Evangelicals are taking over the US military, reports David Belden. And one man’s determined to stop them
January 2008 – If you heard it said that America’s military was being taken over by agents of apocalyptic Christianity, you might think it the fiction of some leftwing alarmist. But what if it came from a man who said, “I never thought, coming from a conservative military Republican family filled with [US Air Force] Academy graduates and people that have been in so much combat, that at this point in my life, after being a White House lawyer, a lawyer for a Texas billionaire, a businessman, that I’d suddenly become this political activist”?
Meet Mikey Weinstein, who has become the leading whistleblower and campaigner against the influence of fundamentalist evangelicals in the US military. Listening to him is a strange experience. He is the most combative speaker I have ever heard in public life. His language is so extreme that I hesitate to reproduce it lest readers discount his views. “When I see anti-Semitism, I don’t fucking care if I live or die, someone’s going to get a fucking beating,” he says in one of his milder moments. But the man himself is convincing, both in person and in his book With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military. If he is right … well, more on that later. First, hear his voice:
“We are facing a national security threat in this country that is every bit as significant in magnitude, width and breadth internally as that presented externally by the now-resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda. And it is the destruction of the US constitutionally mandated wall separating metaphysical and physical, spiritual and non-spiritual, church and state, in the technologically most lethal organisation every created by humankind, which is our honourable and noble military. I’m here to report to you today that that wall is nothing but smoke and debris. We are facing an absolute fundamentalist Christianisation – a Talibanisation – of the US Marine Corps, Army, Navy, and Air Force.”
Weinstein was shocked into action in 2003 by his son’s warning that the next time one of his fellow cadets at the Air Force Academy called him “a fucking Jew” he might hit him and lose his military career. Weinstein was transported back to an event he had never told his family about, when, as a student at the Academy decades before, he was severely beaten up by anti-Semites. He thought things had improved but was shocked to learn that the atmosphere was now worse, in that numerous officers were pressuring cadets to convert – not just Jews or sceptics, but Christians who were not “saved” in the right way. His complaints led to an official investigation, which according to the New York Times “found no overt discrimination, but it did find that officers and faculty members periodically used their positions to promote their Christian beliefs”. The Times quoted Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, the Air Force deputy chief of chaplains, saying, “We will not proselytise, but we reserve the right to evangelise the unchurched.” Weinstein’s unofficial investigation found widespread abuse of the constitutional separation of church and state throughout the military. In 2005 he filed a lawsuit against the military. In Weinstein’s words,
“… we lasted for 55 weeks before the judge dismissed us without prejudice on a legal technicality, and we’re very close to going back in again with nuclear-tipped missiles to lay down that withering field of fire and leave sucking chest wounds to protect the right of members of our US Military from not being forced to accept a particular religious faith over all others.”
Weinstein founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which employs the equivalent of 25 staff (and another 30 volunteers) to field complaints of religious harassment from military personnel (they have received over 6,000, 95 per cent of them from Christians), conduct research, apply pressure and pursue court cases. The MRFF’s research focuses on any official, and therefore unconstitutional, military support for evangelising. His greatest concern is with the Dominionist wing of the Religious Right, who aim to end the separation of church and state and establish a Christian nation. The most effective Dominionist organisations are those under the aegis of the Campus Crusade for Christ, including, Weinstein says,
“a group called the Officers Christian Fellowship, and for the enlisted folks, the Christian Military Fellowship. These groups have a goal they believe is much more important than the oath they all swore: to protect, defend, support and serve the constitution of the United States. It’s a tripartite goal and they are unabashed and unapologetic about it. It’s right on their web site. Goal number one: they want to see a spiritually transformed US military. Goal number two: with ambassadors for Christ in uniform. Let me say that one again, and think back over history. That hasn’t worked out too well in the last 2,000 years. Ambassadors for Christ in uniform. At least they didn’t have nuclear weapons and laser-guided weapons before. Third, empowered by the Holy Spirit. They work assiduously up and down the chain of command, using, in fact, the draconian spectre of command influence to push this weaponised Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s very digital, one and zero. Either you accept our view, or either we or our version of Jesus will have to kill you, and our version of Jesus will light you up on fire for Eternity, so you’re really gonna be dead.”
Weinstein says that these groups exist on every one of the almost 1,000 US military bases around the globe. He has said his inside military sources indicate 30 per cent of the US military are now fundamentalist Christians. He guesses the Dominionists in the military reflect the national figure of 12 per cent of the population.
This year his “withering field of fire” recorded its first real successes, one of which was reported by Time magazine on 3 August: “Mikey Weinstein is a very specific kind of gadfly. When he believes that church and state are intermingling in the military, he goes in with a sting. On Friday, he hit a bull’s-eye when the Inspector General’s office of the Department of Defense released a report concluding that a former Pentagon chaplain and several generals inappropriately loaned the prestige of their positions – and that of the Pentagon and the US government – to make a fundraising film for a non-governmental evangelical group, the so-called Christian Embassy. The report identified Christian Embassy as affiliated with the group Campus Crusade for Christ.”
