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God and Uncle Sam

Religion and America’s Armed Forces in World War II


Michael Snape


Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015

Hardcover. xxiv+704 p. ISBN 978-1843838920. £30.00 / $55


Reviewed by Timothy J. Demy

U.S. Naval War College, Newport (Rhode Island)



In 2016, the United States began 75th-anniversary commemorations of its participation in the Second World War. Given the enormous amount of material available on America’s participation in the war and the popularity of the war among readers, the dearth of scholarly material on the role of religion in war is surprising. Michael Snape’s masterful study God and Uncle Sam : Religion and America’s Armed Forces in World War II goes a long way in correcting that void. In six evenly spaced chapters Snape shows how religion helped shape and effect the more than sixteen million American men and women who served in uniform around the globe during the war. Snape, Canon Professor and Michael Ramsey Professor of Anglican Studies at Durham University, is well known for his work on religion in the British military (God and the British Soldier : The Redcoat and Religion) and with the present volume, his reputation in U.S. military history and religion is equally assured.

The phrases “the good war” and “the greatest generation” have been lauded and derided, with the subject of religion during the war either caught in the critics’ crossfire or ignored as irrelevant to those who fought the war. The role of religion in the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and to a lesser extent, the First World War is well documented, but not so the Second World War.

Snape draws upon a broad range of published and unpublished religious and secular sources and archival materials to make his case that religion was a significant agent of social change during the war years. The interwar years were not great years for “mainline” American Protestantism. The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s set the stage for a religious depression in the United States that paralleled the financial depression in which many Protestant denominations went into decline. Yet, conservative, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal groups grew in numbers and strength. What in the postwar years would become American evangelicalism gradually came forth such that in the immediate years after the war, it blossomed in American society spurred on in part by returning American G.I.s who had a commitment to evangelism and Christian missionary endeavors. In contrast to much of American Protestantism, American Catholicism grew during the interwar years, mostly in the large cities, as did American Judaism.

Chapter 1, “Chaplains and Chaplaincy”, provides an extensive evaluation and summary history of U.S. military chaplains during the war. Chaplains were the public face of religion in the military and by the time of America’s entry into the war, military chaplaincy was well established and recognized. By war’s end the U.S. Army had graduated more than 8,000 chaplains from its Chaplain School. Although many Protestant denominations leaned toward pacifism during the interwar years, chaplains continued to be sent by their respective endorsing bodies into the military and into National Guard units that were state-controlled. Army chaplaincy and Navy chaplaincy (the latter also serving the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Marine Corps) followed very different courses in their development. Chaplains served alongside troops in combat, aboard ships, and at air bases providing spiritual guidance and morale for troops and the response of combat troops to the presence and ministry of chaplains was generally positive.

In the second chapter, “Religion and American Military Culture,” Snape looks at issues of religion and regulations, role models, religion and command, chaplain’s assistants, military chapels, religious broadcasting, and auxiliary chaplains. The formal presence of religion in the military raised a number of issues ranging from constitutional concerns and burial policies to written prayers, religious identification on dog tags (P, C, H for Protestant, Catholic, and Hebrew) and work with religious welfare organizations such as the YMCA and YWCA as well as the USO. Religion in the military was treated as normative and was generally supported and funded accordingly.

“The Faithful in Arms” is the title of the third chapter and it studies how America’s service members interpreted their religious values and beliefs in the military and combat contexts and how they applied their faith in wartime. Snape examines devotional tastes and religious traits such as hymn-singing, scripture reading, and self-reliance.

Snape’s fourth chapter “Foxhole Religion and Wartime Faith” demonstrates the oft-repeated platitude “there are no atheists in foxholes” is as simplistic as it is misguided. The tragedies, traumas, and experiences of combat created a wide array of responses within combatants (and noncombatants). While many people did draw upon their religious values and heritage or “get religion” in the midst of combat, many did not and the horrors of war caused some to abandon their faith completely. Whether in combat, a prisoner of war camp, stateside, or the rear echelons, faith was an active part of the G.I. experience. Most soldiers were civilians in uniform and they brought their religion with them.

Chapter 5, “Global Encounters,” shows how the war brought the troops to greater awareness of life beyond their hometown, farm, or region. In an era when most people did not travel beyond their region and there was no national newspaper, the war brought eye-opening experiences to G.I.s. So too, did the religious diversity of the troops broaden the experience of the troops. Jewish soldiers fought side-by-side with Protestants and Roman Catholics and American soldiers in Europe understood there to be a religious dimension to Nazi Germany’s war against the Jews. Additionally, U.S. Army troops and soldiers had exposure to German POWs and the guarantee of religious worship granted by Article 16 of the 1929 Geneva Convention. In the Pacific War, the racial distinctions became a significant factor in how the enemy was viewed as well as Shinto and Buddhism. The Judeo-Christian culture of most G.I.s confronted a broader world of religious cultures and experiences and the reaction was complex and often condescending. However, it also sparked enthusiasm for Christian missions in the lives of many soldiers that would create a postwar resurgence of the missionary spirit, especially in Asia.  

The final chapter, “Religion, War and Morality”, addresses some of the moral and ethical challenges and dilemmas faced by troops looking at such issues as segregation, killing, destruction of sacred structures, profanity, obscenity, gambling, drinking, sexual immorality, pilfering and plundering, and the broader theological problem of evil. Some troops suspended religious and ethical values and others did not. A global war created global questions and problems and the religious response was important.

Snape brings his masterful study to a conclusion providing a compelling evaluation of religion and the G.I. during the war. He shows that one of the greatest tragedies in human history had significant religious dimensions and that failure to recognize those dimensions provides an incomplete and unbalanced view of the war. The notes, bibliography, and index are thorough and extremely helpful.

This is a landmark study that will be the standard for years to come and a foundational piece for subsequent specialized studies of religion and the Second World War. For readers whose knowledge of religion in the Armed Forces during the war is limited to the Pearl Harbor phrase “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” or General Patton’s request for a “weather prayer” at Bastogne in December 1944, this book offers a welcome antidote. It should be on the shelf of every enthusiast and historian of the Second World War.


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