Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

You Want to Join the Military? But We’re UU’s!!!

Over the last several years, I have had the privilege to be with several Unitarian Universalist families as they struggled through the complex emotions that arise around a loved one deciding to join the military. Recently, some ministers have even referred such families to me, and I thought it would be useful to write a general article on what I have observed about this complex experience, and to provide some general guideposts for families and service members struggling with this issue, and for the ministers who care for them.

Let’s admit it… whether it is true or not, there is a perceived conflict in the minds and hearts of many members of our faith between holding Unitarian Universalist values and beliefs and serving in the military. That perceived conflict comes from some of our recent (as in the last few decades) history of our faith, as we have struggled with the Vietnam war and with the continuing expansion of a military-industrial complex that seems to see being at war as a good business model. For many UU’s, military service seems impossible to reconcile with holding Unitarian Universalist values and beliefs.

And yet, we pride ourselves on the idea that we are a non-creedal faith… that there is more than one way to understand what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. To oppose war does not necessarily mean to oppose the military. To oppose a particular war does not necessarily require opposition to all forms of war. I believe, at its best, the U.S. military can and should be a tool of peace, of justice, of compassion, and of defense… and whose responsibility is it to decide what the military will do and what it will be? Ultimately, the voters and the politicians they elect… but also the leaders within the military.

If we are ever to expect the military to come closer to our values and beliefs, we must do two things. We must first recognize and take responsibility for the military ourselves, as citizens of this nation. We must elect politicians who hold our values and principles for the use and purpose of military force, and hold them accountable for what the military does. Second, we must be willing to be within the military, speaking and living those values and principles. Many conservative Christians realized these two ideas decades ago… and we are reaping the results of that today.

There are times in our history when we have not had such a dissonance around Unitarian Universalism and military service. Many Universalists served in the American Revolution, and the father of American Universalism, John Murray, even served for a brief time as a Chaplain in the Army of the Potomac. It is true that the “Unitarian Bishop” William Ellery Channing opposed the War of 1812, but he also was one of the first abolitionists who publically said that it would take war to end slavery, and that such a war would be just. When the Civil War came, many Unitarians and Universalists served, including ministers serving as Chaplains from both denominations.

One Unitarian minister, Arthur Fuller (brother of Margaret Fuller) served first as a Chaplain, and then as a combatant with the 19th Massachusetts Infantry . He died with a rifle in his hand at the battle of Fredericksburg, fighting for a cause he believed in deeply. At his memorial service in Boston, James Freeman Clark said, “Arthur Fuller was, like most of us, a lover of peace, but he saw, as we have had to see, that sometimes true peace can only come through war. So he went, with a courage and devotion which all must admire, and fell, adding his blood also to all the precious blood which has been shed as an atonement for the sins of the nation. May that blood not be shed in vain.”

This is to say nothing of the wartime service of Clara Barton, the Angel of the Battlefield… one of my heros from our history. She would have been a soldier if they’d let her, but she found something better… she became the hero of the U.S. Army Nursing Corps… and later founded the American Red Cross.

Many Unitarians and Universalists served in WWI and WWII, so many in WWII that the American Unitarian Association published a small book of Unitarian prayers and readings for service members titled “Think on These Things”, a copy of which now has an honored place on my home altar. Whoever once carried the copy I now have (It was given to me by the Rev’s Jim and Nan Hobart), it seems to fall open naturally to the James Russell Lowell’s “Once to every man and Nation…”

“Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide…”

Beyond this, in every congregation I have visited over the last five years, I have found those who find the basis of the Unitarian Universalist faith in their experiences in the U.S. Military. In my own case, it was witnessing the depth of poverty in Latin America and the depth of hatred in Bosnia that began me on the path to this faith. Many others I have spoken with expressed similar things.

I have made such a point of this because I believe it is important for families struggling with the decision of a loved one joining the military to see that our faith is not as separate from military service as it sometimes appears today. There is a long history of Unitarian and Universalist military service, and there is an even stronger presence of veterans in our congregations, (though they have often been taught to remain silent about their service, and even to feel guilt about it). It is a history that became somewhat lost in the merger of our two faiths in 1960, but one that I believe it is long past time to reclaim.

