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Probing the Need to Interject God in War : Chaplain Finds Vietnam Moral Issues Have Surfaced Repeatedly

November 20, 1986|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — William Mahedy is a chaplain with fascinating opinions.

For instance:

"When (former President) Nixon was telling the truth, you thought he was lying, and when (President) Reagan is lying, you'd swear he was telling the truth."

In terms of morality, Mahedy's favorite presidents--he doesn't have many--were Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. They, he believes, were "good, decent men." He lumps John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Reagan and Nixon into one swarthy category--presidents who championed "civil religion," and in doing so, led the country down a path of disaster and moral ruin.

Strong stuff? Mahedy, chaplain at both UC San Diego and San Diego State University and author of a new book on Vietnam veterans, doesn't mince words.

He defines civil religion as an age-old tendency to "appropriate religious characteristics or divine attributes to a civil society." In other words, he sees it as an evil compulsion, an unconscious desire to link war, and a need to wage war, with a mandate from God.

Examples, Mahedy said, include Reagan's "invoking the Gospel of St. Luke in selling the defense budget." In Vietnam, the slang used by soldiers to coin an unwinnable war was "kill a Commie for Christ."

Because of that attitude, many who labored in Vietnam surrendered their faith, he said, or at least misplaced it for a while. He admits he has met a lot of "bloodless atheists," men waging "a direct confrontation with God" in seeking to overcome the ongoing nightmare of Vietnam.

Madness of War

As founder of the Vietnam Veteran Centers program, and as a priest who served with the 1st Cavalry Division (the Air Cav), Mahedy has counseled what he called "thousands of young men" so disillusioned by the evil of Vietnam, and by U.S. involvement, that God--not Satan--emerged as villain.

"In Vietnam, men experienced the madness of war, where human goodness was subverted on every side," Mahedy said. "They sank into a sewer of depravity. As both perpetrators and victims of massive and mindless violence, they could no longer feel moral or religious.

"For many, God was AWOL."

Mahedy said the moral issues of Vietnam, and of other wars, have "cropped up again and again" since the United States suffered its first military defeat and an ignominious exit from Saigon. Imbued with the issues, Mahedy sought to examine them in print. He also wanted a forum for observations about American morality in general.

What emerged was "Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journey of Vietnam Vets," published last month. A Vietnam veteran he quotes encapsulates just some of the grim reporting:

"We became the animal in the jungle. We got in touch with the other side of our human potential and it terrified us. The Nam put an incredible blockage in me in relation to God--I just didn't feel that God loved me. I had a complete loss of faith in the Nam."

Pop a Jesus Pill

Mahedy also lambastes what he calls "happy face Christianity," which he believes fundamentalists and "televangelists" are merchandising and hyping as a form of spiritual Valium.

"We've had a mad love affair with psychotherapy in this country," he said in a recent interview. "It's all for the individual, what's good for me . Now it's 'pop a Jesus pill,' and you'll get a promotion, a new lease on life. That's such a distortion and a cruel aberration of what New Testament Christianity is all about. That kind of shallowness is tied in with the whole culture. Sadly, war is only a part of it."

For 18 years, Mahedy served as a Catholic priest, including his 1 1/2 years in Vietnam, from 1971 to 1972. He later left the priesthood to marry a former nun. He then joined the Episcopal Church, which he now serves as a priest.

A native San Diegan and resident of Clairemont, this 50-year-old father of a 7-year-old and 10-year-old hardly appears to be the angry man he often sounds like. He's tall and broad-shouldered with a kind face and features that might best be described as Lincolnesque. He often invokes the name of the Civil War President in describing American mythology and what he calls "our preoccupation with civil religion":

While Washington symbolized Moses, Lincoln, he said, was nothing less than the image of Christ.

Mahedy's book uses similar imagery:

"For a generation raised on John Wayne movies in the wake of World War II, Vietnam was a cruel farce. John Wayne--a sort of muscular Jesus--came to symbolize what was right about America. This fed into the conviction that America lies at the center of the world's moral order, and the delusion--especially strong after World War II--that war brings peace."

Or:

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