Fringe Evangelicals Distort US Military Policy
By Thomas D. Williams and JP Briggs II, Ph.D.
t r u t h o u t | Special Report
Friday 24 August 2007
"He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;" - Micah, Chapter 4, The Bible
"And make not Allah because of your swearing (by Him) an obstacle to your doing good and guarding (against evil) and making peace between men, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing." - The Koran
For decades, especially since the end of the Vietnam War, the US military has been wrestling with aggressive sects of doomsday Christians demanding control and conversions of those of other faiths as well as nonbelievers within the armed forces.
Even beyond this high-pressure hard sell, those Judgment Day, apocalyptic Christian leaders, with followings estimated at 40 million parishioners, have urged public officials on all levels to wage war with Israel's enemies. Sometimes they and others even send their followers into dangerous war zones to preach their faith and risk lives. In at least one case, the Pentagon is supporting a Christian evangelistic group's efforts to promote itself inside the Muslim-dominated Iraq war zone.
The end-time evangelists' aggressive domestic and foreign relations stances have frequently caught the ears of President George W. Bush and those within his administration, as well as a large cadre of influential congressmen.
"The rise of evangelicalism in today's armed forces can trace its roots to the Viet Nam War," writes US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Millonig. "Public support for the war declined steadily as the years wore on, but evangelical Christians remained generally supportive of the war throughout. Over the course of the war, they found themselves progressively more aligned with the military - a military which increasingly found itself isolated from the general population." Millonig's March 2006 US Army War College piece is titled: "The Impact of Religious and Political Affiliation on Strategic Military Decisions and Policy Recommendations."
Initially willing to be interviewed, Millonig ultimately refused to discuss his article. His refusal came after he spoke with an Air Force superior who said it is inappropriate for Millonig to comment about anything unrelated to his current job, said a US Army War College spokeswoman, Carol Kerr.
"After the Vietnam War, there was disenchantment with military service by the mainline religions, because the war began to look like an unjust war," said retired US Army Chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. "The military chaplains were not talking about that, and the churches thought they should," explained Keizer, chairman of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces. Then, he explained, with the advent of the all-volunteer Army, evangelical military chaplains began to increase, because their faith encouraged young people into the ministry and a vocation like military service to actively proclaim their beliefs to others.
Keizer, however, emphasized that more moderate evangelicals, as represented by the powerful National Evangelical Association, have been an influential voice for wartime justice for enemy prisoners. And, to promote peace, in late July the organization agreed to hold discussions in the nation's capital with Muslim leaders, with 14 evangelical preachers on one side and 12 US-based Arab diplomats on the other, The Washington Post reported. More than a year earlier, the organization called for religious freedom within the military.
On the other hand, the promotion of powerful Christian religious fundamentalist voices and religious conversions within the Armed Forces, especially encouraged and engineered by end-time evangelical Christians, has become a focus of concern among many other religious leaders. That concern heightened particularly after 9/11, when Islamic terrorists attacked New York City's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Less than a month later, on October 7, 2001, President George W. Bush launched the so-called war on terror with attacks on al-Qaeda camps and Taliban installations in Afghanistan. And, as the heated conflict in Afghanistan temporarily subsided, the Bush administration extended the "terror war" by invading Iraq on March 20, 2003.
Since 9/11, US officials, religious leaders, the press and the public have focused a continuous stream of criticism at religious Muslim fundamentalists. But, what has been largely glossed over by some in the public, media and government are the unrelenting cries for aggressive US military attacks by end-time US evangelicals such as Pastor John Hagee, not only against Islamic extremists, but also against Iran, Syria and the Palestinians threatening Israel.
This pressure for warlike behavior comes from two types of end-time Christians. The "dispensationalists" insist that true believers will be "raptured" into heaven just before a catastrophic war between "left behind" believers and the forces of the Antichrist. "Dominionist" end-timers presuppose that the United States, as a Christian nation, will act as a special representative of God in the final battles. The Dominionists forge on toward the construction, or "reconstruction," of an American theocracy to fulfill God's end-time plan. The two brands cross over and blend. Collectively, they call themselves Christian Zionists to affirm their support of Israel's control over the holy lands.
