From E Pluribus Unum To Gott Mit Uns: Religious Proselytization In The US Armed Forces

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    Lost amid the wall-to-wall coverage of the shooting horror in Newtown, Conn. last week was a little remarked upon story coming out of the U.S. military academy at West Point that deserves much broader coverage than it initially received. As reported in the Huffington Post in early December, a West Point cadet by the name of Blake Page quit the academy six months from his graduation and subsequent commissioning as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. What prompted his decision to remove himself from this elite institution and potentially having to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Army in compensation for the education he received? One word: religion.

    According to Page, non-religious students such as himself were subject to “unconstitutional proselytism, discrimination against the non-religious, and the establishment of formal policies to reward, encourage and even at times require sectarian religious participation,” that is heavily biased toward fundamentalist, Evangelical Protestantism. Again, according to Page, secular students were long denied the right to form a formal club recognized by the military academy, were denied leave passes that were given out for attending religious services, were mocked as “heathens” by staff and students alike and were generally treated as second-class cadets not slated for leadership positions.

    At first blush, complaints about religious overzealousness at a place like West Point might seem like sour grapes by individuals not prepared for the rigors of military training. These institutions, after all, are not your typical undergraduate colleges, and they place heavy emphasis on tradition and obedience to authority. It could be that Page and those like him are square pegs being forced into round holes – and thus weren’t meant to wear cadet grey to begin with. Maybe, religious discrimination at West Point, or the other service academies, isn’t quite as bad as malcontents, like Page, make it out to be.

    Unfortunately, fundamentalist proselytization of the type described by Page is more widespread in the U.S. armed forces than many in the ranks would care to admit. Eight years previous and a half-continent away from West Point at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., for instance, a Jewish academy graduate – who served 10 years in uniform as a judge advocate before moving on to serve in the Reagan administration – found that his kids, who followed in his footsteps, encountered not just widespread Evangelical proselytizing, but open religious bigotry and anti-Semitism, too.

    According to Michael Weinstein, who founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation in response to what he found at the Air Force Academy in 2004, his children encountered a radically different religious environment at the academy than the one he encountered decades earlier. They reported that cadets were widely pressured to attend the film “The Passion of the Christ” by academy staff and that the academy had been inundated with fundamentalist propaganda. His children reported that “flyers are put on plates, in the academic buildings the walls are covered with these posters exhorting us with this stuff.” Later, one son reported to Weinstein he was called “a fucking Jew” who was responsible for the death of Christ by members of his chain of command.


    An investigation

    In all, Weinstein said he discovered what an Air Force investigation subsequently confirmed – that Air Force Academy officers and staff had used their position to promote a particular version of fundamentalist Christianity among the cadet student body.

    According to the investigation’s findings, inappropriate incidents included the distribution of fliers for a screening of the film “The Passion of the Christ” at the academy dining hall; the signing by more than 250 people at the academy of an annual Christmas message in the base newspaper that said, “Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world”; and, like Blake Page’s experience at West Point eight years later, the forbidding of a formation of a “Freethinkers” club for academy cadets despite the fact that overtly religious groups were permitted and had even sponsored on-campus speakers from nearby fundamentalist organizations also based in Colorado Springs.

    In another incident, an academy chaplain urged cadets at his worship service to tell non-believers that they would “burn in hell,” while in another the academy’s football coach hung “Team Jesus” banners in the locker room and led impromptu prayer sessions with players.

    While the Air Force investigation found cause for concern, it is clear that the issue of inappropriate religiosity at the Air Force academy remains unresolved. A chaplain at the academy in 2005, Captain Melinda Morton – a Lutheran – was removed from her position after protesting to Air Force brass that Evangelical fundamentalists were “trying to subvert the system” by trying to win converts and gain influence among the cadets – broadly confirming both the subsequent Air Force report and Weinstein’s claims of growing religious intolerance.

    More recently, a group of Evangelical chaplains have chafed under Air Force restrictions put in place since 2005 to reduce religious proselytization by authority figures at the academy, while secularists continue to argue the institution is still rife with religious indoctrination.