One of the most amazing things about meeting with or speaking with UU families struggling with the decision of a loved one to join the military is that they realize that, intellectually, they want to support their loved one in the path they have chosen. There is a “meme” in our faith that we believe we should support people in following the path they are called to follow in life, so long as they have deeply engaged with what that path should be.

One of the gifts that our faith imparts to the youth who are raised in it is that they tend not to make decisions lightly. In talking with teens raised in Unitarian Universalism, you will often find a depth of thought and of emotional engagement with a decision that is inspirational. Over the years, I have sat with many youth raised in our faith who had chosen to join the military, and in every case it was a deeply thought through decision. They are able to identify many different levels to the decision, from a desire to serve, to concerns for their future, to a desire to “prove” themselves… often to themselves. I have been surprised that many even recognize that a part of their decision is what psychologists might call “differentiation” and which parents call “rebellion”… but only a small part.

I mean, think about it… is there a better way to identify yourself as different from your UU parents than to become a Marine?

One of the other benefits of a UU upbringing for someone considering military service is that they have few illusions about what military service might mean. They are often very clear that it is not “glorious”, that military service is hard and that they may face deep ethical questions during that service. They are prepared to find their own way through ambiguous circumstances, to remain true to themselves. In my experience, young service members who are raised UU make excellent, moral, ethical leaders in military service.

I have sat with many naval recruits who were raised in Unitarian Universalism in my role as the leader/minister of the UU worship services at the Great Lakes Naval Station, and they are among the most promising young service members I encountered in my two and a half years with that ministry. I found them to often be leaders among the recruits, more mature than their shipmates, better able to deal with the stress of basic training, and often a trusted counselor to the others. In more than one case, they seemed to have found their calling… as hard as that might be for their UU loved ones to understand. That dissonance in their family is often the greatest challenge for them in dealing with basic training.

It is the complex series of emotions that Unitarian Universalist family members go through that is the deep pastoral need in the experience of a young person raised in UU joining the military. When I first talk to a family member, they often express emotions such as pride, fear, hope, despair, love, anger, trust, betrayal, and so much more all wrapped up into a confused ball. Sometimes their ministers are almost as confused as they are.

They want someone to tell them that their loved one will be safe… but that is something no one can honestly tell them. The truth is we are in a time of war, with little hope of that changing anytime soon. The percentage of individuals killed in military service during wartime is lower that it has ever been, but that is in part because of the profound increases in medical care. What is more likely is that their loved ones may carry burdens from their service for the rest of their lives, perhaps visible, but more likely under the surface.

What I am able to tell them is that, in my opinion, a Unitarian Universalist upbringing is about as good a preparation to survive military service as any I have encountered, both spiritually and mentally. Beyond the reasons I have already mentioned, a foundation that is more comfortable with the ambiguity of life is better suited to show resilience in dealing with the stresses of military service, both combat related and not. Those raised in UU are less likely to stand by when their ethics are challenged. I believe they are less likely to take foolish risks for glory, or to allow others under their command to do so.

So, I tell parents that, in my honest opinion, the faith in which they raised their children has prepared them as well as they can be prepared for military service… and that the rest is having faith… not in the military, but in their loved ones.

The next thing I tell them is how normal their confused and conflicted reaction to their loved one’s decision is. Many UU families go through a similar experience… a desire to show love and support for their loved one’s choice to serve while they also are deeply conflicted about that choice within. They are not bad family members. If they are the service member’s parents, they did not do anything wrong in raising their child. In fact, it is often the great job they did of raising their child that has let that child make such a decision with maturity, responsibility, and a proper amount of caution.

For the loved ones, what I have found to be necessary is to help them untangle that complex ball of emotions… to see that their fear comes from love, their confusion from hope, their anger from their own insecurities. I help them to see that it is deep in our faith that our youth be allowed the freedom to find their own path, as is the requirement that we accept them even if we do not agree with their choice. It is their choice to make, even if we wish they’d make another. It’s not necessary for them to like the decision… only to see that allowing their loved one to follow the path they are called to is deeply a part of a Unitarian Universalist faith.