As war cries from Islamic terrorists and end-time Christians create a danger for ever-expanding religious battles in the Middle East, a small cadre of Christian and Muslim leaders has become alarmed.
"The most basic Christian commitment ... is that we say we believe in the Lordship of Jesus. But, if we claim that, how can a Muslim or Jew trust us, if we say Jesus is the Lord of all Lords?" asked Professor Lee Camp, a Lipscomb University theologian, last November at an interfaith gathering in Nashville, Tenn. "We need to forsake the Christendom model," Camp said. In its place, he explained, should be an international ideal, allowing leaders and members of all faiths to live in peace and communicate.
In February, Louis Farrakhan, 73, leader of The Nation of Islam, insisted the world was at war because followers of contrasting faiths did not understand one another. Jesus Christ and Muhammad would embrace with love if they were on the stage behind him today, he exclaimed. "Our lips are full of praise, but our hearts are far removed from the prophets we all claim," Al Jazeera quoted Farrakhan as saying.
Proselytizing by end-time Christians and others within the military has become a crucial issue within the armed forces, especially during the past half decade. And, US military leadership, influenced by war-encouraging, right-wing evangelists, endangers complex Middle East diplomacy efforts.
"To proselytize in this (military) environment is not allowed except as the individual asks (for it), said retired US Navy Chaplain Victor Smith, a Christian Scientist. "For example, the use of the name of Jesus in public prayers with a mixed congregation such as at a command or official function is prohibited," he said. "Most of the chaplains who pray, and rightly so, pray on behalf of the congregation, as well as with the congregation," said Smith. "Every single person in the military should be protected in every way, physically, sexually and spiritually, while they are serving their country. They already put their lives on the line in warfare. The damage from forcing religion on the unwilling is very deep emotionally. Well, have you ever talked to a rape victim? It's not quite that physical, but it sure is spiritually."
Smith pointed out, "There is a small subset of these faith groups that foster some more extreme views to others and sometimes punish those who don't follow their faith stances." He added, "They include some conservative wings of Baptists and others. These individuals, both lay and apparently some chaplains, say: 'You are not a good soldier unless you believe in my preachings and my faith. '"
While Smith confined religious aggressors to that "small subset," others watching closely for military religious territorial scuffles feel the right-wing evangelical clique is larger and more powerful.
Small or large, officials of the Department of Defense, at least in one telltale instance, are promoting an aggressive Christian group that promises to bring its views in a "crusade" to Iraq. Operation Straight Up "is working to help military children and families become stronger through faith-based entertainment," wrote The American Forces Press Service in April. The story appeared on the America Supports You Internet site sponsored by the Pentagon. It was initially reported in an outside publication by The Nation.
Operation Straight Up is evangelical. Its leaders are former boxer and kick boxer Jonathan Spinks and Hollywood actor Stephen Baldwin.
Here's what Spinks's website said about its potential operations in Iraq: "On the most dangerous soil in our world, we're taking a team of performers, professional athletes, and evangelists on a mission that will be both entertaining, as well as lend tremendous solitude to our men and women stationed in this war-torn country of Iraq. We are most excited about this crusade and yes we are willing to go to the front lines with a very encouraging word straight from God, to our troops. We feel the forces of heaven have encouraged us to perform multiple crusades that will sweep through this war-torn region. We'll hold the only religious crusade of its size in the dangerous land of Iraq." The link, describing these "crusade" plans, became difficult to fetch after emails questioning the "crusade" were sent to its advertised contact: email@example.com and to the Defense Department. The Spinks site, which does not have a telephone contact number, did not answer repeated emails with queries for this article.
Asked if the Pentagon is lending support or security for these crusading efforts, a Defense Department health records public affairs spokesman, who declined to be identified, said: "There are none. OSU has stated its desire to go and we have suggested ways in which they can arrange that for themselves." Asked whether the Defense Department's announced public support for the Christian evangelistic Operation Straight Up in the Defense Department site, in light of its announced "crusade" inside Iraq, is in violation of federal separation of church and state guidelines, he said: "The Department of Defense is committed to upholding the Constitution of the United States. My oath of office swears me to uphold it." Department rules prevent its officials from sanctioning personal participation with a non-governmental organization. They forbid granting a selective benefit or preferential treatment to any organization. Its officials are constrained by federal law from promoting any specific religious group.
