News Analysis: Will Current Proselytizing in Military Continue Under President Obama?

The Public Record

December 27, 2008 – President-Elect Barack Obama’s decision to have the evangelical megachurch leader Rick Warren conduct the invocation at next month’s presidential inauguration proves that fundamentalist Christians still wield enormous power within the federal government and will likely continue to be a dominating force under an Obama administration.

Nowhere is this  more apparent than in the U.S. military where, for the past several years, in apparent violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, chaplains have openly proselytized to thousands of active-duty soldiers and, in some cases, have tried to convert Iraqis and Afghans to Christianity.

The U.S. Military is barred from enacting or supporting policies that advance, promote or endorse religion. Prayer  sessions in the military “must have a secular purpose; the primary effect  of the prayer must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and  finally, the prayer must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion,” according to a 2003 U.S 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that struck down meal-time prayer at the Virginia Military Institute as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.  

But, now that Obama has decided to keep Robert Gates on as Secretary of Defense—and he’s embraced Warren—it is virtually guaranteed that fundamentalist Christianity will continue to permeate throughout the military just as it has during George W. Bush’s eight years in office.

Despite being named in several lawsuits filed against the Pentagon for allowing military chaplains to proselytize to soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the numerous letters he has received  from civil rights organizations and government watchdog groups since he was tapped as Defense Secretary two years ago, letters demanding that he launch investigations into widespread proselytizing, Gates has failed  to issue a response of any kind to these groups and has refused to take steps to address the matter. Meanwhile, soldiers continue to have fundamentalist Christianity shoved down their throats.

Of the nearly 11,000 soldiers that have lodged complaints about proselytizing with just one of the various government watchdog groups, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, reports that about 96 percent have identified themselves as Christian, however, there are numerous cases in which atheist and Jewish soldiers have said they were subjected to  Christian prayer sessions and proselytizing by chaplains despite their objections.

One recent example of proselytizing began last June, when two Army chaplains and one Air Force chaplain led mandatory Christian prayer sessions and Bible study as part of daily shift change briefings in  the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC), Iraq. The 3rd ESC works 12-hour shifts, meaning mandatory Christian worship and ritual, occurred at least twice a day.

A non-commissioned officer, who identified himself as an atheist, objected to the denominational prayers. He was told by one of the chaplains, Lt. Col. Chaplain Harrison, that he could be “excused” from the Christian prayer sessions and the chaplain advised the non-commissioned officer that his goal was to turn soldiers into “his congregation.”

The chaplain’s remark led the non-commissioned officer to write to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin-based watchdog group. In an e-mail to the organization, the  non-commissioned officer wrote that he was not seeking help out of  “self-interest.”

“I’m doing this because, as a non-commissioned officer, part of my job is to look out for the interests of soldiers of lesser rank than me,” the officer wrote. “This is not a Christian-exclusive club, but a group of highly diverse individuals with varying religious beliefs.”

In 2006, the Air Force adopted new religion guidelines, in the aftermath of a proselytizing scandal at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, that said the Air Force will “remain officially neutral regarding religious beliefs, neither officially endorsing nor disapproving any faith belief or absence of  belief.”

Those guidelines specifically state that prayer cannot “usually be a part of routine official business.”

Yet, according to  a non-commissioned officer, one of the Christian prayer sessions led by the Air Force and Army chaplains included the verse, “Lord Jesus, give us  the strength to trust in your will. Help us live this day according to your Holy word.”

Rebecca Kratz, a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said, in an interview, that the non-commissioned officer’s name was being withheld for fear of retribution.

Kratz sent a four-page legal brief to Gates on Nov. 5, stating that the  non-commissioned officer informed her organization that Lt. Colonel Harrison also told the non-commissioned officer that he was not forced to enlist in the U.S. Army and that he should just accept the fact that Christian prayer sessions will be conducted on a routine basis for the 3rd  ESC.

“Our complainant informs us that [chaplains] continually read verses from the Bible, particularly Psalms and Proverbs, which are followed by a prayer,” Kratz’s legal brief says. It also called on Gates to launch a probe into the matter. “On Sundays’ shift change  briefings, our complainant informs us the prayer and Bible readings are  similar to a whole sermon.

“The current practice of offering official chaplain-led prayers during mandatory nonreligious shift change  briefings violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The chaplains’ actions during these routine staff meetings effectively send the message that the U.S. military endorses religion,” specifically  favoring “Christianity over other religious faiths. In addition, holding Bible readings and prayers during mandatory briefings unlawfully compels religious and nonreligious personnel to participate in religious  exercises.”

Gates has not responded to Kratz’s letter. A Pentagon spokesman said last week he could not comment because he was unfamiliar with the matter and was unaware whether Gates or the Pentagon’s legal  counsel had received Kratz’s letter. Attempts to reach the chaplains who led the mandatory Christian prayer sessions were  unsuccessful.

Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the  Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), has written to the Secretary of Defense and his most senior staff at least half-a-dozen times since Gates was tapped as Secretary of Defense, November of 2006. Recently, MRFF and Army Spc. Dustin Chalker sued Gates and others, claiming the Army has subjected soldiers to fundamentalist Christian prayer ceremonies against their will, during mandatory military events.

On at least three  occasions, beginning in December 2007, Chalker alleges he was directed to attend military events, one of which was a barbecue, where an Army battalion chaplain led a Christian prayer ceremony for military personnel. Chalker, who said he is an atheist, asked his superiors for permission to leave the prayer sessions, and on each occasion, his request to be excused was denied, according to the lawsuit.

