Bowe Bergdahl: Calvinist, Buddhist, Muslim seeker?

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While most of the DC Beltway journalists do that dance that they do (Will the vaguely legal Taliban prisoner swap hurt Democrats in 2014 elections?!), there are some interesting religion-beat questions hiding between the lines in the story of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

As a jumping-off point, consider the following rather bizarre passage in this New York Post report:

As a teen, the home-schooled son of Calvinists took up ballet — recruited to be a “lifter” by “a beautiful local girl,” Rolling Stone reported, “the guy who holds the girl aloft in a ballet sequence.” The strategy worked: Bergdahl — who also began dabbling in Budd­hism and tarot card reading — soon moved in with the woman.

A BBC explainer has some of that information, but with a few more specifics:

Sgt Bergdahl was born to the couple on 28 March 1986 in Idaho, where his father worked in construction. He and his younger sister, Sky, were home schooled by their devout Calvinist parents, instructed in religion and morality.

Sgt Bergdahl was taught to shoot a rifle and ride horses by age five, and reportedly grew interested in adventure tales.
At age 16, he became interested in fencing and ballet, and moved in with the family of a local girl studying dance who instructed him in Buddhism and Tarot.

It appears to me that these media sources were paraphrasing from some earlier document or story, which I have not been able to find yet. Note, for example, the difference — in the ballet, Buddhism and tarot card reference — between Bergdahl “moving in with the woman” and, at age 16, his move to live “with the family of a local girl.” A vague difference, but important from a moral perspective.

This is especially true in light of that “devout” attachment to the “Calvinist” label.

In my experience, Calvinists come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. You can have Anglican Calvinists and then you can have very different Southern Baptist Calvinists, etc., etc. Among Presbyterians, you can have liberal, ordinary, conservative and even truly “fundamentalist” Calvinists. Thus, saying that he was home schooled by “devout” Calvinists is surely supposed to be some kind of journalistic hint that his parents were ultra-conservative, but there is really no way to know with that tiny, random piece of information.

However, there are other stories that include quotes from a man identified as the family’s former pastor — the Rev. Philip Proctor. That reference leads to the Sovereign Redeemer Presbyterian church in Boise, which is part of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

The team at USA Today offered this information from Proctor:

Although raised in the Orthodox Presbyterian church, when he was in his late teens, Bergdahl spent time in a Buddhist monastery in the Pacific Northwest.

“He was going through an exploratory phase in life. He’d grown up in a conservative Christian home and he was trying to figure out if this was his faith or his parents’ faith,” said Proctor.

Bergdahl’s decision to join the military wasn’t a surprise to people who knew him. It came partly out of a desire “to better understand a different part of the world and to try to see for himself what was going on,” said Proctor. “That would be a very Bowe thing to do.”

This leads to the truly interesting religion angle in this story, which can be glimpse in fragments of information here and there. The basic question: During his captivity, did Bergdahl convert to Islam or did he merely pretend to convert in order, quite literally, to save his head? Note this 2010 material from The Daily Mail (taking us behind the firewall at The Sunday Times):

The 24-year-old has converted to Islam and now has the Muslim name Abdullah, one of his captors told The Sunday Times. A Taliban deputy district commander in Paktika, who called himself Haji Nadeem, told the newspaper that Bergdahl taught him how to dismantle a mobile phone and turn it into a remote control for a roadside bomb. …

‘Most of the skills he taught us we already knew,’ he said. ‘Some of my comrades think he’s pretending to be a Muslim to save himself so they wouldn’t behead him.’

This leads to another question: To what degree did the prisoner’s father either convert to Islam or pretend to convert to Islam, as part of his efforts to save his son? Robert Bergdahl’s Twitter feed has been a font of material for speculation, such as:

Lo and behold, this morning’s Religion News Service online newsletter pointed toward a Washington Post piece on Robert Bergdahl and answers quite a few of these questions and adds new information on the family. Once again, the key source of information — with the family silent — was a church/pastor connection.

So check this one out. Way better than the spotty early reports that pulled me into this subject.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Matt

    The OPC is on the conservative side of conservative Presbyterians, close to (if not in) the territory of fundamentalism. It is more hardcore than the mainstream conservatives in the PCA (my own denomination), to say nothing of the mainline PCUSA.

    This article (tops on Tmatt’s Google search) has a couple interesting quotes from the Bergdahls’ former OPC pastor, not only that he is unsurprised at Bowe’s mental toughness but also acknowledging that Bowe had an “exploratory phase” of his life in which he looked into Buddhism etc.

    The end of that article mentions that the senior Bergdahls now attend a different Presbyterian church. It’s in a different part of Idaho, so that by itself does not imply a shift in orientation. However, poking around that church’s website, it appears to be part of the PCUSA. Needless to say, Mr. Bergdahl’s seeming embrace of Islam would play much better in the PCUSA than in the OPC.

