Ukraine: The Unholy Holy War

Ever since Cain sulked off to form his city, humans have found refuge in building empires. Like hammers always looking for the next nail, empires thrive on exerting power over others. Walter Brueggemann notes that empires have insatiable appetites, intrinsically unable to restrain themselves. The United States is such a totalizing empire. So also is Russia. Translated, Ukraine means “borderland”. And that barbed wire frontier is where these antagonistic empires have squared off.

Most American Christians do not know much about Ukraine, other than it is somewhere between Washington and Moscow..  Estimates indicate some 190,000 combat troops50% of Russia’s offensive capability – is poised at Ukraine’s border. The U.S. government believes invasion is imminent. Facing fierce resistance, it would be a bloody and difficult war, creating an enormous surge of refugees, with devastating socio-economic shock across the European continent and beyond. Those who could not leave Ukraine would face a puppet government imposing harsh conditions, mass arrests and reprisals – not to mention an open sore of mass hunger and displacement. Even a “successful” war wouldn’t cease evil; peace at the barrel of a gun just changes the form evil takes.

How Russia acts – and how the West then reacts – remains an open question: one of the pitfalls of recording contemporary history. Facts constantly evolve; with Russia now annexing Donbass and Luhansk regardless of Ukrainian sovereignty. A number of political observers have insisted that “we need to be clearly on the side of the West.” But how should American evangelicals react?

One avenue – taken by Richard Land – is military deterrence. Land construes the Bible Americanly, believing in a strong U.S. military as a central article of evangelical faith. America is militarily strong and morally right; there are no limits to reordering the world that our God-ordained greatness could not bring about. A neo-con hawk, Land advocates “to arm the frontline states from the Baltic to the Black Sea to make it very painful and costly for the Russians to use military force.” This militaristic view is shared by those many evangelicals who, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “read the Bible with the United States cast in the role of God’s chosen people and carrier of God’s will for freedom in the world.” “I’ll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are,” George H.W. Bush once declared. The U.S. in this view, convinced of its own righteousness, is like a church where its foreign missionaries carry guns.

A contrary position held by many evangelicals is, simply put, to leave Russia to its own devices. “Russia did not and does not want to be part of the decadent liberal system”, one evangelical writer declares. He maintains that Post-Christian America is in no position to be the moral judge of the world by imposing “the ‘universal values’ of democracy, human rights, and liberty” upon nations like Greater Russia that don’t want them. In this thinking, Ukraine shouldn’t exist, because Biden’s “woke” America is so corrupted that it is no longer worthy of respect. Another goes so far as to say that if Russia conquered Europe, it would be an improvement. It’s a dystopian view that implies some conflict thousands of miles away is irrelevant to the U.S., which by now should have learned its lessons about policing the world. Yet more than that; it feeds into Dominionist ideologues who proclaim “we’re gonna rule and reign through President Trump and under the lordship of Jesus Christ.”

Doubtless the most visible adherent of this latter view is Trump-admiring Franklin Graham, who sees the rapid decline in American Christianity primarily caused by the ‘progressives’ repudiating God as the source of moral guidance. Putin believes Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”, saved through the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church under Kirill – a convenient spiritual ally for the Kremlin – has accused the West of imposing secular values on Russia. Graham has made several “non-political” trips to Moscow, meeting both with Putin and Orthodox prelates, and came away asserting that “many Americans wished that someone like Putin could be their president.”

“Putin,” writes David Brooks, “has redefined global conservatism and made himself its global leader.” But by far Putin’s biggest admirer is Donald Trump, who “cannot stop praising him”. “This is genius,‘ Trump declared after Putin helped himself to more of Ukraine. Together, they are “new breed of autocrats… people who aren’t interested in treaties and documents, people who only respect hard power.” Like President Trump’s Putin envy, evangelical culture is all about the pursuit of temporal power, awash with alpha males wielding supremacy over their mini-hierarchies. For evangelical diplomats, Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State under Trump (and likely GOP candidate to take Trump’s old job in 2024) is the genuine article. He offered his admiration for Putin’s savvy in tearing off another piece of Ukraine. “He knows how to use power.”