The film was made over several months inside the Pentagon, with generals in uniform pushing its message. This summer Weinstein also discovered that the Department of Defence and the Pentagon Chaplain’s Office planned on sending Christian evangelising materials in English and Arabic to US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the apocalyptic video game Left Behind, in which you offer the enemy Christian conversion or death. After Weinstein threatened to sue, the military backed off. But that programme, “Operation Straight Up”, is still planning a “military crusade” in those two countries (that is, a planned evangelising tour).
In September, Weinstein finally found the case he needed. Jeremy Hall, a soldier in Iraq, alleges that a major threatened to block his reenlistment in the Army in retaliation for organising a meeting of atheists. Weinstein sued Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the major. The army brought Hall home from Iraq because they couldn’t protect him from death threats from fundamentalists – Christian ones, not Muslims. Weinstein receives frequent death threats, and has had the windows of his house shot out repeatedly. He promises more lawsuits will follow.
How true is all this? The New York Times, the supposedly liberal paper of record, has not mentioned Weinstein’s name once in 2007. There have been relatively few reports in the other mainstream press, at least compared to the scale of the problem. Even the British press has missed the story, a surprise to Weinstein, who points out that Saddam Hussein had no WMD but the US Department of Defence, which he says has become a “crypto fascist faith-based initiative,” does have WMD, and on British soil. Dan Rather, the veteran news anchor, has done a supportive program on cable. Mother Jones, the left-leaning magazine, has done excellent pieces. Spend a couple of hours Googling the issue and you will be left in no doubt that evangelicals are vigorously proselytising in the military, many officers are participating, violations of church/state separation have been uncovered and if Weinstein survives more will be.
But how powerful and dangerous are these evangelicals, really? Are they all Dominionist? How many of them would really, as alleged by Weinstein, like to see the US bomb Iran in order to hasten Armageddon? How many would be horrified at such an idea and instead are well-intentioned individuals who are using the only idioms they know for building morale and “character” in the military?
Weinstein says that the problem goes back to the ending of the draft in 1972, after which the military became less representative of the entire population and more of what is now called “red state” or rural and small-town America. But he also mentions the admission of women to the Academy, which took place in 1976, and the eventual inability of the school to create a respectful atmosphere for women. In 2003 a huge sexual abuse scandal broke, when dozens of women cadets at the Academy said they had been reprimanded or ostracised when they reported being raped. This echoed a scandal in the Navy from twelve years earlier, at the infamous Tailhook Convention, when women were subject to a culture of abuse. Weinstein mentions that the evangelicals began to get traction in the Academy because they claimed to know how to train young men to respect women and practise chastity. Was the American military so floored by feminism that it did not know how to train its young men to accept women as equals, and so fell back upon the heartland pastors who claimed they knew how to create chaste Christian soldiers?
In the decade after the mid-1990s, as reported in the New York Times, the numbers of evangelical pastors in the military greatly expanded, while those from Catholic and mainstream Protestant denominations declined. As the Times wrote, this may not have been military policy so much as a reflection of shifting religious vocations, the decline of the Catholic priesthood, the distaste of liberal ministers for the warrior’s life, and the enthusiastic zeal of evangelicals for conversions. At any rate, the sex abuse scandals, let alone the spectre of admitting out gays, must have indicated to the military brass that “character building” was now problematic. There was a vacuum and it was the evangelicals who filled it. Mother Jones recently reported that evangelical singer Eric Horner, whose stated goal is to “introduce the lost to Christ … in every worship service or concert presentation we do”, has been lauded by top military commanders such as General David Petraeus and paid to perform at military events attended by thousands of troops. (Some officers dub the shows “combat multipliers” for their ability to boost morale, Horner says.)
Morale is the great necessity in the military. But when I ask Mikey Weinstein about the vacuum that the evangelicals filled, and what he would have put in its place, the non-stop talker is at a loss for words.
Liberals could no doubt have developed a character-building curriculum, a humanist, pluralist, modern approach to respecting each individual. Those European armies that have integrated women and gays into combat units have presumably done so. The US military itself once stepped out ahead of the US as a whole to integrate African Americans. But humanists and liberals seem to have given up on the military. Mikey Weinstein says that in a thousand interviews no one else has asked him these questions about the vacuum that the evangelicals moved in to fill.
Instead of vilifying and excessively fearing the evangelicals, surely we need to understand their fears, their desire to equip young soldiers with values, and find better ways to do so that respect everyone’s beliefs, gender, sexual choice and race, and that also abide by the Constitution. Once Weinstein wins his lawsuits, which we have to hope he does, who is going to train young soldiers in values?