Eitorial Column: Military Winks at Religious Intolerance

Anchorage Daily News

May 2, 2008 – Maybe the reason the misperception persists that there are no atheists in foxholes is that nonbelievers must either shut up about their views or be hounded out of the military.

Just ask Army Spc. Jeremy Hall, who is making a splash in the news because of the way his atheism was attacked by superiors and fellow soldiers while he was risking his life in service to his country.

Hall, 23, served two combat tours in Iraq, winning the Combat Action Badge. But he’s now stationed at Fort Riley, Kan., having been returned stateside early because the Army couldn’t ensure his safety.

There is something deeply amiss when we send soldiers on a mission to engender peaceful coexistence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, yet our military doesn’t seem able to offer religious tolerance to its own.

Hall recounts the events that led to his marginalization in a federal lawsuit he filed in Kansas in March. He is joined by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a group devoted to assisting members of the military who object to the pervasive and coercive Christian proselytizing in our armed forces.

Hall’s atheism became an issue soon after it became known. On Thanksgiving 2006 while stationed outside Tikrit, Hall politely declined to join in a Christian prayer before the holiday meal. The result was a dressing down by a staff sergeant who told him that as an atheist he needed to sit somewhere else.

In another episode, after Hall’s gun turret took a bullet that almost found an opening, the first thing a superior wanted to know was whether Hall believed in Jesus now, not whether he was OK.

Then, in July, while still in Iraq, Hall organized a meeting of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. According to Hall, after things began, Maj. Freddy Welborn disrupted the meeting with threats, saying he might bring charges against Hall for conduct detrimental to good order and discipline, and that Hall was disgracing the Constitution. (Errr, I think the major has that backward.) Welborn has denied the allegations, but The New York Times reports that another soldier at the meeting said that Hall’s account was accurate.

Hall claims that he was denied a promotion in part because he wouldn’t be able to “pray with his troops.” And of course he was returned from overseas due to physical threats from fellow soldiers and superiors. Things became so bad that he was assigned a full-time bodyguard.

This is nothing new to Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and a former Air Force judge advocate general who also served in the Reagan administration. Weinstein says that he has collected nearly 8,000 complaints, mostly from Christian members of the military tired of being force-fed a narrow brand of evangelical fundamentalism.

Weinstein, who co-wrote the book “With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military,” has documented how the ranks of our military have been infiltrated by members of the Officers’ Christian Fellowship and other similar organizations. On its Web site, the OCF makes no secret of its mission, which is to “raise up a godly military” by enlisting “ambassadors for Christ in uniform.”

Weinstein says OCF recruitment is easy in a strict command-subordinate military where the implied message is: If you don’t pray the right way, your career might stall.

Beyond the mincemeat being made of church-state separation and religious liberty, it seems particularly combustible for our armed forces to be combining “end-times” Christian theology with military might. That’s no way to placate Muslim populations around the world.

But there’s no will for change. The military’s virulent religious intolerance could be eradicated tomorrow with swift sanctions against transgressors. Instead, it’s winked at, and those caught proselytizing suffer no consequence. It appears that brave men like Hall who simply wish to follow the dictates of their own conscience will be needing bodyguards for a long time to come.

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