To know about something is different from knowing something. For many of us, the U.S. military is something we know about: It fights terrorism, rescues people after disasters, and does other missions the media and Hollywood tell us about. But with only 1.3 million active-duty troops serving a nation of 314 million, a tiny fraction of us have family or friends in the military, which means we don’t see or understand the military in a personal way. Instead, the military is so distant and disconnected from most of us that it’s something of an abstraction

But for those who care about freedom — especially the freedom to speak about God and worship God as we choose — the U.S. military should be anything but an abstraction. In a world where might still makes right, it is the U.S. military — not international treaties, presidential speeches, or U.N. resolutions — that protects us from enemies who would either stamp out all faiths or force submission to one faith. We dare not think about it, but the line separating us, protecting us, from such a dark age is terrifyingly thin. And those 1.3 million citizen-soldiers stand on that line.

Everywhere

Eleven months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt shared his vision of “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” FDR’s Four Freedoms comprised freedom of speech, freedom from fear, freedom from want, and “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.” In fact, his D-Day prayer asked God to protect the troops as they “struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion and our civilization.”

FDR spoke during the high noon of godless tyrannies: Nazi Germany exterminated Jews, waged war on the church, and made its leader into a messiah. Likewise, Imperial Japan elevated its emperor into a god, making it easier for his high command to justify anything and everything. The Soviet Union — an enemy-of-my-enemy ally during the war — rejected religion altogether, co-opting religious leaders, purging those who refused to genuflect to the state, elevating government above all else.

In fact, University of Texas professor William Inboden notes that “Every major war the United States has fought over the past 70 years has been against an enemy that also severely violated religious freedom.” The common denominator between Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, North Vietnam, Libya, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia is that all of them “embraced religious intolerance.”

While yesterday’s enemies of freedom generally forced their subjects to stop believing in God — or accept some human substitute for God — today’s envision a world where everyone either submits to their version of God or dies. Consider the Taliban of Afghanistan — a brutal, backward regime that crushed any deviation from its version of Islam. Much of what the Taliban did while in power — and continues to do while trying to reclaim power — is too gruesome to describe here. But here’s the PG-13 version:

  • The Taliban banished girls from schools and women from public places, ordered Hindus to wear special identity labels, destroyed ancient statues of Buddha, beheaded people for dancing, summarily executed those belonging to opposing sects of Islam, depopulated areas controlled by ethnic minority groups, turned soccer stadiums into mass-execution chambers, burned people alive, killed and jailed aid workers, and made common cause with al-Qaida.
  • The Taliban considered evangelism a “severe crime,” so their religious police hunted down and imprisoned foreigners who talked about Christianity. The Taliban’s adherents in Pakistan have bombed Christian churches. A 2001 attack on a church killed 15; a 2002 attack killed five and wounded 45 — on Palm Sunday no less; a 2013 bombing killed 81. And it was the Pakistani Taliban who shot Malala Yousafzai, the heroic Pakistani girl who dared speak out against these monsters.
  • Thanks to the U.S. military, some 6 million Afghan children are now in school. About 2 million of them are girls. In response, Taliban militants have launched poison-gas attacks against girls’ schools to terrify their families and teachers back into the darkness. Scores of other schools have been burned down by the Taliban.

ISIS, the jihadist army that controls parts of Iraq and Syria, has been described as “worse than al-Qaida” — and deservedly so:

  •  ISIS (whose adherents are Sunni Muslim) has summarily executed hundreds of Shiite Muslims in Iraq, set fire to “apostate” homes across Syria and Iraq, massacred 1,700 unarmed Iraqi POWs near Tikrit, and, as we learned this summer, beheaded Americans and other Westerners as proof of its savage piety.
  • Human-rights groups report that ISIS has imprisoned children as young as eight, flogged children as young as 14, and employed electric shock, crucifixion, and other brutal forms of torture.
  • The U. N. reports that ISIS has executed imams, teachers, and hospital workers, forced children to become soldiers, and committed mass-rapes.
  • ISIS has ordered Iraqi Christians to convert or die. Some 200,000 religious minorities fled their homes this past summer as ISIS pushed into northern Iraq, herding and trapping 40,000 from the Yazidi minority in the barren mountains straddling Syria and Iraq before a U.S. air armada came to the rescue.
  • ISIS is using water — the most essential element of life — as a weapon of war. In some cases, the terror group is depriving Shiite communities of water; in other cases, it’s drowning Shiite communities with man-made floods.
  • In its self-styled capital of Raqqa, Syria, ISIS has installed Shariah law, complete with masked religious police roaming the streets to enforce a strict interpretation of the Koran; cordoned off nearly a quarter-million people from civilization; and turned the town square into an execution chamber, “now the awful place of spikes upon which chopped-off heads are placed,” according to reports spirited out of Syria.

Necessary

This is the enemy U.S. troops have been fighting for 13 years. Of course, the enemies of religious liberty are not quarantined within the borders of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Witness the atrocities committed by mass-murderers masquerading as holy men in Nigeria, Mali, Central African Republic, and Yemen; or government mistreatment of religious minorities in China, North Korea, and Russia; or both forms of religious intolerance in Damascus, Cairo, and South Sudan.

No matter what the poll-watching politicians or world-weary public say, this struggle for religious freedom is a just cause. But it’s not a struggle between faiths. After all, in the past quarter-century, the U.S. military — a military composed of many faiths, defending a nation of many faiths — has rescued Muslims in Kosovo and Kurdistan, Somalia and Sumatra, Kuwait and Kabul.

Put another way, the U.S. military is not at war with Islam; it’s at war those who would force people to submit to Islam. In this regard, it’s worth noting that the Taliban, ISIS, al-Qaida and their ilk take literally Muhammad’s injunction “to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah.’” Their goal is to create the conditions for a decisive battle between the faithful and faithless, and ultimately to construct — by force — a transnational theocracy. In various places, in various ways, the U.S. military stands athwart that dark, dystopian vision of the future.

This notion of fighting for faith freedom may offend. Isaiah, after all, called our Savior the “Prince of Peace.” Jesus certainly lived up to that title by embracing His enemies and bestowing a special blessing onto peacemakers. Yet He had sterner words for scholars and scribes than He did for soldiers. In fact, when a centurion asked Him to heal an ailing servant, Jesus didn’t admonish the military commander to put down his sword. Instead, He commended him. “I have not found such great faith in Israel,” Jesus exclaimed. Centuries earlier, David praised the Lord, “who trains my hands for war.” Solomon concluded, “There is a time for war.” As soldier-turned-author Ralph Peters reminds us, “Throughout both Testaments, we encounter violent actors and soldiers. They face timeless moral dilemmas. Interestingly, their social validity is not questioned even in the Gospels. … The thrust of the texts is to improve rather than abolish the soldiery. It is assumed that soldiers are, however regrettably, necessary.”

Indeed they are. It may seem paradoxical, but the Prince of Peace calls on His followers to defend the weak and help the helpless. Doing these things — whether to stop a bully on the playground or to turn back tyranny on the battleground — sometimes requires the use of force. There are times when force serves a higher good, and there are even times when the absence of force, however unwittingly, serves the enemies of that higher good.

This isn’t to suggest that the use of force is always justified, or that America’s military should go to war against every enemy of religious liberty, or that America’s military always does what’s right. It doesn’t. It’s an imperfect institution run by imperfect people. It has been used in the wrong ways and in the wrong places at times. It has been used when it shouldn’t have — and not been used when it should have. But despite all those imperfections, the U.S. military stands as the last line of defense for our religious freedom — a shield for faith. That’s something people of faith need to know.