G.I. Messiahs

Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Jonathan H. Ebel
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , November
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge connected West and East during the Cold War, and on one February day in 1962, an American lawyer escorted a Soviet spy to its midpoint. There he met Francis Gary Powers, an American Air Force pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union while flying a covert CIA mission and whose release from Soviet prison the attorney had successfully negotiated. For viewers of Steven Spielberg’s 2015 Bridge of Spies, this scene is a haunting climax to the espionage drama and legal thriller. For Jonathan Ebel, the scene is one paragraph in a chapter about ritual performance and ritual failure in American civil religion; the scene highlights the very precariousness ritual bridges offered soldiers whose bodies became vessels for myth, meaning, and mistakes.

In G.I. Messiahs, Ebel offers a series of six close readings of soldiers’ bodies—alive and dead—from the Great War to the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to reveal “the emotional and theological core of American civil religion” in order to document “American civil religion as practiced, lived, and died” (18). In this rendering, “soldiering [is a] civil religious practice” (18), and a ritual practice at that. In particular, Ebel argues, American civil religion rests upon Christianity. Despite civil religion’s potential universalizing language and creed, it “subtly encourage[ed] (through analogy, symbol, myth, and ritual) a Christian identity in its practitioners” (23).

Moving chronologically through the American wars of the twentieth century, Ebel first contrasts the deadly altercation between the American Legion and the International Workers of the World in Centralia, Washington, and a Methodist minister’s Christmas Day sermon to show the incarnation of the soldiers as a symbol of civil religion in the immediate aftermath of World War I. He then unravels the redemptive possibilities of this symbolic power by comparing the creation of the venerated Unknown Soldier with the sobering reality of suicide by known soldiers (chapter 2). He then reconstructs the building of remote sacred space by studying the development and architecture of overseas cemeteries for American casualties of war (chapter 3), and considers the rise and fall of the venerated soldier through the public shaming and private travails of Francis Gary Powers during the Cold War (chapter 4). He interprets the Vietnam War as a “Christological Crisis” by unpacking the many layers of Sergeant Dwight H. Johnson, an African American Medal of Honor recipient, who was killed while robbing a store at home (chapter 5). Following this, he reckons with the “sacrificial death” (166) of the G.I. messiah in the twenty-first century through the contested accounts and aftermath of the friendly-fire slaughter of Army Ranger, and former pro-football player, Pat Tillman (chapter 6). In each chapter, Ebel draws on a wide variety of sources, ranging from novels and films, to parades and the built environment, in order to expose the multivalent nature of each case study. Bolstered by religious theory—often, but not exclusively drawn from Jonathan Z. Smith’s corpus on religious ritual and practice—he moves from the intellectual plane to the social and political register of civil religion.

Ebel’s goal, as he explicitly comments in the footnotes, is to use the embodied soldier to move away from the textual study of civil religion to lived experience. In many ways, he succeeds tremendously, demonstrating that the soldier’s body is never his (and it is most often a male body) alone, but always and frequently troublingly, the nation’s. His case for the Christian norms underlying American civil religion is simultaneously very plausible (the overhead image of an American military cemetery’s crosses forming a cross is absolutely compelling) and somewhat underdeveloped (he shrugs off Jewish Chaplain Morris Lazaron’s role at the unveiling of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as token, which in many ways it was, but doesn’t discuss either Lazaron’s successful effort to de-Christianize some of the prayers, or the American Jewish community’s embrace of his presence there as meaningful).

In other words, are the Christian foundations of American civil religion potentially unstable? What happens when other religious communities feel vested in a national tradition whose creed may challenge their own? What are the stakes—for Americans of diverse religious backgrounds—of a civil religion that can appear both theologically distinct and theologically murky? What do the seemingly non-denominational features of American Christian civil religion tell us about American religion writ large? Moreover, does seeing Christianity in American civil religion make this civil religion a form of American exceptionalism? Is it limited to a national space in which demographic realities were vexed by constitutional separation of religion and state, or is it possibly less particular, and thus just as likely to be one flavor of civil religion equally discoverable in nations with defined secular or state religious parameters across the world? That Ebel’s slim book can generate such tremendous questions is a testament to the powerful insight undergirding his thoughtful analysis, and to a rigorous guide who is willing to cross back and forth over ritual bridges time and time again.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ronit Stahl is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Washington University in St. Louis.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan H. Ebel is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is a former naval intelligence officer. He is the author of Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the First World War and the co-editor, with John D. Carlson, of From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.