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Thursday, November 27, 2003

Wesley Clark's faith.

I find the story of Wesley Clark's religious odyssey pretty fascinating. He tells Beliefnet:

I'm spiritual. I'm religious. I'm a strong Christian and I'm a Catholic but I go to Presbyterian Church. Occasionally I go to the Catholic church too. I take communion. I haven't transferred my membership or anything. My wife I consider ourselves—-she considers herself a Catholic.

The Boston Globe's profile of Clark includes this description of his conversion from southern Baptist to Roman Catholic during the Vietnam War:

Perhaps the most bitter experience for Clark at Oxford occurred when he went to church. As a southern Baptist, he attended Protestant services, where he felt under attack.

"When I went to Protestant services in England, there was a tremendous passion against America's [involvement] in Vietnam," Clark said. "It became personal against the men in the armed services. It wasn't just the policy. It was the people. To me, that wasn't an atmosphere in which I felt comfortable."

By contrast, the Catholic church, in which Gertrude was a member, was a refuge, Clark believed. "It was reasoned, structured, ordered consistency," Clark said, qualities that he valued. After abiding by rules that Clark said required him to remain a bachelor for the first year of his Rhodes scholarship, Clark married Gertrude and embraced Catholicism, converting more than a year later in Vietnam.

In the Beliefnet interview, Clark adds:

What had happened to me was, I had tried to go the Protestant churches in England and I had sought out a Baptist church and a Methodist church. And that was during the Vietnam War and in both cases the sermons were anti- the American military and full of wildly overstated claims about how bad the American military was. My West Point classmates — my roommate was serving over there — he was killed during that period.

I wasn't about to go to church like that who didn't respect my friends who believed they were praying to the same God and serving their country.

We always believed in the 12th chapter of the book of Mark. That's what we were taught at West Point where Jesus speaks to the Pharisees and they try to trick him and say "You say we're supposed to be loyal to God but you're being a traitor to Caesar." And he said, "Bring me the coin" and said, "Who's face [is] in this coin?" And the Pharisees say, "Well, Caesar of course." And Jesus says "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and render unto God that which is God's."

That's the way we lived. That's what I believed. And when I saw and felt this animus out of these Protestant churches in England during the Vietnam war, it just turned me off.

The Catholic priest at the time was a guy named Michael Hollings. (He fought in WWII). He was a captain, a battalion adjutant. He was from one of the original Catholic families who had disobeyed Henry VIII's order to renounce the Roman Catholic faith. And he was just an incredibly educated, literate, bright, insightful, experienced man—a real leader.

Clark's deep appreciation for structure and discipline — the values he embraced so strongly in the military, and came to recognize in Catholicism — are quite fascinating to me. He seems intellectual but basically non-speculative when it comes to religion: In the Beliefnet interview he says, for example, that doubt and "spiritual low points" haven't really been part of his religious experience, and he doesn't seem particularly interested in the theological differences between the Baptist church of his childhood, the Catholicism he embraced as a convert, and the Presbyterian church he and his wife attend today. (He sounds, in other words, like your typical American church-goer.)

I always find it instructive to hear a person describe the characteristics of the people they admire. The priest who made such an impression on Clark while he was in England was "an incredibly educated, literate, bright, insightful, experienced man—a real leader." Mid-century Protestant anti-Catholicism sure hadn't taken hold of him.

But it's also illuminating to see how the politics of both the mainline Protestant and post-Vatican II Catholic churches have put American soldiers in an awkward spot. Perhaps the churches need more encouragement to think through the question of a citizen's obligations to the state — a way of honoring the role of the military in a liberal society, for example, rather than wishing it away. Perhaps because Clark is an intellectual, a soldier, and a religious person who sees no contradictions in these loyalties, Americans might see in his story a new way to be an American: liberal in thought, disciplined and loyal in practice, devoted and small-c catholic in faith. That would be refreshing to me.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 27 November 2003 at 8:27 PM

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