    The military is the United States

    The reason this is important is the fact that the military is not merely another part of government like the Post Office or the Census Bureau. The military and the rest of the U.S. security establishment ultimately IS the state, which by definition is a political entity with a legal monopoly on the use of force within its borders. A state without a military is, ultimately, not a state at all, and the U.S. military – charged with protecting the American state and ensuring its writ is enforced – is the most powerful and important part of the federal government. The military is the raison d’être of the government and the government, in turn, is the raison d’être of the military – they coexist not just in tandem, but in symbiosis – dependent upon one another in the same way the parts of the human body are mutually dependent on one another. If one is sick, in other words, so, too, is the other.

    So, it stands to reason that undue influence at our nation’s premier military training establishments of fundamentalist Christianity might, in turn, reflect the military more broadly – which could have grave consequences both at home and abroad. There is, to date, some evidence to support this.

    Take, for instance, the unprecedented growth in the numbers of Evangelical fundamentalists serving in the military chaplaincy corps. According to a report issued in 2010 by the Institute for Science and Human Values, since the Vietnam War, more moderate Mainline Protestant churches became less enamored with military service while Catholic priests serving as military chaplains became fewer in number as the number of active American Catholic clergy members declined nationally. These developments, in turn, created an opening in the corps of military chaplains that was increasingly filled by white Evangelical Protestants – whose congregations and churches supported the Vietnam War and, more broadly, U.S. militarism abroad.


    Fundamentalist Protestantism

    Today, the chaplaincy is overwhelming stocked with fundamentalist Protestants far in excess of what one would find in the civilian church-going population or even among the troops themselves. This is because the trends that began in Vietnam have not only continued, but have strengthened.

    Pro-war chaplains who openly embraced U.S. conflicts abroad, for instance, tend to get promoted more often than those who are more ambivalent about the morality of military conflict. Furthermore, the end of military conscription and the introduction of the all-volunteer force at the end of the Vietnam War tended to draw recruits, for both enlisted and officer ranks, from the Evangelical population – particularly in the American South.

    The result has been a literal religious revolution in the U.S. armed forces. Whereas there were no Evangelical chaplains in the armed forces at the end of World War II, today they represent two-thirds of the chaplains that serve our troops today.  Thus, from top to bottom, the military is far more infused with fundamentalist Protestantism than it used to be even a few decades ago.


    The instances continue

    Other examples of the growth of Evangelical influence abound.

    In 2006, for instance, secularists asked the military to investigate the making of an Evangelical promotional video inside the Pentagon itself which reputedly featured officers from every branch of the military in uniform.

    In another, fundamentalist preachers on the Christian right, like Franklin Graham – son of evangelist Billy Graham and who has called Islam a “wicked religion” and publically stated that the current commander in chief is a “son of Islam” – have for the last decade been repeatedly invited to the Pentagon, only to be disinvited after being pressured by secularist watchdogs.

    In the most recent instance of this, Pentagon brass invited and then disinvited Raymond Giunta, the co-founder of We Care Ministries and a known embezzler and fraudster, to speak at a Pentagon prayer breakfast this past November.

    While disquieting for secularists, the question remains – has this had an impact on policy?

    Well, at least one major conservative critic of America’s increasingly militarized foreign policy suspects the tight association between American Christianity and American foreign policy this past decade has certainly helped facilitate our nation’s slide into imperialism abroad. Furthermore, fundamentalist Christians are a critical component of the conservative movement; and while the party most pushing militant intervention into the Muslim world has also taken on more and more aspects of a faith than a political party of late, the real danger of fundamentalism in the ranks is the degree to which it can subvert strategy and foreign policy from within.

    While there is no evidence to suggest this has occurred overtly, the story of former Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin is not comforting.


    The story of Boykin

    Boykin, a right wing Christian fundamentalist, had a storied career in the U.S. armed forces. In 1969, he was slated to become one of the original members of what would become the Army’s top-secret Delta Force. Successful there, Boykin rose through the intelligence and special operations ranks to eventually become the mission commander of the U.S. foray into Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993.

    During that ill-fated mission, he was reported to have said that he saw an “evil” presence over the city as his troops fought militiamen commanded by the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. After Mogadishu, Boykin rose even further in the special operations establishment to become deputy under-secretary of defense for intelligence in 2003.

    In 2007, Boykin retired from the military after causing a significant stir in the press when comments he made that disparaged Islam and which equated the War on Terror “to a battle against Satan” came to light.

