The trust Americans have in armed might to accomplish good ends is distressing. Evidence of this trust has appeared again in the results of YouGov’s latest research poll. The poll shows 29% of the American people would be willing to support a military coup in certain circumstances. That went up to an astonishing 43% who said they would support the military stepping in to take control from a civilian government if it begins to violate the Constitution. Only 29% would be opposed. Given how often and how loosely accusations are made in some quarters that the President is violating the Constitution, the results are very troubling.
The results are all the more troubling given the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians. How can people who claim to be the followers of the One who told Peter to “put away his sword”(Matthew 26:52) offer a modicum support to those who would take up “the sword” against an elected civilian government, regardless of the government’s shortcomings?
But the trust that many Christians place in coercive violence has been attested again and again in earlier polls. Even when church leaders oppose war, frequent church attenders have shown themselves to be the strongest war supporters of any segment of the population. This is particularly the case among white evangelical Protestants. It is certainly not the influence of the Prince of Peace that led them to take this posture.
The willingness to offer support to a military coup is undoubtedly an outgrowth of widespread frustration with the dysfunction in the US Congress as well as the broad and deep opposition to President Obama among conservatives. But I believe another national trend is also evident in the support for a military coup. This support is a reflection of American trust in the military above all other institutions.
For several decades Gallup researchers have been asking Americans about which institutions they most trust. Forty years ago church or organized religion was at the top of the list with 68% of respondents offering “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence. On the other hand, the military was lower a 58% positive response. In 1986 for the first time the military surpassed religious institutions in public confidence.
This year the Gallup researchers found an amazing 72% who answered they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. Confidence in religious institutions has fallen precipitously to only 42%, according to the most recent poll. Whatever the shortcomings of organized religion – the mega-church and TV preachers getting rich off gullible supporters, judgmentalism, the sexual scandals, etc. – these pale in comparison to the failings found in the military: numerous unnecessary deaths and destruction abroad in unworthy causes to the high incidents of rape of enlisted women to PTSD and the high level of suicides among soldiers and veterans. Nevertheless, many Americans – including Christians, apparently – trust the military significantly more than any other institution.
Even if we question the methodology of the YouGov poll, many of us know enough people who would voice support for a military coup that we don’t dismiss the poll results out of hand. More concerning, it could be that there are a number of military officers who are receptive to the idea of taking over the civilian government. This may be evidenced by a recently published argument for a military overthrow of the government made by a faculty member – who has since resigned – at the Military Academy at West Point.
The lengthy essay appeared in the National Security Law Journal this year. He condemns leading academics who have challenged the wisdom of the “war on terror” and who have argued that US military action has been “an aggressive over-reaction, and that the United States is engaged in war crimes that breed terrorists, threaten the rule-of-law, and make us less safe.” He calls this “psychological warfare by American elites against their own people” and proposes that these thinkers should be regarded as enemy combatants. Given that key leaders in the government have been influenced by some of them to reject total war against Islamists, he argues the government must be forced to “yield up its leaders for prosecution.”
I have friends on the left who speak longingly of a new American revolution that will topple the 1% and drive out their elected political sycophants. Even some observant hyper-wealthy individuals have expressed concern that the vast inequality in America will soon lead to an uprising with the beleaguered masses coming with “pitchforks” after the plutocrats. This is highly unlikely to happen. Any attempt at a violent overthrow of the privileged establishment would be quickly put down with overwhelming police and military force. Far more likely is a military coup supported by those on the right to eliminate the most progressive elements in the government and society.
Whether a revolution from the left or a military coup from the right, any armed effort to bring about significant change in America will be disastrous. Whatever “violation of the Constitution” that might be used to justify a military coup could be nothing in comparison to the violation the coup itself would be. A look at military coups around the world shows that the result is highly unlikely to be greater freedom or more justice but the very opposite. This can be said of revolutions as well. After all the blood and destruction, the results have too often been, as the Who sang, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”
I want change. Change to end poverty, to reduce gross inequality, to make healthcare universally available, to protect the environment, and to move the government to be less militarily aggressive and more diplomatically engaged. Yet above all I want change so the church will be more faithful to Jesus. I will advocate for change. I will be in the streets to protest for change. I will preach and write for change. I won’t sit on my hands. But neither will I kill and destroy. I most certainly will not support a military coup. I am convinced that we need to live the sort of lives in which justice and peace embrace (Psalms 85:10). To do so is essential if we follow the way of Jesus Christ.