American Protestant veterans of World War II greatly benefitted from their religion, but for some that did not necessarily happen until after the war. It is important to remember that Denton-Borhaug’s functionalist definition of religion is multifaceted: “Religion provides existential functions that help people claim identity, meaning and purpose.”¹ As we have established, religion can most certainly offer people a sense of who they are through identity. But it can also offer people more, perhaps in the sense of what they ought to do with their lives and how to guide their lifestyles through meaning and purpose.
Considering my analysis contextualizes the case study of American Protestant World War II veterans, it is vital to note what kind of culture these veterans experienced in the military during the war. In November 1946, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) criticized the U.S. military for fostering a decadent environment for their servicemen, easily translatable to a lack of Christian morality. The VFW charged, “Many of our young veterans have returned physical, mental, moral and social wrecks.”² For many American Protestant veterans, it was this debauchery paired with an absence of faith that made them realize that they were not living happy, meaningful lives, which they later remedied by finding God.
David Downey’s story appropriately demonstrates the potential of religion from a functionalist viewpoint to provide meaning and purpose for the miserable and lost. Downey was not always a Christian. Early in his life and during his service, he did not really give religion much thought.
Even though he was on an immoral path by smoking and drinking, Downey believed that by praying to God, He could get him through any situation. Such a remedy to his poor lifestyle was convenient for Downey because he believed that everybody is born in sin, so it did not really matter where he was when he turned is life around through religion. The important point is that Downey chose to straighten out his life by seeking God’s help.
Downey even found an overarching purpose to life through faith. It was not enough that he gave up his depraved smoking and drinking. Additionally, he went on to devote his life to serving God, which is exactly what he believes to be his purpose as a person put on this Earth. Granted, in such a case, World War II may not have directly affected the veteran in a religious sense. However, the lifestyle cultivated in the military that led him to smoking, drinking, and disregarding religion indeed made Downey realize that he was not on the best course of action, which was to believe in and to serve God. In his words, “that Bible wasn’t written just to be written. It was written for a purpose.”³
Another clear example of Denton-Borhaug’s claim that religion helped veterans find meaning and purpose to their lives after the war is found in Willard Kinzer’s story. Kinzer forged his birth certificate to join the Navy, and before eventually being caught and sent home, he was stationed at Manus Island in the Pacific Theatre, briefly serving in the U.S. Navy.
As seen in the clip from an interview with Kinzer, he proudly wears his “Cross and flame” badge to signify his identity as a Methodist. However, like Downey, he was not always a practicing Christian. He was not brought up in a religious household and was not religious during World War II. In fact, much like Downey, he had a drinking problem during his service and early life, a problem that he did not truly face until after the war when he got married. His wife was actually the guiding force that helped him find God as she attended church every Sunday and pushed him to come with her. Perhaps interpreting his wife’s beloved presence in his life as a blessing of God, Kinzer decided to practice religion for his own sake. At the behest of his wife, he was saved and baptized at a revival, clearly marking action on his part to improve himself. Kinzer overcame his drinking problem by finding God, and with that he abandoned the life without discipline or God that he had in the military.
¹ Kelly Denton-Borhaug, U.S. War-culture, Sacrifice, and Salvation (Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub., 2011), 129-130.
² Anne C. Loveland, American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), 1.
³ David Downey, interviewed by Eliana Paniagua, Kentucky Oral History Commission, June 10, 2016.