What I would love to see happen is for these Unitarian Universalist family members struggling with the decision of a loved one to join the military to find a way to be in community and conversation with each other. I would love to have those who are further along in walking this path to mentor those new to it. I would love them to share resources, stories, feelings, and emotions. I would love them to join the Church of the Larger Fellowship Military Ministries, and create there a ministry for each other. I would love for there to be a place where they can share with each other… where parents can hear of UU military service from veterans, where sisters can talk to other sisters, and grandparents can talk to grandchildren. www.clfuu.org/military

They will find a few resources there that might be helpful… perhaps an article on what happens in military families during deployments, or some writings by UU’s who have served in the military, or even how to join a website with parents who are not UU’s facing similar confusions and angers. I would wish all of this and more.

Most importantly, I would wish them a way to come to peace with their own inner turmoil about this decision their loved one has made, and to find a way to support them even through that confusion. In that, I think they will find they might even grow in understanding their own Unitarian Universalist faith.

Yours in faith,


9 Thoughts on “You Want to Join the Military? But We’re UU’s!!!

  1. Not so many months ago, I would here from some UU’s that Iraq was the wrong war and distracted from the right war in Afghanistan. So I’d gently prod them would they tell their kid they have a duty to fight the right war? Not support the kids decision, but tell them they ought to serve if they chose not too.

    I think Afghanistan quickly changing from the right war, to a war we can’t win, for many UUs; so that will be the dodge to the question.

    That we can change minds with such agility ought to be the question because once at war, wisely entered into and waged or not, they’re very difficult things to walk away from.

  2. David,

    I think this is a wonderful article which addresses well the issues surrounding war, the military and Unitarian Universalism. I know my own Congregation, like many others, underwent conflict at the outset of the Iraq War. We had pacifists, one of which called at least one of our military members a baby-killer. We had those who supported U. S. war policy. Many of course fell in between these views. Having been a congregation leader and an active duty officer during some of that time, I was and am very sensitive to this issue. You offer insights and suggestions which are both practical and compassionate.

    I also appreciate that you make the case that we, as Americans, are responsible for the acts of our military and must be actively engaged in holding it and the political leaders who direct it accountable for their actions. This opinion is remarkably lacking in current political discourse. Thank you for raising it.

    That said, I am a bit troubled by the words “perceived conflict in the minds and hearts of many members of our faith between holding Unitarian Universalist values and beliefs and serving in the military.” Perhaps you don’t intend to imply this but I infer from what you say that there is no real conflict here – only a perceived one.

    If that is what you meant to say, I have come to disagree. While we are not a credal church, we do embrace principles (dictionary definition: comprehensive and fundamental laws, doctrines, or assumptions). Among those principles are a belief in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Like it our not, war kills people whose inherent worth and dignity are every bit as sacred as my own (regardless of their own beliefs and motivations to engage in war) and shatters the interdependent web of all existence. I think that, as UU’s, we will one day need to come to terms with that very real conflict.

    It is not for me to tell anyone whether service is right our wrong. I served for 25 years and am proud of that service. I honor yours and everyone’s who “wear the cloth.” But I also became a UU as an act of witness against the evil of war – an evil which we, as Americans, are as prone to perpetrate as anyone else. Just as I honor all of those who serve, I hope one day that my church will come together and find consensus on where we stand with regard to the very real conflict between war and our principles.


    Tom Beall

  3. Tom,

    You touched on why I said “perceived”, even though you may not have meant to. Each Unitarian Universalist experiences this faith in different ways, and those ways change at different times in our lives. You have reached a place in your life and faith development where you do perceive a conflict… but there are many other military and non-military UU’s who do not. They are no less a part of their faith because of that difference in perception and engagement with this faith.

    For myself, I made the committment long ago that my faith would no longer allow me to carry a weapon, either in civilian life or in the military. That was no small decision, as firearms had long been an important part of my life. About six years ago, however, I reached a point in my faith development where my faith would no longer allow me to carry such weapons.