The spokesman also explained the department's support for Operation Straight up by saying: "America Supports You connects Americans supportive of our troops with organizations that are devoted to helping the troops and their families, while also providing a one-stop location on the Internet at www.AmericaSupportsYou.mil where our military and their families can find hundreds of support organizations eager to help our heroes when they need it most. More than 250 home front groups, representing communities from coast to coast, have joined the America Supports You team to support the troops in many ways, including writing letters and emails, sending care packages and assisting military families or helping the wounded when they return home."
However, after an ABC segment on Operation Straight Up, the Defense Department prevented the sending of a controversial video game promoted by the evangelical group to service members in Iraq. The game depicts a film about the battle of Armageddon, in which believers of Jesus Christ fight the Antichrist.
Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an Air Force Academy graduate and former assistant general counsel for former President Ronald Reagan, said his organization intends to sue the Defense Department over its support of Operation Straight Up. He is vociferous about what he considers such saturated fundamentalist domination within the military.
"What we are seeing is an imperious, fascistic contagion of unconstitutional religious triumphalism that represents a national security threat internally to this country," he said. "This is every bit as significant in magnitude as that presented externally by the now resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida. Let's call a spade a spade: We are confronting the Christian Taliban, period!"
Weinstein has worked intensively through his foundation to battle the influential forces of Christian end-timers and other religious zealots. His foundation recently announced it is filing a federal lawsuit challenging alleged US military participation in a three-day evangelical Christian gathering in Georgia. It quotes the organizers, Task Force Patriot USA's Internet web site as saying it exists "for the purpose of sharing the fullness of life in Jesus Christ with all US military, military veterans and families," and exclaiming that "Christ is our Commander-in-Chief."
Jim Freeman, the Task Force's founder, said Weinstein "is driving a 'wedge' within the military ranks that will ultimately weaken the strength of our military forces. If Task Force Patriot set out to do the same things he is doing, he would scream violently and file more complaints. Our organization has done nothing of a clandestine nature. Our web site has been up for nearly nine years, clearly stating our position as a Christian Veteran To Veteran Outreach. My question is simply this: Does Mikey Weinstein have enough troops that support his exemption of Christians in the US military to defend America against her enemies? I think not. My organization is supported by a very large majority of America's 27 million-plus US military veterans, along with their families."
Late last year, Weinstein filed a complaint with the Defense Department's Inspector General, demanding an investigation of the Christian Embassy, whose Internet video showed "senior military officers, dressed in uniform and in their Pentagon offices, openly discussing their religious commitment and their strategy to bring religion into the military." Last month, the Inspector General concluded some high-ranking officers indeed violated military regulations by participating in the Christian promotional video in uniform and within the Pentagon's offices. The IG recommended that "the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Army consider appropriate corrective action with respect to the military officers concerned; the administrative assistant to the Secretary of the Army and the Pentagon Force Protection Agency initiate inquiries into the manner; and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs review procedures to ensure that film crews operating within the Pentagon are appropriately escorted and monitored."
Other individual outrageous violations of the principles of the separation of church and state within the government, says Weinstein's foundation, include: "blatant displays of religious symbolism on military garb by the 523rd Fighter Squadron; placement of a biblical quotation above the door of the Air and Space Basic Course classroom at Maxwell Air Force Base; illegal use of official military email accounts to send emails containing religious rhetoric, and attempts by missionary organizations such as Force Ministries and the Officers' Christian Fellowship to create 'Christian soldiers' by training active-duty military personnel to evangelize their subordinates and peers."
Asked how strictly the Pentagon controls promotion of religious fundamentalism in the armed forces, Jonathan Withington, a Defense Department spokesman, said: "A basic principle of our nation is free exercise of religion. The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the armed forces to observe the tenets of their respective religions. It is DOD policy that requests for accommodation of religious practices should be approved by commanders when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline."
