Ron Hassner on Religion in the Military
Date: October 11th, 2015

From issues as diverse as pacifism to rituals that require special garments that interfere with uniforms, militaries around the world often find themselves trying to accommodate the various religious beliefs and practices of their soldiers.  How such issues are manage has largely gone unstudied by academics.  However, Dr. Ron Hassner — associate professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley — has taken up the task to research this topic by assembling a group of scholars for an edited volume entitled Religion in the Military Worldwide.  We discuss the specific findings presented in this work and Prof. Hassner’s general thoughts on the management of religion in the armed forces.

Our discussion begins, though, with a summary of Prof. Hassner’s previous work on “sacred space,” a topic that we have visited before on the podcast.  In this line of research, Ron has argued that territory that is deemed sacred to religious adherents faces a problem of being “indivisible,” unlike land or loot, and makes many conflicts very intractable. Ron argues that the failure to understand the importance of “sacred space” has led to numerous diplomatic misunderstandings and policy errors, but he also presents ways to mitigate conflict, which includes involving clergy into policy discussions.  We also raise the issue of the “sacred” Big Game between Stanford and Cal, and the iconographic ax that is awarded to the winner, and Ron presents us with a little known, but perhaps very revealing, correlative fact about that ongoing rivalry that involves him.

We revisited this earlier line of Ron’s research agenda because it provided him with a segue into his current interest in understanding how religion functions within militaries and how different countries manage potential conflicts between religious belief and ritual, and the necessary dictates of preparing for, and conducting, combat.  And it was not just his previous research that prompted such an interest; Ron’s own experience of having to prepare plates and kitchen utensils for kosher meals led him to think about this topic.  He also recounts second-hand stories wherein a Hindu soldier was reported to have risked his life on the battlefield to tend to a cow that was harmed by artillery fire.  These and a few other stories helped to pique Ron’s interest into investigating whether or not there are any interesting empirical regularities around the world as to the management of religion in the military.  Finding virtually no pre-existing literature on the topic, he decided to assemble a group of scholars who had some connection to the topic and he discusses how this came together in the edited volume noted above.

We then dive into the topic of religious demographics in the military, which one might think would be a relatively straightforward task for empirical research.  However, many militaries, including the United States, do not keep and/or share religious demographics.  Ron explains how some scholars have tried to get around this lack of data with unique collection strategies, including counting beards, the number and denomination of chaplains, and yarmulkes.  Issues of mandatory conscription versus an all-volunteer force can have an interesting impact on the religious demographics.  Ron further asked his scholars to probe the issue of the denominational composition of smaller units within the military.  This leads to an interesting discussion on socialization and how even members of a platoon who do not initially share the religious beliefs and practices of the majority of the group will often conform to those preferences over time as an act of cohesion.  Ron shares a few interesting stories to this effect.

We then talk about the manner in which military commanders have to accommodate very specific religious practices that might conflict with standard operating procedures with a large bureaucracy.  Tony brings up the issue of Sikhs and protective helmets, given that the Sikh practice of long hair and turbans make it difficult to outfit soldiers with this basic piece of safety gear.  Prof. Hassner then brings up the fascinating case of Japan, a nation that many people consider to be amongst the most secular in the world.  Ron notes that although religion is significantly downplayed in the Japanese defense forces, a very large number of soldiers (including officers) will not drive vehicles or board ships that have not been blessed by Shinto clergy in a purification ritual to rid the object of evil spirits.

Our next topic is to look into the U.S. case and how religion is managed therein.  Here Ron talks about how he had two different scholars with differing viewpoints — Martin Cook and Pauletta Otis — regarding the presence in the U.S. armed forces.  The former shows a great deal of concern over the excesses of religious symbolism in military music and symbols/badges used on the battlefield.  He sees these excesses as conflicting with general military goals of trying to win hearts and minds of populations in foreign lands, particularly in recent military campaigns in the Middle East.  Otis, on the other hand, notes that while excesses do exist, there are procedures for addressing these problems and the system works fairly well, which leads her the con.  We also chat a bit about how religious belief and practice play out in daily operations, including combat.  This is the main topic of Ron’s next book but he gives us a flavor for some of his findings, as well as what some of the authors in his edited volume had to say.  It is hear where we look both at the Iranian military and India’s armed forces.  We discuss how there was an interesting selection bias in the Iranian military during the Iran-Iraq War that led many devout Muslims to join special units that engaged in suicide attacks out of a firm belief in martyrdom.  We explore India’s experience in trying to integrate people of very different faith traditions that are often in conflict with one another into the same units.  Interestingly, Ron notes that rather than creating religiously homogenous units that might be prone to mutiny if ordered to fight against co-religionists, combining individuals of different faiths actually helps to build unit cohesion as all the soldiers know they are dependent upon one another for survival on the battlefield irrespective of spiritual preferences.

We finish our interview with some of Ron’s reflections on what he has learned throughout the years of studying this topic.  One of his main takeaways was that there really are no pat solutions to dealing with the issue of religion in the armed forces, but rather leaders are often learning and adjusting to changing circumstances.  Recorded: October 7, 2015.



Ron Hassner’s biography at UC-Berkeley’s Department of Political Science.

Religion in the Military Worldwide, edited by Ron Hassner.

War on Sacred Ground, by Ron Hassner.


Ron Hassner on Sacred Space and Holy Conflict.

Philip Jenkins on Religion and World War I.

Robert Kinnune on Military Chaplains.

Sean Scott on Religious Rhetoric in the US Civil War.

James Felak on Pope Pius XII, the Wartime Pontiff.

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