Again, we should ask, is this how American evangelicals should react? This blog will be exploring that question in the posts to follow.

A MAGA-Defiant Military

Kevin Stitt is Governor of Oklahoma. He attends an Assemblies of God church in Tulsa. “Under vaccines, I believe in choice,” Stitt stated. This is a governor who named a state highway after Trump, blamed President Biden for a Chick-Fil-A sauce shortage, and who tested positive for COVID. “I was pretty shocked that I was the first governor to get it,” he said. A bigger shock was that the state was recording over 1000 new infections per day. Oklahoma rates in the top 6 States for death rates from coronavirus, and ranks 39th in terms of population fully vaccinated.

If one realizes that Gov. Stitt is not only a politician, but also the Commander of the Oklahoma National Guard, it’s not hard to understand that the Guard is at once a military element and a political animal.  And Stitt is using his authority to stick it to the libs.

The Pentagon has issued direct orders for all service members to be fully vaccinated. Active duty members have largely complied. Those hold-outs refusing are subject to punishment, out of which a number have been involuntarily discharged. The Pentagon’s orders applied to National Guard members as well, with only 40% of Oklahoma’s Army Guard vaccinated.

The problem is, the Pentagon does not command state National Guards, unless/until directed by the President. In ordinary drill status, Guardsmen take orders from their Governor. Through his commanding general, Stitt issued a directive countermanding the military vaccination orders. As if to solidly his showdown with Washington, he directed his attorney general to sue the Biden administration to halt its COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

Stitt was technically on solid legal ground. But in making MAGA points by his stunt, he seriously let his Guard members down. Refusers were essentially locked out of a State system which depended on Federal resources. To name only a few necessities: military schools needed to qualify in their jobs, Federal subsidies added to their pay, the award of Federal medals, and Federal recognition of their promotions. On a unit level, Federal assets on loan to the Guard, such as airplanes, tanks and weapons could be withdrawn. Making this a partisan point against Biden policy has a tremendous organizational downside.

I fully support the authority of the Governor under the constitution and Title 32 to govern his forces in Oklahoma,” the newly-appointed Adjutant General Thomas Mancino stated. (His predecessor, a vaccine proponent, was abruptly relieved of command. It may well be that he stood up for his troops’ well-being and got the chop). His more compliant replacement, Brigadier General Mancino, now finds his second star in limbo due to State intransigence. In one way or another, the quarrel will resolve itself in the Pentagon’s favor.

“It’s the fault of the elected officials,” one researcher said. “They are politicizing members of the military; this is almost unprecedented.”  The standoff has serious implications for good order and discipline, where one component thumbs its nose at the rest of the military. It harkens back to 1997, when the Secretary of Defense ordered the troops to receive an anthrax immunization to protect them from chemical weapons threats upon deployment. While the vaccine remained experimental, some 2 million U.S. military personnel received it. Some – including a number of National Guard personnel – nopted out, either by resigning or bearing harsh consequences for disobeying a direct order. There was no Christian MAGA Right to lobby for them then. Billy Graham was silent on the matter.

It is curious, then, that anti-vax became an evangelical cause; it never was so until it became an ideological marker of Trumpism.. A generation later, and with Christian nationalism in full tilt, Graham’s son took time off from saving souls to help rescue these poor soldiers from a diabolical Biden. Franklin wrote: “Oklahoma’s Attorney General John O’Connor is suing the Biden Administration over their Covid-19 vaccine mandate for the military and federal employees, saying that it “does not reflect the Land of the Free.” I must say that I agree with him… . The pandemic has given power-hungry government officials the opportunity to overreach into our lives—and they will just want more and more control.”

Someone should ask Franklin Graham how a “woke” military mandate to vaccinate against Covid-19 is any more tyrannical than requiring some 16 other inoculations to protect the troops and defend the American people. When I entered the service, my left arm felt like a pin cushion – but it was needed to be world-wide deployable. Especially ask Graham why, given the US death toll from Covid-19 has passed 800,000, with more than 200,000 of those deaths occurring after vaccines became available. A number of military members have lost their lives – the majority in the Reserves or National Guard. Graham has never served in the military, much less having been told by anybody what to do. It’s a different ballgame in the military; you do as your superior orders. Jesus encountered this, “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes.” (Matthew 8:9)

Perhaps evangelicals like Graham and Stitt fight this vaccine mandate as the devil trying to attack true Christians. If so, we have met the enemy and they are us.

