Muslim Messiahs? American Civil Religion and U.S. Military Service

Originally posted at Mizan, March 14, 2018:

On October 19, 2008, a little over a fortnight before the November 4 election contested by Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, former Republican Secretary of State and retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell appeared on the NBC News Sunday morning program Meet the Press to endorse the Democrat. Powell outlined multiple reasons for his choice, many of which were driven by sober policy concerns and a sense of which person was better suited for the job. But there was also a “push factor” behind his choice. He had grown weary of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Republican Party and the attempts to tarnish Obama as a Muslim. Powell pointed out that Obama was a Christian, but in perhaps the most dramatic moment of the interview, he asked rhetorically:

What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is, “No, that’s not America.” Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be President?1

The reason for his dramatic declamation on this point was, he said, because of a powerful image. It was a photograph of Kareem Khan’s mother at her son’s gravestone in Arlington National Cemetery. Powell continued:

And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone.  And it gave his awards–Purple Heart, Bronze Star–showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death.  He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross; it didn’t have the Star of David; it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey.  He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he [could] go serve his country, and he gave his life.

This image of a mother at her son’s grave spoke to former Gen. Powell’s deepest values as a patriot and his most fervent hopes for his nation.

Powell’s eulogy is but one example of what sociologist Robert Bellah calls American civil religion, defined by historian Jonathan Ebel as the “narratives, symbols, practices, and institutions that create and sustain a sense of America’s special purpose and place in the world”–in short, a religion of American exceptionalism.2 Rooted in the colonial founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony, where Puritans articulated the idea that they were chosen by God to occupy the land, American civil religion’s essential doctrine has been that America is a force for good, acting not only in the U.S. national interest but also for the sake of the whole world.3

As Ebel points out, members of the military play especially important roles in the cultural practices that constitute American civil religion: “The ubiquity of soldier veneration is staggering, its gravitational pull tremendous: political events, parades, civic gathering of all types, car bumpers, novels and films.”4

Though members of the military shape the meaning of their lives in this culture of veneration, especially in their immediate social networks and family circles, other powerful institutions and individuals are sometimes able to narrate the lives of military members in ways that occupy more space in the public square. Edward Linenthal shows, for example, how over time certain images of soldiers dominated American memories of specific wars: the “Minuteman” volunteer of the U.S. Revolution; the honorable, sacrificial soldier of the Civil War; and the “homely hero” of World War II.5

For much of U.S. history, the sacrifice of U.S. military members was understood in explicitly Christian terms. As Jonathan Ebel argues, American nationalism and Christian confessionalism continue to go hand in hand for many members of the U.S. military. Americans have often understood service members as “G.I. Messiahs,” Christ-like saviors of the country–the “Word” made flesh:

A barely submerged incarnational theology, frequent invocations of theories of atonement, regular equations of the fallen soldier to Christ crucified are appropriations from Christian tradition that give both coherence and binding power to a religious tradition focused on the worship of the nation.

Ebel goes further, arguing that American civil religion’s “analogy, symbol, myth, and ritual” actually encourage “a Christian identity.”6

That may be true for some, even most members of the U.S. military, but not all. Starting with Republican President and former Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. Presidents have included religious minorities in the practice of American civil religion, divorcing the meaning of their sacrifice from an explicitly Christian theological end. Eisenhower and his vice-president, Richard M. Nixon, saw a universal rather than a particular belief in God as central to the ideological struggle against Communism and its spread in the developing world.

