Soldiers 'Experiencing God' a Problem for Newsweek

You'd think that men and women serving in combat should be able to read any book they want, especially one about God that gives them comfort.  But according to Jeff Sharlet, a liberal journalist who gets the last word in Newsweek's latest Belief Watch column, the fact that lots of copies of the evangelical Christian devotional book Experiencing God are being read by military members and their families, is a problem.

It's a problem, Sharlet says, because the “ubiquity of this devotional 'creates the appearance that this is an approved religion, that it's favored by the state.'” 

The Belief Watch column, “A Good Book in Camouflage,” discusses how the book Experiencing God has made its way to 50,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is given to all branches of the military, politicians and government officials free of charge.  Lisa Miller, Newsweek's religion reporter and Belief Watch columnist, did a fair job in telling the tale of Henry Blackaby, a 72-year old Canadian minister who wrote the book with his son over a decade ago, and his inspiration to send it to soldiers and military families.  Miller even mentions that the entire enterprise was taken on by a private citizen using private money.  The book is now in its fourth printing with 250,000 copies having been shipped around the world.  According to the article it is near the top of the best seller list on Amazon's Religion and Spirituality section.

Miller reported that military bases are “flooded” with religious literature and that the book is “notable for its serious tone and its orthodox approach to evangelical Christian theology.”  She wrote objectively about the fact that “its intention is to help readers keep God ever present in their minds” and she quoted an Army major who told why he found the book comforting. Then Miller drops the first liberal shoe.

The devotional is also a deeply evangelical text, and as such holds Christianity above other religions. "If you did not grow up in a Christian home," reads the entry for June 10, "you can decide, as Joshua did, to reject your heritage of unbelief and begin a generation that serves the Lord."

Miller then played a bit of devil's advocate by writing:

There would not seem, on the face of it, to be much of a problem with a group of private citizens sending a Christian prayer book abroad to lonely and spiritually hungry men and women who are, for the most part, Christian. But if you look closely at the "Experiencing God" phenomenon, says Jeff Sharlet, there is.

Miller described Sharlet as a “journalist who has been covering the Christian right for many years and is author of The Family, a forthcoming book about fundamentalist elites in America.”

What Miller didn't say about Sharlet is that he is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and Harper's, and has written for The Washington Post, New York magazine, and the far left Mother Jones.  Some of his articles have titles like “The Young and the Sexless,” which is about the evangelical chastity movement, and “Jesus Plus Nothing” about the world politics of evangelical Christianity. 

Apparently Sharlet was used by Miller to “balance” the story, while stirring leftist anxiety about the myth that the government is shoving Christian beliefs down the throats of soldiers.  Here is how the article ends:

"The military stands for our democratic nation, not for any religion," he says. The ubiquity of this devotional "creates the appearance that this is an approved religion, that it's favored by the state." Not only is such an appearance isolating for military men and women who happen to not be evangelical—even mainline Protestants on military bases say they can feel marginalized, Sharlet says—but it also continues to create the impression abroad that the United States is engaged in a holy war. One man's comfort is another man's crusade, and such is the sad state of the world.

More than 1.4 million people serve in the United States military right now, according to Department of Defense statistics.  Approximately 173,000 troops are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Clearly, there isn't a copy of Experiencing God in the hands of every member of the Armed Forces.  Miller never acknowledges that the book is being read by the people who want to read it, and that is their right

By giving Sharlet the final word in this article, Miller went beyond balancing her column, she tipped it far to the left.  Miller took an uplifting story about the honorable efforts of a Christian minister and made them seem unholy, if not unconstitutional.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.