General David Petraeus and Religion

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 9 months ago recently carried this ridiculous account of a dustup over General Petraeus and religion.

Gen. David Petraeus is used to controversy surrounding the war in Iraq, but his publicized thoughts on an Army chaplain’s book for Soldiers put him squarely in the middle of the ongoing conflict over religious proselytizing in the U.S. military.

The book is “Under Orders: A Spiritual Handbook for Military Personnel,” by Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) William McCoy, and according to Petraeus’ published endorsement of the work, “it should be in every rucksack for those times when soldiers need spiritual energy.”

But the endorsement – which has spurred a demand by a watchdog group for Petraeus’ dismissal and court martial on the grounds of establishing a religious requirement on troops – was a personal view never intended for publication, the book’s author now says.

“In the process of securing … comments for recommending the book I believe there was a basic misunderstanding on my part that the comments were publishable,” McCoy said in an Aug. 19 email to “This was my mistake.”

In addition to Petraeus, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling also is quoted plugging the book in press releases and advertisements and on the jacket.

McCoy, writing in response to’s Aug. 18 inquiry to Petraeus’ office for comment, said the two generals’ endorsements “were intended for me personally rather than for the general public.”

In response to follow-up questions from, McCoy said he has asked that all distribution of the book be halted until a new “graphic overlay” for the back cover is produced “so there is no further public misunderstanding.”

McCoy did not respond to questions on the timing of the endorsements, and why it took so long before the officials learned their endorsement has been used in print. Petraeus’ endorsement has been on the book since its 2007 publication, while Hertling’s plug first appeared on the 2005 edition. Both also are quoted in newspaper ads for the book and on the book’s Web page.

Patraeus spokesman Col. Steven Boylan said the general has been Iraq since the beginning of February 2007, “and unless someone [like] notes it, we would not be aware of it,” he said in an Aug. 19 email. “We don’t get the stateside papers in Baghdad and I doubt very much that Gen. Petraeus goes to much, if at all.”

Mikey Weinstein, head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, believes McCoy is taking the fall for Petraeus and Hertling’s improper endorsements. Weinstein said it “strains credulity” that Petraeus never knew that his private written endorsement of the book was in the public domain since last year.

Weinstein is a former Air Force judge advocate general and White House counsel during the Reagan administration. His group has been fighting in the courts to keep improper proselytizing out of the military. Now, he said, he intends to incorprate the Petraeus and Hertling endorsements into an ongoing lawsuit against the Pentagon for an alleged pervasive and permicious “pattern and practice” of religious liberties violations in the military.

What a idiot – Weinstein, that is. Let’s cover some basics before we offer a terse response to him. The basics has to do with some brief observations by Rousas John Rushdoony concerning religion and the American system.

I first encountered Rushdoony at L’Abri, a Christian community high in the Swiss Alps. The year was 1964. Francis Schaeffer, the founder and director of L’Abri, had recently come across a little book by Rushdoony called This Independent Republic: Studies in the Nature and Meaning of American History, and he made it the basis for a seminar with the students at L’Abri. We gathered in the living room of Chalet les Mélèzes, where most of the community’s meetings were held. It was before Schaeffer became a popular sage for many evangelical Christians, and so we could study such a text informally, though we always did so with care.

The topics covered in the Rushdoony book were wide-ranging. The chapter that Schaeffer chose for the subject of his seminar focused on the difference between the American and the French Revolutions. Drawing on scholars such as Peter Drucker and James C. Malin, Rushdoony challenged the propriety of calling America’s defensive war against Great Britain a true revolution. According to him it was instead a “conservative counterrevolution,” whose purpose was to preserve American liberties from their usurpation by the British Parliament. It owed nothing to the Enlightenment. By contrast, the French Revolution was the direct result of the Enlightenment, along with the organizational strategies fostered by various secret and esoteric societies.

Though at the time I was too much a novice in history to judge the accuracy of his thesis, I was drawn to the clarity and cogency of Rushdoony’s arguments. Those were heady days at L’Abri, which in the sixties was a seedbed for ideas that captivated our imaginations and sought to link every area of our lives to a Christian worldview. A Christian historiography containing such a powerful critique of the point of view most of us received in school was for me a great stimulation. Rushdoony taught us that the American Constitution, with its eloquent absence of references to Christian faith, was a secular document only in appearance. In fact, it was deliberately fashioned as a minimalist document by men of genius whose primary purpose was to ensure the vitality of local government. Here Rushdoony added a distinctive perspective, one which would become a leitmotif throughout his long career, and one which would have a wide impact on other figures in his circle.

In Rushdoony’s view, the Constitution did not need to include a Christian confession because the states were already a Christian establishment or settlement. The First Amendment prohibited laws respecting the establishment of religion because religion was already established at the local level. There were sabbath rules, religious tests for citizenship, laws regarding heterosexual fidelity, blasphemy laws-all of them strongly connected to biblical law. The First Amendment was intended to protect the states from interference by the federal government.