    Since retirement, Boykin has been cited as saying that the gravest threat faced by the United States is Islam and that there is a wide ranging spiritual battle between the forces of good and evil that goes “beyond the War on Terror.” Boykin, who was named an executive vice president of the Family Research Council early in 2012, has been embraced by the conservative far right. He has, for instance, appeared on the Glenn Beck program where he recently derided Grover Norquist – yes, THAT Grover Norquist – as a “fifth column” agent for the Muslim Brotherhood due to the fact that Norquist’s wife is an Arab Muslim.

    It is, of course, insane – but for people who believe the Bible is the literal word of God, nothing is apparently too farfetched to be beyond the realm of possibility.

    Boykin’s post-military adventures, however, range further than cushy gigs at fundamentalist think tanks and appearances on the Glenn Beck Comedy Hour – and here we come full circle.

    The good general was slated to speak at West Point’s National Prayer Breakfast this past February until liberal groups and secular watchdogs cried foul, forcing, once again, the military to rescind a speaking invitation to yet another member of the fundamentalist far right. Such an invitation for an audience, however, was not rescinded by former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney who, in early August, met with Boykin at the height of the race for the White House. No one knows what was said, but given that Boykin has stated that First Amendment protections should not be extended to Muslims, that mosques should not be built in the U.S. because they are extensions of a global, anti-American Jihad and Boykin himself has been allegedly tied to the U.S. use of torture and assassination squads, one can guess the topic of conversation was not about sunshine, rainbows and goodwill among men.

    So, we have at least one high-ranking member of the armed forces who played a critical, commanding role in U.S. intelligence and special operations forces espousing beliefs that are both crazy and 100 percent anti-democratic and blatantly unconstitutional. This former general officer who was at one time in charge of the Delta Force, the Navy Seals and other such forces not only believes a significant portion of the American public cannot be trusted on religious grounds, but that they should be denied rights and protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

    This is, in a word, a betrayal of his oath to protect and defend the Constitution that he took upon enlisting in the armed forces and is arguably treason. For a secular, democratic republic this is unacceptable – and the Bush administration was right to get rid of him. But it begs the question: If there was one Boykin, are there more? Given the religious revolution that has taken place in our armed forces over the past few decades, I wouldn’t bet against it.

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    • Stev84

      Boykin is also the Vice President of the anti-gay Family Research Council

    • Ben

      Blake Page did not quit because of religion, and I’m sick of hearing this. Cadet Page did not pass his commissioning physical. This is published knowledge and not a secret. Once the academy told him this and that he wouldn’t have to pay them back, he then decided to take this “brave” stance regarding religion. Courageous, he ain’t.

    • Rob Major

      Religious “Protelization”? Really? Don’t you have spell check? Maybe it’s just me, but I think it detracts from the credibility of this article for it to have a typo like this in the title — makes it look like an easily dismissible rant from some ignorant crank on the internet, when it obviously is not. It is especially unfortunate in this case. The issue of aggressive religious proselytization in the U.S. armed forces by right wing evangelical fanatics is an extremely important issue, and its treatment deserves better than this. Time to have a serious chat with the website copy-editors!

      As for the content, you have barely scratched the surface, and I hope you decide to dig much deeper into it and report what you find. The MRFF has documented numerous egregious examples of this type of unconstitutional behavior within the U.S. military chain of command, but which are not mentioned here — everything from the scandal of the “Jesus Rifles” to the real reason for the burnings by American servicemen of numerous copies of the Quran in Afghanistan. The recent tragic death of a Seal in an operation to rescue some nitwit Christian evangelist in Afghanistan is yet another example of this insanity.

      It is as if the Dark Ages are returning. The religious fanatics in the U.S. military are doing everything they can to turn the war in Afghanistan into a U.S. sponsored Christian crusade against Islam. If it were not for Mikey Weinstein, Chris Rodda, and the tireless crew at the MRFF, I suspect that “Gott Mit Uns” (God With Us) would be the official motto of the Air Force Academy, if not of the entire U.S. armed forces, by now. Thanks for helping bring their important work some of the recognition it deserves.

    • DG

      Do you have a cite on “pro-war” chaplains being promoted more frequently? Chaplain promotion always seemed pretty mechanistic to meet.