    • J_R2100

      Yes, but that doesn’t do much to explain the OPC Pastor who is going around and trying to convince conservative Christians that we are being too judgment toward Bob and Bowe. As a retired member from the Army, I am disgusted by this whole transaction and the many dimensions involved (most of which are NOT political at all).

  • Julia B
  • AuthenticBioethics

    Robert Bergdahl’s remarks at the White House include a bit of Arabic at the beginning, or at least it sounded like it rather than Pashto, spoken in Afghanistan, which he is reported to have learned. The USA Today article linked above believed it to be Pashto, but it sure sounded Arabic to me, not that I’m an expert. But, if it sounded Arabic but was Pashto, then it is conceivable that what Bergdahl said had religious significance since the religious language of Islam is Arabic regardless of the spoken language of the believer. It is noteworthy also that this occurred at the White House, with the President of the United States, our Commander in Chief, attending. The USA Today article mentioned the fact that Bergdahl spoke thus, but didn’t dig into what it might have meant.

    • Matt

      My understanding is that Bob Bergdahl spoke in Pashto but added a religious invocation in Arabic. I don’t see why it would be noteworthy that he did this in the presence of the President.

  • geoffrobinson

    I know of no theologically liberal Calvinists.

    • Matt

      The PCUSA derives from the Calvinist tradition and has a large contingent of liberals.

      • Christopher Little

        Who by definition and nature are no longer Calvinists.

        • Matt

          Well, if you are going to define the word “Calvinist” in a way that excludes theological liberals, then the original statement becomes meaningless.

  • elavaney .

    The Bergdahls commuted 150 miles to Boise to attend the OPC when Bowe was younger. Later they attended another OPC [the one that must have dissolved last year] in another small town about 100 miles in the other direction. I know this as my sister is a member of the OPC, and they called a church wide fast last June to mark the 4th anniversary of Bowe’s capture.

    As a devout Calvinist, I imagine that Bowe was taught the difference between a just and unjust war so that when we got to Afghanistan and saw what was going on, he realized it’s an incredibly unjust war. I think that’s why Bob praised Bowe for following his conscience, and doing what he felt he had to. It troubles me that Bob would utter that praise to Allah, but I also know that he has been studying Islam as I subscribe to his youtube channel where I get notified when he ‘likes’ a video. His ‘likes’ have all had to do with war and Islam.

    The other thing people need to comprehend is how remote the Bergdahl home is. I grew up in Hailey, and spent a fair amount of time going out the canyons that surrounded town, and where they are is literally in the middle of nowhere. About the only thing you’re going to find out there are snakes, deer, bears and other wildlife. The canyon they live up is where the Bear Creek fire was last summer. I have no idea if they were affected as they could be up an offshoot of the main canyon.

    • Matt

      Thanks for the info about where the Bergdahls live. So the PCUSA church they now attend is about 10x closer to their home than the OPC church in Boise. I wonder whether they changed churches primarily because of distance or theology, or perhaps a combination.

      • elavaney .

        I imagine that the drive got to be too much for them. I hope they are still holding to the full counsel of God, and would love to hear them praise God for His mercy to Bowe. I think Bowe’s safe return from the Taliban is a wonderful testimony to God’s protection of His people and their children. I’m reminded of what God told Israel in Isa 43:2-5 about going with them through the flood and the fire, and giving others lives for theirs. The only explanation as to why Bowe survived has to be God’s grace and mercy to him.

        • elavaney .

          There’s a new video on youtube on Bob Bergdahl by the Guardian that you might enjoy. I just joined so I don’t know if I can add a link. Search ‘Bowe Bergdahl’s father Bob …I’m just a father who wants his son home.’ It was filmed last winter at their home outside of Hailey. You can see the remoteness of it, and what a primative lifestyle they have. He doesn’t mention his faith which is too bad, but it could have been edited out as well.

    • J_R2100

      Seems like we’re ALL speculating and that’s all we can do with the bits and pieces of evidence. I’m not buying the have sympathy for Bob Bergdahl line of reasoning at this point, because he is an accommodation-ist, if not an outright convert to Islam. There is not one trace of his Christian faith on twitter or youtube. He may have been a member of the OPC at one time, but to automatically assume at this point that he is a brother defies Bob Bergdahl’s public actions — and that is a very IMPORTANT thing.

      Private talks do not matter to me when there are missionaries in Muslim countries who are not hiding their Christian faith and giving praise to Allah because they know that to do so is to deny Christ.

      Am I sorry that their son was taken captive and happy that they will be able to have him returned? Yes. But all this other nonsense about their private faith, his faith, etc… is irrelevant. You say you have faith, James say where are your deeds?

      • J_R2100

        James 2 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:18-24 ESV)

  • Jane Dunn

    “The basic question: During his captivity, did Bergdahl convert to Islam or did he merely pretend to convert in order, quite literally, to save his head?”

    – You cite a 2010 Daily Mail article quoting one of Bergdahl’s captors. Did it not occur to you that, as a third viable possibility, his captor was just lying?


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