    Who we are and how we engage with this faith is in constant flux, and I beleive that this ambiguity is something that, were it to change, we would no longer be the post-modern liberal faith tradition we are today (and that I am an adherent of). I do not hope for a day when we have resolved the issue between our faith and a concept of war… for in that day we cease to grow, we cease to change, and we cease to be a dynamic faith on this issue.

    What I hope is that we never cease being on the forming edge of what it means to struggle with faith… and that we always accept that there is never one way to be a Unitairan Universalist.

    And such was the intent behind that quote…

    Yours in faith,


  4. Very thoughtful and well written as usual, David. However, I was disappointed that you ended the UU veteran’s history at WWII. There must be some Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, et al. UU vets who have spoken about their experiences. From interdependent web, I’ve heard of Doug Traversa, traversa.typepad.com. Any articles, websites or blogs you could pass on?

    Another issue I had regards this sentence: “I believe, at its best, the U.S. military can and should be a tool of peace, of justice, of compassion, and of defense…” You are stating the absolute best case scenario. To actually engage with this issue, you have to look at the worst case scenario and everything in between.

    Set up the false dichotomy and argue where the truth lies between the two extremes. Can the military be a tool of peace, justice, compassion and defense? Must the military be a tool of war, injustice, cruelty and aggression? Note that the middle of this spectrum would be the statement that the military can be a tool of war, etc.

    UU’s, veterans, anybody can place themselves anywhere on the spectrum and discuss the topic with others who disagree, and that’s great. But what is the range of positions actual politicians have taken or are likely to take? Barack Obama, the most liberal presidential candidate in quite some time campaigned on sending more soldiers to Afghanistan immediately after taking office. Madeline Albright, on the left edge of Secretary of States, says to Colin Powell, “What’s the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?”

    A non-interventionist only has a chance of being elected to a very liberal House seat. And it’s only a chance. How can we influence the actions of our military if the question is what country should we invade, not should we invade a country?

    I appreciated all the good advice for family members of recent enlistees. They certainly need and deserve help accepting their child’s, cousin’s etc. decision. However, my concern is with the potential recruits.

  5. NS,

    You make good points…. but arguing them was not the point of the article. Some nice ideas for a future article though…

    I did not want to present a whole history of UU and the military… I only wanted to give a few examples of what I walk through with families to broaden their context. The same is true with how I only present the “best” possible context for when I might support a military operation…

    The real point of the article was to provide some thoughts on what I have walked through with families dealing with this issue.

    Something I did not say in the article, but probably should, is that many of these recruits that I have spent time with who grew up UU do not (at the time I spoke with them) identify as Unitarian Universalists. They are on a journey to discover who they are, and what faith that calls forth in them. Some of them may come back… but I specifically did not want the article to talk about what UU faith calls those recruits to, because they are not really identifying as UU’s. They come to the UU service because it is the one they are familiar with, not because they consider themselves UU.

    There are a few exceptions to that rule, but it is by far the norm.

    So our service is an introduction to our faith, and the clearing of a few trees in their hearts.

    Yours in Faith,


  6. David, I accepted your point and was glad to hear it. However, I do tend to argue, even when I agree with a vast majority of any post. And I realize I extended the topic area of your post to my own ends. Such is blog commenting for me (which means not so much for you). Thanks for your reply.

    For the potential future post, I would be interested in learning about what UU veterans of wars since WWII have to say to all members of our society in regards to social action, political accountability, and military service.

    PS, is there a way to refer to soldiers, sailors and airmen together besides troops?

  7. I will be thinking about the future post… but one concern I have is not to speak for those still able to speak for themselves in such a post… so I would probably focus on earlier times in our history, and find quotes for the later…

    Rather than “Troops” or “Recruits”, I tend to use “Service Members”….

    Yours in faith,


  8. David,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to my comment.

    I waited a while to respond to your post so that I could give it some thought. I appreciate what the purpose of the article was but, in it, you raised some very fundamental issues for the UU church.

    One of the meanings of the word faith (which we, UU’s, toss around a lot) is “fidelity to one’s promises.”