During this era, the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God we Trust” was adopted as the national motto. Drawing upon the central myth of American exceptionalism, Eisenhower claimed that the whole system of American government “makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious belief” but he added that “I don’t care what that is.”7 Eisenhower’s Cold War ideology included Jews and Muslims and all others of “sincere religious belief” in his vision of America as freedom’s defender. This is why Eisenhower attended the opening of the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., in 1957. “It is fitting that we re-dedicate ourselves to the peaceful progress of all men under one God,” said Eisenhower during the visit. “I should like to assure you, my Islamic [i.e., Muslim] friends,” the President said, “that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this Center, this place of worship is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion.”8

Similarly, former General and Secretary of State Powell’s testimonial about Kareem Khan asserted that it is not the private confessional identity of the service member that matters but rather that service member’s public faith in the nation. The nation is the ultimate source of meaning, quite literally, in Powell’s civil religion: who or what you are willing to die for embodies your communal affiliations. The communal affiliation to which Powell refers is not a religious community, but a national community. As numerous scholars of religion and nationalism have argued, the willingness of citizens to sacrifice their own blood for the nation and for parents to sacrifice the blood of their children might be considered the greatest act of religious piety in the modern world.9

World War I poet Wilfred Owen called it the “old lie,” and mocked it, but also recognized the power of this act of national devotion: “Dulce et decorum est / Pro Patria Mori,” he wrote: “How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country .”10 Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle have asserted that the sacrifice of one’s life, the shedding of one’s blood, is “the holiest ritual of the nation-state.”11 There is no better example of this sentiment than the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” which asks all citizens to take up arms, form battalions, and “let an impure blood soak our fields.” For Marvin and Ingle, “Christians may have been willing to die for their faith” in the past, but the God of the nation-state has replaced the God of Christianity as the ultimate basis for communal formation and social agency.

Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet riffs on this idea, stating that while many people have abandoned religious beliefs and practices, it is almost impossible to have no nationality. Even people who have lost their citizenship one way or another usually consider themselves as ‘belonging’ to some nation in at least a spiritual and cultural sense.”12

This is not to say that other forms of communal formation and social belonging have disappeared in the modern world. Transnational ties of confessional religion, ethnicity, politics, race, and global economic interest exist alongside the nation-state, sometimes challenging its hegemony, sometimes sustaining it.13 In the modern world, according to interpreters such as Marvin and Lingle, social formations are just as apt to accommodate (or in the case of capitalism, reify) the nation-state as the most powerful institution of human community-making.14 This is true even in the case of Islamist politics, which is sometimes thought to be the most significant challenge to the nation-state in the contemporary world. But more often than not, political Islam is used to support and sustain nation-building in countries as different as Saudi Arabia and Iran.15

In the post-9/11 era, the Muslim American service member, a walking contradiction to those who believe that Islam and America are polar opposites, has emerged as yet another sign of the nation’s ultimate significance. Muslim Americans are G.I. messiahs promised to redeem American nationalism and U.S. foreign policy.


  1. Here and below, quotations of Colin Powell’s statements are taken from NBC News’ transcript of the interview, available at
  2. Jonathan H. Ebel, G.I. Messiahs: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 2.
  3. Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956).
  4. Ebel, 19.
  5. Ebel, 3; cf. Edward T. Linenthal, Changing Images of the Warrior Hero in America: A History of Popular Symbolism (New York: E. Mellen, 1982), 120.
  6. Ebel, G.I. Messiahs, 9, 23.
  7. Jason Springs, “Civil Religion,” in Richard D. Hecht and Vincent F. Biondo III (eds.), Religion and Culture: Contemporary Practices and Perspectives (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 9.
  8. See the White House History fact sheet “U.S. Presidential Visits to Domestic Mosques.” 
  9. See, for example, William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  10. The full poem is available at
  11. Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle, “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64 (1996): 767-780, 774.
  12. Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, “War and National Renewal: Civil Religion and Blood Sacrifice in American Culture,” European Journal of American Studies 7 (2012): 8.
  13. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller, and Cristina Szanton Blanc, Nations Unbound: Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments, and Deterritorialized Nation-States (Basel: Gordon and Breach, 1994); and Ulf Hannerz, Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places (London: Routledge, 1996).
  14. Peter Mandaville, Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma (London: Routledge, 2004), 44.
  15. For an introduction to Islamist political projects from Islamist democracies in Indonesia and Turkey to Islamist national resistance movements in Palestine and Chechnya, see Mohammed Ayoob, The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2007).