Christian Dominionist Politics and the National Guard.

You may wonder, what a blog about Jerusalem hath to do with Rome? I was a career officer in the Air National Guard – a JAG to be specific. This is an area near-and-dear, in which I have considerable experience. My fear is that the military is becoming more vulnerable to MAGA/QAnon/Christocrats – like Mike Flynn. Flynn, the retired soldier who once swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution, now was advocating a military coup. The hero of  pro-Trump tele-preachers, the former general stood before John Hagee’s church to declare that America must have one religion under God. Presumably, the Christian nationalist one.

Trump loyalists are pervasive throughout the military. “We’re not talking about half a dozen people. We’re probably talking about thousands across the Department of Defense.” Of course, military members are also citizens, with differing political views and voting patterns. As Flynn himself asks, “will having a pro-American set of beliefs and using the word ‘patriot’ get you labeled a domestic terrorist?No, but fomenting a rebellion will.

6 states have National Guard forces that could rival a foreign army. In terms of the Air Guard, several states have more military aircraft than many countries. The question is, why does a peacetime State need combat-ready planes? To fend off attacks from neighboring hostile States? But there are legitimate missions to perform – disaster relief and wildfire suppression, drug interdiction, aero evacuation, coronavirus-related missions and quelling civilian disturbances. But National Guard soldiers and airmen spend most of their time at home base, training to be combat-ready for “when the balloon goes up” – mobilization in time of war. A relic from the Cold War, this force of almost 500,000 part-timers is largely under-utilized during peacetime, although certain elements have been busy performing domestic operations, including border controls along the southwest U.S.

Governors, who under Title 32 are the commanders of their state National Guard, in the past have seen their state military as a political play toy. Seven Mountains Christians seeking to rule the political mountain have found their darling in Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota. To kick off her stint as Governor, Noem held a public prayer meeting in which one speaker declared Jesus to be “the Lord and King of South Dakota”.

In 2021, presidential aspirant Noem ordered her National Guard to deploy to the southwestern border. The campaign was – oddly enough underwritten by a private donation from a MAGA billionaire – with critics saying it “set a troubling precedent in which a wealthy patron can effectively commandeer U.S. military might to address private political motivations.” One reservist lawyer commented that “it looks like those soldiers are working for the billionaire or for the donor.”  Claiming ignorance, the Commander of her National Guard said he didn’t know about the financing, adding his troops were “not for hire”.

The message I have received is clear: this deployment is working”, Gov. Noem stated. Meanwhile, deployed leadership ran amok, with a mission ill-defined. Even if the troops had some concept of their job, equipment needed to perform it was withheld. Many slept on concrete warehouse floors. Weeks of endless boredom staring into a vacant desert, performing mindless tasks, living without electricity or showers, and eating MREs even over holidays meant morale sunk to the bottom. Soldiers were getting into trouble with the law, and party-spirit reigned as bored-stiff soldiers binged on alcohol and drugs. One Alabama National Guardsman got busted for trying to buy a kilo of pot. Sexual harassment and discipline problems were rife. Some deserted, others died in alcohol-fueled crashes. “We are literally the biggest threat to ourselves down here,” one deployed officer commented.  

Like the Fourth Crusade sent off on a mission from God, the Tex-Mex adventure met an inglorious, drunken end without defeating any enemy except itself. But turning her military into an instrument of MAGA ideology did brand-building wonders for a woman quickly moving up the ladder of possible 2024 GOP presidential candidates.  Her military foray was definitely not “small beer”, but for her career it was not small potatoes either. And as we shall see in a following post, hers was not a singular instance of governors translating their Dominionist beliefs into military action, with the aim of ruling America as one theocracy under their version of God.