The topic of today’s installment of Theocracy Watch is a lengthy one, and I don’t know if I can do full justice to it, but I will try. I’ve written in the past about how Christian fundamentalists disturbingly portray themselves and their mission in the language of war and violence, but this is a far worse and more ominous story: Christian fundamentalists who have infiltrated the U.S. military itself and are openly using its power and command structure to advance their noxious goals.
This evolving story has been most closely tracked by Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who was interviewed on Freethought Radio just last week. Weinstein, a retired Air Force attorney and former federal prosecutor, has been tireless and fearless in investigating just how deeply a virulent strain of militant, apocalyptic Christianity has insinuated itself into the highest levels of the military’s chain of command.
There have been outbreaks of this fanaticism in the past, such as last year when Lt. Gen. William Boykin said that the war against Islamic extremism was a war against Satan (and received only a slap on the wrist); but the pace of events has been accelerating. Some of the more shocking violations of the First Amendment cited by Weinstein and the MRFF include:
- High-level Pentagon officers appearing, in uniform, in a promotional video for an evangelical group called “Christian Embassy“, and giving that group extensive free access to the Pentagon itself to film propaganda videos on-site.
- The Pentagon chaplain’s office cooperating with a fundamentalist ministry, “Operation Straight Up“, which planned on sending a package of Christian evangelism material to U.S. soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. This package would have included Christian tracts printed in both English and Arabic, as well as a copy of the Christian fundamentalist Left Behind: Eternal Forces video game, the goal of which is to kill any nonbeliever who will not be converted. This same group, with Defense Department permission, was booked on USO tours not as a religious group, but as “entertainment”. (Both these plans were shelved after public exposure and criticism.)
- An evangelical group, “Hope Ministries”, being invited by commanders to proselytize in the very center of the Pentagon itself, holding an open-air revival meeting in the building’s central courtyard during daylight hours for two straight days. Needless to say, this is not a public forum and no other group has ever been granted such unprecedented access for such a purpose. Other Christian groups have staged explicitly religious events in the Pentagon’s auditorium and executive dining room. Hope Ministries was later invited back to the Pentagon, and the U.S. Army itself produced a DVD of the event which the group distributed as an advertising tool.
- Allegations that members of the Air Force, Navy and Special Forces have been given survival training that includes lessons on the “correct type of faith” to have if captured by the enemy.
- The Air Force distributing (and later withdrawing, after being found out) a code of ethics to military chaplains that endorse proselytizing directed at servicemembers who do not belong to a religion. As cited in a lawsuit by Weinstein, this policy was supported by the Air Force deputy chief of chaplains, Cecil R. Richardson, who said that military chaplains “reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched“.
- Extensive, vicious prejudice and bigotry directed against non-Christian cadets and enlisted men. Some of the most egregious incidents have targeted Jewish and atheist servicemembers, but they are not the only targets; as many as three-quarters of the MRFF’s 6,000 members are Christian believers themselves, members of mainstream churches who have experienced pervasive retaliation and discrimination for holding the “wrong kind” of Christianity.
- Allegations that commanders in Iraq have deliberately sent soldiers to patrol areas of the country that are known to be more dangerous because they were not the “right kind” of evangelical Christians. According to Weinstein, commanders have said they cannot be held responsible for “any grievous deaths or injuries that might occur” to soldiers who did not believe in Jesus.
This “weaponized gospel of Jesus Christ”, as Weinstein describes it, is one of the most frightening and malignant examples of the dangers of faith. Although the religious right is in disarray on a national level, they still seem to have an enclave within the military and have been aggressively exploiting that access to push their sectarian agenda. Unlike other forums where religious evangelists can speak their minds and no more, high-ranking officers in the military wield an enormous amount of power over the lives of lower-ranking servicemembers, and can all too easily force them to take part in religious activities or retaliate against those who speak out against such abuses.
This cancerous fundamentalism needs to be excised from the military, and it needs to be done swiftly. The only role of a member of the military is to defend the United States against all enemies, and that means defending all citizens equally, regardless of their religion or lack thereof. Any servicemember who treats his job as a platform for proselytizing has violated that trust and should be demoted or, better, expelled. Unless our republic awakens to the scale of the problem and takes steps to confront it, I fear the results when increasingly fanatical and embittered Christian extremists think to use our armed forces as a tool in service to their beliefs. At a time when the United States is threatened by religious terrorists worldwide, we need to confront that problem guided by cool reason. The last thing we need is an equally feverish and apocalyptic set of religious beliefs guiding our own reaction.