The confusion of church and state would involve, for example, sanctioning a particular denomination such that they got financial breaks (e.g., viz. taxes) that other denominations did not. Public displays of religion, or the notion of a world view as the basis for a system of laws, is not breaking the barrier between the institutions of church and state. Further, barriers between church and government are not the same as barriers between religion and laws. All laws are based on some world view, and America has as the basis for its system of laws Judeo-Christian philosophy.

Now. Given this as backdrop, it makes no sense whatsoever for Mr. Weinstein to be troubling himself and us so with such childish arguments. He should find a way to contribute to the global war on terror, and quit pestering General Petraeus. Weinstein has officially become annoying to TCJ. The good General endorsed a particular book as good for his soul. So what? Doesn’t Weinstein have to go cut his grass or take out the trash, or something else useful?

TCJ hears Weinstein’s wife calling. You have chores, now. Run along.

  • Warbucks

    Weinstein’s probably going through his own personal, spiritual transformation and it leaves him stuck in an unsettled spiritual void, a personal hell creating a shallow cycle repeated again and again, like an old scratched record that can’t finish the song, lashing out against everything that comes near until Weinstein himself sees the light. He watches in awe as General Petraeus walks on water, levitates above the lamentable hell hole of congress, and transfigures from mortal flesh into ethereal spirit empowering even erstwhile enemies to find peaceful coexistence through an awakening.

    There is an exit Weinstein can take to get off the train on which he finds himself, but he may have to read the very book over which he wants to crucify General Petraeus.

    In the meantime the good man might read this little paper called “Pathways Across Perceived Religious Barriers” posted here: .

  • jonesgp1996

    Careful, gentlemen.

    Maybe the good chaplain is trying to absorb the flak for Gens. Petraeus and Hertling, but I think there is some merit to Mr. Weinstein’s argument, as well. There is a trend in our military (I’ve witnessed it in the Army) for some Christians to be a bit over-bearing in how they express their beliefs to others to the point of making people uncomfortable. And I say this as a Christian myself. There is a fundamental failure to understand that not everyone shares the same beliefs and that not everyone wants to necessarily hear yours.

    I understand that in the case of some Christians that they belive it is their duty to spread the message, but that has come back to bite the military a couple of times, most notably and recently when Marines in Iraq were handing out coins inscribed with Bible verses. In a war where we are trying to convince the population that we are there to protect them and their interests, passing out Bible coins to civilians of Muslim faith was an incredibly stupid and culturally insensitive act. I don’t give a hoot if those Marines thought it was their Christian duty to spread the word; as representatives of the US Government, their actions could be interpreted as official US policy (i.e., Christian proselytization). Very dumb. They probably set back relations with the locals by a fair amount on account of what they did.

    Whether the generals’ remarks were intended for public or private consumption is moot now that they’re out there. It is the seemingly all-inclusive nature of the comment attributed to Gen. Petraeus about the book being in all Soldiers’ rucksacks that ruffles the feathers of people like Mr. Weinstein who perceive a deliberate proselytization campaign is going on within the US military. A dose of self-awareness would do the self-appointed missionaries some good.

  • Herschel Smith

    What the misguided Marines did with the coins has nothing whatsoever to do with the good General’s remarks. The fact that Petraeus is a General doesn’t remove his right to state his religious views at any time, at any place, and for any reason. As for overbearing, many people are overbearing at many times, in many places, and for many reasons. Being overbearing has nothing to do with religious persuasion. Some people are jerks regardless of this or that belief. Further, I didn’t find the good General’s remarks overbearing. His remarks sounded cushioned, polite and chatty to me.

    Finally, I’m always careful.

  • Warbucks

    It is unlikely one would read such mutterings as these in too many public sources.

    You are right in reminding me we stand on slippery slopes when speaking of things spiritual. A warrior is by nature careful and determined and must always remain so as long as he remains a warrior. He thinks often of his own death but is a personal of thoughtful action. He wills himself to not give himself over to death to struggle on. Death must take life from him against his will. This is the mark of a true warrior.

    As to the spiritual however, to borrow a line from Darth Vader (sorry), “the nexus of events have great meaning to the Jedi.”

    We are approaching a great convergence of events that will test once again the dominant forces of creation. There exist see-ers in Islam and Christianity (as well as all faiths) who are brothers in spirit with each other and hidden within their faiths unknown to the great world of believers composing their faiths. These brothers serve humanity just as George Lucas’s Jedi served the Rebel Forces, and are hidden from view even as they appear as ordinary people. They are far from ordinary. They serve the power of love in its broadest sense, as the supreme organizing force fundamental to all of creation and all that we think we know. Only the see-ers know and see a different reality. I am not one of them nor do I pretend to be and on these matters one does not exaggerate.

    An aberration has mutated within Islam in the expression of fundamentalist violence which the hidden see’ers are working to subdue by brothers hidden within the faith itself.

    The General is tasked to win as a warrior. As long as the General is committed to serving the powers of the see-ers in the pursuit of love, the General must be given the leeway to empower his armies through such means as the good General sees necessary that does not shock our sense of right and wrong. He has earned my respect and I grant this man leeway.

    Now is not the time to allow pettiness to divide the forces of good.

You are currently reading "General David Petraeus and Religion", entry #1265 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Petraeus,Religion and was published August 23rd, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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