by our theology–or more specifically it has been historically charged by a general Christian theology. Thus the militant hymns we share with many Christians and Bo Gritz holed up in Northern Idaho. We seem to be vulnerable to the miltantism that comes from strong millenarianism. But as our look toward the impending millennial apocalypse becomes more moderate through the years so does that particular starin of militantism.

    I think much militantism is part of the two-way tie between Mormonism/Christianity and patriotism. Thus much of our militantism during the Cold War stemmed from the patriotic elements within our beliefs–while of course, part of it stemmed from the moral depravity of communism.

  18. danithew says:

    Is militantism a word? I’ve been choking on it. I tried to look it up in my computerized version of the American Heritage Dictionary and it’s not there. I’ve tried the google define function on it and it isn’t there. But I’m still thinking it might be a word. Anyone have an Oxford English Dictionary handy?

    If it is not a word, maybe it should be “militarism”?

  19. danithew: see snark in #1 and subsequent retraction in #6 becasue of HL’s #5.

  20. Justin H says:

    danithew et al,

    I checked the OED, and it has militantism in use since at least 1919.

  21. danithew says:

    Thanks J. Stapley and Justin H. …

    I’ve been reading things too quickly and skipping over a lot of comments lately … just because I’ve got too much going on but still have the blog addiction. I appreciate you looking up the word for me and letting me know it was in the OED. I had a suspicion it was there.

  22. “Has religious militantism ever accomplished anything good?”

    Check the Book of Mormon. Specifically the last third of Alma, Helaman, and Mormon. But really the subject comes up all through the record. A rather large chunk of the BoM prophets were either military leaders or advised on military matters.

    Militancy can be good or bad— unless you define miltancy as something that excludes all the good cases of military action…

  23. HL Rogers says:

    I think it is a bit simplistic to say religous militancy worked in the BoM so it can be a good thing. It seems to me that the BoM is full of qualifiers. Additionally militancy is generally an offensive v. a defensive action. I think you would be hard pressed to find an offensive military action by a righteous people in the BoM. Additionally, as in all things related to religion, having a prophet is key. It seems to me that by definition, a military action led by a current prophet of God or espoused and officially encouraged, would be a good thing. Obviously many would take exception to this idea but that seems the very baseline of our religion: prophet says do it, do it.

  24. “I think it is a bit simplistic to say religous militancy worked in the BoM so it can be a good thing.”

    It is simple, but it is also the answer to the simple question that starts the post– ‘Has religious militantism ever accomplished anything good?’

    “It seems to me that the BoM is full of qualifiers.”

    Yes, and so it is odd that in a post on religious militantism the Book of Mormon’s extended discussion on the subject went unnoticed. The Book of Mormon is, I think, pretty central to any LDS doctrine on the subject. When President Hinckley spoke on the miltary action in Afghanistan, he quoted from it heavily.

    “Additionally militancy is generally an offensive v. a defensive action.”

    Like I said, if one defines miltancy in the right way, one can make it bad. But in doing so one should be clear that you are not talking about any military action, but rather a well-defined subset of such action. Sort of like the subset SWK talked about in “The False Gods We Worship”. Are you defining miltancy as “excessive and brutal force” or actions fed by “paranoia and exaggeration”? If so, then it seems like the answer is pre-determined– miltancy is bad and just about everyone can agree with that.

    “It seems to me that by definition, a military action led by a current prophet of God or espoused and officially encouraged, would be a good thing.”

    I totally agree. Does your definition of militantism exclude such cases? Why does Joshua’s war in Israel answer your question as to whether militantism is ever good?

  25. HL Rogers says:

    “Like I said, if one defines miltancy in the right way, one can make it bad.”

    It isn’t so much a matter of defining it to get a pre-determined answer but simply defining it. It seems you want militantism to mean anything to do with any type of military action. However, if I wanted a discussion along those lines I would have used the term militarism. Militantism is a slightly separate topic involving usually offensive action. Thus, the reference to the OT and not the BoM. There doesn’t seem to be an example of righteous offensive military action in the BoM. One could have a long discussion re the merits of militarism and the BoM. At times it seems very pro militarism (Capt. Moroni) and times it seems rather anti (anti-Nephi-Lehis). However, the OT is really the only good spot to find offensive military action led by a current prophet. After that all the examples seem unrighteous.

    Bringing that discussion to current day we see America involved in offensive military action (this applies more to Iraq than to Afgahnistan–where the military action is pretty arguably defensive). As religious principles are brought in, this action begins to take on flavors of religious militantism. Is this a good thing? Probably not. That is a separate issue as to whether we should be in Iraq right now. The specific issue is should we justify such actions using overt religious ideas. My answer is that such a course seems like a really bad idea.

  26. “That is a separate issue as to whether we should be in Iraq right now. The specific issue is should we justify such actions using overt religious ideas. My answer is that such a course seems like a really bad idea.”

    What religious justifications did you have in mind? I think taking a life or not is pretty closely tied to one’s religious views. So one’s views on war should always be related to one’s religious views somehow.

    As for offensive vs. defensive, I don’t know how easy this is to seperate. Does this mean you aren’t allowed to go into Somalia because its none of your business? Was it legit for us to help an ally in Kuwait? Would it be okay to attack a country that was in the process of invading Mexico or Canada, in the name of defensiveness and helping one’s allies? Would it be legitimate to go in and free the Kurds? If we knew Saddam had the bomb and a long range missile and was going to shoot it, is it offensive to go in and stop him? Which of these are offensive activities?

    Was it offensive to go into Germany in WW2 or should we have stopped at the border? The Nephites stopped at the border, so does that define defensive war?

    I don’t know the answers, but I am still not sure what is “offensive” and what is “defensive”. I think Hitler was offensive. I think Japan’s attack on China was also. In the current conflict I am far less sure.

  27. “Religious Militantism” is a savagely bigoted label, and you should be ashamed of yourself for using it in a serious context to try to sound sophisticated. Calling someone militantly religious simply allows you to dismiss him without regard to the content of his position. Groups like the KKK and events like the Mountain Meadows Massacre are bad for reasons that have nothing to do with religion of those associated with them.

  28. HL Rogers says:

    DKL: It’s nice to see you too.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,689 other followers