Despite Chalker’s objections to being ordered to attend fundamentalist Christian prayer sessions, his Army superiors continued, forcing him to attend other military  events where the prayer ceremonies continued.

“This federal litigation by MRFF is actually far more expansive,” Weinstein said. “The central theme of the MRFF-Chalker lawsuit is to once and for all expose a pervasive and pernicious ‘pattern and practice’ of essentially unconstitutional rape of the religious liberties of our United States armed forces personnel, stationed at nearly a thousand military installations, in 132 countries around the world.”

Two weeks ago, MRFF exposed the Pentagon’s involvement in the production of two cable programs, one of which featured two so-called “extreme” missionaries embedded with a U.S. Army unit in Afghanistan trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

The popular reality series, “Travel the Road,” aired on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, featuring  Will Decker and Tim Scott, the two so-called “extreme” missionaries who  travel the globe to “preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth and  encourage the church to be active in the Great Commission.”

The other cable program, green-lit by the Pentagon, was “God’s Soldier,” which aired in September on the Military Channel and was filmed at Forward Operating Base McHenry in Hawijah, Iraq. It featured an Army chaplain openly promoting fundamentalist Christianity to active-duty U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Weinstein, the author of With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military, and a former White House attorney under Ronald Reagan, general counsel for H. Ross  Perot, and an Air Force Judge Advocate (JAG), has exposed scores of cases in which the Department of Defense has promoted and sanctioned fundamentalist Christian proselytizing among U.S. soldiers in violation of  the U.S. Constitution, its subsequently established federal case law and  military regulations. Weinstein is a 1977 honor graduate of the Academy. His sons and a daughter-in-law are also Academy graduates.

The most egregious case of the Pentagon’s close ties with Christian fundamentalist groups was formally investigated by the Pentagon’s inspector general, as a result of a highly publicized complaint lodged by Weinstein’s group in 2006: High-ranking Defense Department military and civilian officials appeared in a video promoting the fundamentalist organization Christian Embassy. The military officials were in uniform, inside the Pentagon, during duty hours, in this evangelical promotional video.

In a 45-page inspector general report, Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack Catton, Army Brig. Gen. Bob Caslen, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, Maj. Gen. Peter Sutton, and a colonel and lieutenant colonel whose names were redacted were all found to have “improperly endorsed and participated with a non-Federal entity while in uniform.”

Caslen was formerly the deputy director for political-military affairs for the war on terrorism, directorate for strategic plans and policy, joint staff. Following this  report, he was initially reassigned to the prestigious position of West Point Commandant of Cadets, overseeing 4,200 cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point. Currently, he commands the  famous 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks in Honolulu. Caslen told DOD investigators he agreed to appear in the video upon learning other senior Pentagon officials had been interviewed for the promotional video.

At least one senior military official defended his  actions, according to the inspector general’s report, saying the “Christian Embassy had become a ‘quasi-Federal entity,’ since the DoD had endorsed the organization to General Officers (i.e., all officers at the  rank of General) for over 25 years.”

Perhaps no other fundamentalist Christian group has been as successful as Military Ministry, when it comes to infiltrating the military. Military Ministry is  a national organization and a subsidiary of the controversial fundamentalist Christian organization Campus Crusade for Christ. Military Ministry’s national web site boasts that it has successfully “targeted” basic training installations, or “gateways,” and has  successfully converted thousands of soldiers to evangelical Christianity.

Military Ministry says it has six “strategic” objectives: 

Pillar 1 – Evangelize and disciple enlisted U.S. military members throughout their military careers.
Pillar 2 – Build Christian military leaders and influence our nation for Christ as a result.
Pillar 3 – Stop the unraveling of the military family and provide Christ-centered solutions for those suffering from the destructive effects of combat trauma, and especially PTSD.
Pillar 4 – Arm troops in harm’s way with spiritual resources. Provide Bibles and devotional materials to chaplains and directly to troops.
Pillar 5 – Wage Christian outreach, discipleship and training on the Internet to military members across the world.
Pillar 6 – Change continents for Christ. Train, equip and support indigenous military leaders as they build Christian ministries in their own nations.
Weinstein is credited with exposing the Pentagon’s relationship with Military Ministry.

But despite the high-profile nature of Weinstein’s complaints, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to get Congress to  enact reforms or, at the very least, hold hearings on the  issue.

“After nearly five bloody years in the thick of this fight  to the death, to stop the U.S. military from using its might to force fundamentalist Christianity on its service men and women, we at MRFF have  learned one thing about most politicians; they’re about as useful as a  baseball bat in a football game,” Weinstein said. “They view the very real national security threat of our armed forces having morphed into the “Christian Taliban” as a radioactive tar-baby that will only cause them to lose campaign contributions and votes if they even remotely engage. The tragic price of this near universal congressional abandonment and indifference is consequentially measured in the precious splattered blood of our American military personnel.

“Indeed, who will be left to tell the stories of those U.S. Soldiers who have been maimed and killed by a Wahhabi-fuelled Islamic enemy immeasurably emboldened, off the Jihad Richter Scale, by a U.S. military that has carefully crafted its battle image as 21st Century Crusaders for Christ? Who will stand up to  fight?”

Still, someone at the Pentagon must have read Kratz’s legal  brief.

Two weeks ago, the Freedom From Religion Foundation received  an e-mail from the non-commissioned officer.

“There is no more  mandatory prayer,” the officer wrote. It was replaced with “This day in history” and “a moment of reflective silence.”

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