The concerns of some within the military are that not only do fundamentalist Christian public pronouncements seep into top-ranking military officials, but their beliefs can infect the decision-making of those officials. For instance: evangelical Army Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin made headlines in 2003 when he said he believed America was engaged in a holy war as a "Christian nation" battling Satan. Adversaries can be defeated, he said, "Only if we come against them in the name of Jesus."
Despite his highly publicized rhetoric, Boykin remains Bush's deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Last February, Army Gen. Peter Pace joined with President Bush and the Fellowship Foundation, "a low-profile group that promotes Christian evangelism," to conduct a reading at the Washington, DC prayer breakfast.
With Christian evangelism at this level of the government, some worry about subconscious or even conscious decision making by these leaders at a time when the United States is "at war with Islamic extremists."
"If the armed forces' culture is allowed to stifle creativity and diversity of thought, then the strategic leader's difficult and often time-sensitive decision process may find itself with fewer courses of action from which to choose," wrote Colonel Millonig in discussing public religious proselytizing by military leadership. "Fewer choices are more easily influenced by a select group of individuals and can lead to disastrous consequences in the short term. Left unchecked, the credibility of the military's decision making and policy advice to senior civilians could steadily erode over the long term."
Millonig said his purpose in writing the academic paper "is not to analyze the validity of any individual beliefs, but to show how the rise of conservative Christian and Republican values have affected the military's decision making and policy recommendations. Whether right, wrong or indifferent - the conservative Christian voice has impacted our military. America's strategic thinkers, both military and civilian, must be aware of this trend and its potential implications on policy formulation. The role of intuition on subconscious biases and perceptions can dramatically impact the decision process."
On the other hand, Chaplain Keizer expressed full faith in the military leadership to weed out religious bias in crucial decision making and to prosecute those who force their faith on others. "In the military, I am not sure the evangelicals pose any more of a danger than any other religion on decision making. It is the political neocons who are pushing the US to become more supportive of Israel. The military leadership appears more pragmatic, while the politicians are more activist than reflective."
He cited what he considered crucial examples of this contrast. In one instance, he said, it was Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, then chief of staff, who went against the grain of former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in suggesting troop strengths should be much higher in the Iraq war than the Bush administration did. He was heavily criticized by the Bush administration and retired. And, during the scandals over US military treatment of Iraqi prisoners, Keizer said, it was those within the military leadership, not US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who insisted prisoners should be treated humanely under the international Geneva Convention. In one instance, a dozen retired generals wrote the US Senate Judicial Committee to oppose torture tactics by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military.
Nevertheless, Colonel Millonig warns that the dangers of religious influences within the military are substantial. "America's military leaders must ensure preconceived notions based on religious or political ideology do not adversely shape the decision-making process, nor can it allow intuition based on 'automated expertise' to override an objective evaluation of relevant possibilities," he wrote. "Failure to do so can lead to an erosion of trust with civilian leadership and degrade national policy decisions."
"One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal," said Bill Moyers, a journalist-commentator for the Public Broadcasting Service in a speech to Harvard Medical School in December 2004. "It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. When ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad but they are always blind. And there is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts." Moyers is an ordained Baptist minister.
JP Briggs II, Ph.D. is a Distinguished CSU professor at Western Connecticut State University, specializing in creative process. A former reporter for the Hartford Courant and coordinator of the journalism program at WCSU, he is currently senior editor of the intellectual journal "The Connecticut Review." His books include "Fire in the Crucible" (St. Martins Press); "Fractals, the Patterns of Chaos" Simon and Schuster), and "Trickster Tales" (Fine Tooth Press), among others. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thomas "Dennie" Williams is a former state and federal court reporter, specializing in investigations, for the Hartford Courant. Since the 1970s, he has written extensively about irregularities in the Connecticut Superior Court, Probate Court systems for disciplining both judges and lawyers for misconduct and the failures of the Pentagon and the VA to assist sick veterans returning from war. He can be reached at email@example.com.