Bowe Bergdahl: Calvinist, Buddhist, Muslim seeker?

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.

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