This Week in the Military: Duelling Moral Panic

Military Religious Freedom Foundation head Mikey Weinstein takes pains to remind fellow Americans that he’s a Republican. There’s no need. He sounds just like one, or anyway, like some talk-radio character who thinks the GOP went soft when Reagan’s promise to outlaw Russia turned out to be a joke. Granted, his targets are a little unusual. In his own words, the MRRF aims to protect the U.S. armed forces from “Premillenial, Dispensational, Reconstructionist Dominionist, Fundamentalist Evangelical Christians” who are working to reshape them in their own image.

Weinstein says that “96%” of the complaints his organization fields come from believers of some stripe or other, “including 21 different variety of Baptists alone” — not, in other words, from Richard Dawkins acolytes. Independent sources have corroborated some of his charges. In 2005, an investigative panel found that faculty and officers at the U.S. Air Force Academy had evangelized in “inappropriate” and “insensitive” ways. The number of chaplains from the various evangelical denominations has increased sharply over the years 1995-2005. It should be clear that Weinstein’s doing more here than reading tea leaves.

But Weinstein’s struggling to sell a demographic and tonal shift as the signs of an apocalypse. In an interview with Religion Dispatches, he warns that in any military environment, even the Air Force Academy, deviation from a norm, even a religious norm, “will get you killed.” Going on record with the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, he drops an H-bomb, that is, invokes the name of Hitler. After declaring that the Christians MRRF is “at war” with make up “a small subset of evangelical Christianity – about 12.6% of the American public,” he reminds readers, “Hitler never had more than eight percent of the German citizenry in the Nazi party.”

But it’s in joining the labels “evangelical” and “dominionist” that Weinstein really does his damage. In its current usage, “dominionism” is a slippery term. It can refer to the vision of R.J. Rushdoony, who advocated the adoption of Mosaic law, including capital punishment for homosexuality and adultery. Or it can refer to the position that the Founding Fathers meant America to be a Christian nation, and that Christians should organize and seek to re-gain political ascendancy within the existing system. Application of the term tends to tar members of the second group by association with members of the first. Jeremy Pierce judges this tarring a species of conspiracy theorizing and gives it a name of its own — Dominionismism.

The idea of Rushdoony disciples taking over our armed forces the way Alawis took over Syria’s is horrifying. But it doesn’t seem to be happening. Even in 2005, when the commander in chief was a devout Methodist and favorite of the religious right, evangelical chaplains were complaining about regulations that crimped their style. The Navy declined to extend the contract of a chaplain who warned, in a funeral homily, that “God’s wrath remains” upon those who die outside Jesus’ friendship. Two years ago, the Air Force Academy permitted Wiccan and Druid cadets, for the first time, to establish their own chapel. Since the repeal of DADT, a number of gay military weddings have taken place with a minimum of official hassle and a maximum of publicity. It may be that MRRF advocacy deserves some of the credit for this openness; but, taking Weinstein’s words at face value, it’s hard to get the impression that the barbarians are any farther from the gates than they were a few years ago.

Last week, President Obama met with Weinstein and other MRRF members to discuss the implementation of a policy called “Air Force Culture, Air Force Standards.” Adopted in 2012, it seeks to prevent military officers from promoting “personal religious beliefs to their subordinates” or extending “preferential treatment for any religion.” The very thought of Weinstein and Obama sharing a conference table drove the Family Resarch council to the barricades. Drafting a petition, it denounced the MRRF as a “far-left” and “anti-Christian,” and predicted its influence would see confessing Christians “prosecuted as enemies of the state.”

It fell to the Pentagon to play the voice of reason. On May 2, Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen assured the nation that the Defense Department would continue to make “reasonable accomodations for members of all religions.” Aggressive prosyletizing was out, but simple evangelizing remained in. The distinction between the two, and the penalties for misreading it, he said, would be left for the chain of command to determine on “a case-by-case basis.” In other words, the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment clauses were still engaged in the same old balancing act.

But Christensen’s comforting words came only after Breitbart and other news had brought fears of an anti-Christian purge almost to a boil. I should know — it was all over my Facebook news feed. If the Long Parliament was any more convinced of King Charles’ complicity with rebellious Irish Catholics, I wouldn’t want to live on the difference.

Sociologists use the term “moral panic” to describe the spreading, fearful conviction that some value is in imminent danger. From seeing Weinstein’s wild prophesying followed by the the FRC’s, we’re getting a good look at what happens when a group becomes the object of that panic: it panics right back. We’re left with moral panic à deux, which, funnily enough, doesn’t double anyone’s pleasure.

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Renunciations
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