    You said above that, “You (meaning me) have reached a place in your life and faith development where you do perceive a conflict… but there are many other military and non-military UU’s who do not. They are no less a part of their faith because of that difference in perception and engagement with this faith. ”

    I accept the fact that many UU’s do not believe as I do (some are in my own Congregation). But many do believe as I do. This clearly indicates that there is, in fact, a conflict – at least between those who believe that war and militarism are inconsistent with our principles and those who believe that, in some cases, war is just and not inconsistent with UU principles. This is not a perceived conflict but a very real one – one which our clergy needs to address.

    As one who does believe that war and militarism are inconsistent with our principles, I ask why are we UU’s not (apparently) faithful to our principles? Why do we fail to renounce war as something that shatters the interdependent web of all existence? Why do we turn away from the inherent worth and dignity of every person by embracing the notion of just war – i.e. the notion that sometimes it is necessary and just to kill others.

    Some would say, “Yes, we believe in those principles but there are evil-doers out there who are irrational and will do us harm no matter what we say or do. To establish justice on earth, we must engage in ‘just war’ to force them to stop.” Those same people might say that people like me, who have come to embrace pacifism and think that UU’s should embrace pacifism (because it is consistent with our principles) and work together toward the goal of ending war are just foolish idealists.

    My response is to ask them to consider the words of President John F. Kennedy (from his American University Speech, 1963):

    “First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again…Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions — on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace; no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process — a way of solving problems.”

    President Kennedy told us that peace is not only possible but that it can be achieved by pragmatic (and non-military) means. Why do we, as UU’s, not embrace that simple notion?

    Finally, you stated, “I do not hope for a day when we have resolved the issue between our faith and a concept of war… for in that day we cease to grow, we cease to change, and we cease to be a dynamic faith on this issue. ” I’m sorry but I must disagree. I think that the times demand more of us – more of us who embrace our liberal religion. The times demand that we grapple with the issues of the day – the issues of war and peace – rather than the conflicts within our own church.

    Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a Gestapo prison cell in 1943, stated of those who, in the face of the growing threat of National Socialism in 1933, sought to respect all views instead of uniting in the face of the growing injustice of the Nazi regime:

    The “reasonable” people’s failure is obvious. With the best intentions and a naïve lack of realism, they think that with a little reason they can bend back into position the framework that has gone out of joint. In their lack of vision they want to do justice to all sides, and so the conflicting forces wear them down with nothing achieved. Disappointed by the world’s unreasonableness, they see themselves condemned to ineffectiveness; they step aside in resignation or collapse before the stronger party.”

    Bonhoeffer died before he could be liberated in 1945. His words cry out to us, as UU’s today. What are we going to do?

    Thanks for listening and writing.

    Tom Beall

  9. In reacting to this post that occurred some time ago, I have to react in part to the comments made about this initial article. I realize that the article was intended to convey a message concerning the reaction to parents in the faith but it has branched slightly into the idea of war in relationship to the Church.

    There are two separate lines of thought in our tradition. The Unitarians developed into a very humanist group and from them I can suggest that we use the basic concept of military science that population pressure causes war. Whether or not we like war, it will exist. As long as we accept science and the use of reason as part of our faith, we also have to accept that war is not some intentional evil that is out to get us. Debating the “goodness” of war is a way of eliminating the use of reason from our faith and I think that this is incorrect for our survival as a faith.

    If we are to further the spread of UU thinking, we have ti accept that the spread within the Church of irrational preferences regarding war from the peace side is consistent with the historical trends that came at the start of the last two paradigm shifts. The Agricultural Revolution had the minstrel tradition that sang of the Goddess and the Industrial Revolution had the Luddites. We are seeing the possibility of the same wave of feeling that has touched our society as the Hippies and the “Counter-culture.” I think that we have to learn to ride out the idea that unreason regarding war as a part of our existence has to be decided. I wonder that it is a decidable phenomenon.

    I hope that the members of the church who are veterans will have the daring that you have written of regarding Dr. King and stand up for their actions and beliefs. They can be shouted down only by people who prefer the lack of reason and the use of science that is also part of our principles. This may take awhile to work out but I think that the Principles will win out in forwarding the use of scientific reasoning over the “fundamentalist” thought I see that is unfortunately coming from the pacifist side.

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: