As different facets of the origins of Trump’s failed coup keep emerging from the shadows, one elephant in the room remains: the role of Christian nationalists and hard-core dominionists in driving the participation of retired military in the insurrection, which an NPR report has tentatively been estimated at around 20%—almost three times their presence in the general population.
While stories have highlighted the roles of Christian nationalists as well as those with military training, journalists are belatedly scrambling to grasp the connection between the two—a connection made crystal clear by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation when Larry R. Brock was identified as an Air Force Academy graduate. Almost immediately, MRFF founder and President Mikey Weinstein penned a blistering open letter to the Air Force Academy, bluntly headlined, “We Told You So.”
While the NPR report linked above traced the connection between military personnel, and extremists—particularly white supremacists—the problem with Christian nationalists may be even worse, Weinstein told Crooks and Liars, whether from a lack of capacity or lack of will.
“The U.S. military can’t even handle its ever-present sexual assault and sexual harassment plague,” Weinstein pointed out. “It has not either the minimum desire or preliminary expertise to stop the explosion of fundamentalist Christianity through its ranks.”
“The U.S. military has never taken the incredible national security threat internally from fundamentalist Christian fundamentalism/dominionism seriously. They have no desire to,” Weinstein said. “This religious extremism controls the military and not vice versa… It has been there for decades now.”
White Supremacists & Christian Supremacists Go Hand-In-Hand
Yet, “There is no observable or cognizable daylight between white supremacy in the military and fundamentalist extremist Christian ideology… The two go hand in hand,” he explained. “If you find a KKKer or neo-Nazi or Proud Boy in the military, the chances that they are not also completely mind-warped and brainwashed by weaponized Christianity is extraordinarily low.”
Indeed, MRFF has exposed several scandals involving neo-Nazi activity—or sympathy, at the very least. In 2012, MRFF raised hell over the photo at the top of this story, of Camp Pendleton Marines posing with a Nazi SS symbol in Afghanistan which Marine higher-ups had previously investigated but found "not to be racially motivated." As result, the Marine Corps officially denounced it. Eight years later, MRFF was instrumental in getting a Walla Walla, WA police officer to alter an identical SS Tattoo. And in late December, two weeks before Trump's failed coup, MRFF succeeded in getting the VA to remove two Nazi headstones from Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, following a long battle that began in early May. Incidents like these, though comparatively rare, are qualitatively no different than the more common battles MRFF fights—as the seven-month battle to remove the Nazi headstones clearly shows.
Shared enmity is a big reason why the two go together so well. “Both white supremacy and fundamentalist/dominionist Christianity share an indescribable hatred for American democracy…especially amped up in our military,” Weinstein said. “And they both attempt to base this boundless, seething hatred upon their shared tortured version of extremist Christianity. They will cite biblical passages ad nauseam to justify their wretched exclusivist views, just as those slave owners constantly did to justify slavery in the U.S., and just as the segregationists did in Congress and universally elsewhere to justify ‘separate but equal’ and Jim Crow.” Thus, “What happened on Jan 6th was not merely overnight in the making for the U.S. military. It was decades in the making, generations in the making.”
The NPR report quoted Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, who described the military's efforts to counter supremacists "haphazard”:
"It's not like the military is just tolerating white supremacists," Pitcavage told NPR. But he said efforts to address the problem need to be more systematic.
But when it comes to Christian supremacists, the military is often not just tolerating them, but welcoming and defending them, as MRFF’s “We Told You So” letter makes clear.
“For over 15 years,” the letter begins, MRFF “has fought the shockingly systemic and unconstitutional influence and spread of fundamentalist Christian power and supremacy within the US military.” The link is to compilation video, the most damning segments of which come from Christian nationalist chaplains and parachurch organizations (similar to Campus Crusade for Christ), speaking in their own words—words that make it clear they are working systematically at odds with both the US Constitution and the chaplaincy service they exploit to prey upon vulnerable recruits.
Chaplains are supposed to serve the spiritual needs of servicemembers who seek them out—not impose their views on servicemembers by seeking to browbeat and convert them. When the Continental Congress sought to reduce the number of chaplains from one per regiment to one per brigade in 1777, Washington warned against the move, because "it has a tendency to introduce disputes into the Army, which above all things should be avoided, and in many instances would compel men to a mode of Worship which they do not profess."
What Washington saw as a source of needless trouble, Christian nationalists see as the golden road to their goal. There can be no clearer proof that they are quite at odds with the practical realities of American history, as well as the principles of religious tolerance and individual conscience on America is founded.
After citing some highlights of this 15-year history, the letter states:
We warned you that this radical, right-wing influence found not only at USAFA, but tolerated or even endorsed by senior officers throughout the Air Force, caused a toxic leadership environment and eroded unit cohesion, good order, morale, and discipline. We constantly worried and warned that these seemingly (to some) innocuous events would lead to embarrassment for our Air Force Academy or worse — and that’s exactly what’s happened.
Mr. Larry R. Brock, Class of ’89 and a retired USAF Lt. Col./pilot presumptively drawing full military retirement pay and benefits, has now been arrested for his well-publicized participation in one of the darkest chapters of our nation’s history—identified as a USAFA graduate in virtually every major media outlet in America and around the world. The simplest search of his social media presence shows him to be an adherent of exactly the kind of religious/political extremism mentioned above. Indeed, the avatar for his now-deleted Twitter handle was a Christian Crusader warrior.
The letter went on to call for the Air Force Academy to publicly condemn Brock, “in the harshest possible manner,” which meant a court martial, Weinstein told Crooks and Liars.
The Air Force has since stated that “Since the Department of Justice has exercised federal jurisdiction over this case, they have the lead,” when it comes to disciplining Brock, according to Colorado Springs Indy. So, if Brock were a lone example, or if he had self-radicalized, then there would be little cause for wider concern at the highest levels of the military. But that is clearly not the case—as MRFF’s history of religious freedom battles richly illustrates. And the video mentioned above makes clear why.
Abusing the Chaplaincy
“Fundamentalist Evangelical chaplains, officers, and service members work alongside well-funded parachurch organizations to turn the United States military into a new crusade of government paid missionaries,” the introduction explains. In the first segment, Army Chaplain Major Douglas W. Duerksen makes their intentions clear.
“Most of the young people who come into the military are there probably because they're trying to figure out who they are. They come in, they're open to talk about anything, they ask all kinds of questions” Duerksen says. “From an Evangelistic standpoint I always refer to them as ripe as black bananas. And it's great to be a government paid missionary.”
Three things are worth noting here, aside from the unsurprising objectification. First, Duerksen caually disregards—if not disdains—the sense of patriotism and deep family traditions motivating so many recruits (Weinstein’s family service dates back to World War I, for example.) Second, he conflates a natural willingness to learn in a new environment, faced with a new life-task, at a biologically primed time, with an unlimited willingness to turn their entire previous life upside down—a willingness to be brainwashed, as another speaker in the video, Army Ranger Chaplain Maj Jeff Struecker, later makes clear. Third, Duerksen sees his job as being “a government-paid missionary,” which is contrary to both the Constitution (the First Amendment’s “Establishment clause”) and the established purpose of the chaplaincy service—which is to minister to servicemembers at their request, compensating for their separation from civilian spiritual homes.
“There has for a long time been a coordinated effort by fundamentalist Christian clergy to infiltrate the chaplaincy ranks with the aim to evangelize and convert, rather than serving the spiritual needs of the service members themselves,” Richard Katskee, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told me when I wrote about Christian nationalism invading our military for Playboy in 2018. My account continued:
“When we at Americans United investigated the chaplaincy at the Air Force Academy in early 2005, we found that the chaplaincy there was dominated by fundamentalist Christians, who were squeezing out mainline Protestant (e.g., Lutheran) chaplains,” he recounts.
“Colorado Springs—the home of the Air Force Academy—is also the home to lots and lots of religious right organizations. The understanding of people at the Academy to whom I spoke at length in 2005 is that it isn’t a surprise that all those organizations are located right around the Academy…The cadets are young, separated from their families, and put through rigorous training in often harsh conditions, so they are considered good targets for evangelizing.”
This predatory, exploitative recruitment approach is closer to the mindset of ISIS and al-Qaeda recruiters than it is to the supportive Father Mulcahy of M.A.S.H.
Katskee went on to say that the Father Mulcahy model was “the traditional notion of military chaplains.” But even that tradition has changed substantially over time, reflecting the changing role of the military, as well as attitudes about church and state. MRFF’s research director, Chris Rodda, gave a brief, but penetrating overview of this history in a section of the chapter she contributed to the book, “Attitudes Aren't Free: Thinking Deeply about Diversity in the Us Armed Forces”
“The chaplaincy became close to extinct in the 19th century,” she writes. “There really wasn't much of a military chaplaincy at all during the War of 1812 or up through and including the Mexican-American War.” In fact:
During the War of 1812, there was only one Army chaplain for as many as 8,000 men, and, with the exception of the 1818 appointment of a chaplain at West Point who doubled as a professor of history, geography, and ethics, there were no new Army chaplains until 1838, when a small number of post chaplains were authorized. But these post chaplains were civilians employees... hired mainly as teachers and also served as everything from librarians to mess officers to defense counsel during courts-martial.
Even with such a diminished chaplaincy, there was a movement to abolish it completely, Rodda notes. Thus, the fact that today’s chaplaincy is over-run with Christian nationalists is an aberration in one sense—the chaplaincy has never been like that before in our history—but it’s typical in another: the chaplaincy always reflects more of the nation and the world around it at the time than the sort of constant, continuous purpose and mission that its current crop of inhabitants would have us believe.
'Prophets' And Parachurch Organizations
The changes influencing the chaplaincy include the parachurch organizations alluded to above, as well as the wider social forces giving rise to them, which have weakened traditional hierarchical structures, as described in the 2017 book, The Rise of Network Christianity, while also giving rise to self-proclaimed ‘prophets’ some of whom helped motivate Trump’s insurrection.
“Parachurch organizations have been the springboard for ideological and political development of what we now know as the Christian Right,” said Frederick Clarkson, senior research analyst at Political Research Associates. “The culture of ecumenical evangelical youth groups like Young Life, made more ideological organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ and Focus on the Family possible. These, in turn, paved the way for more policy and political operations like the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition.”
These are significantly different kinds of religious organizations than have existed in the past. “Since parachurch organizations exist outside of traditional denominations they are able to operate with considerable theological and ethical flexibility,” Clarkson noted.
In 2018, Clarkson exposed the existence of Project Blitz, a political parachurch organization, focused on passing model bills through state legislatures which he described as having “a sophisticated level of coordination and strategizing that echoes the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which infamously networks probusiness state legislators, drafts sample legislation, and shares legislative ideas and strategies.”
Clarkson called Project Blitz “a classic parachurch organization,” noting that “Parachurch entities like this are petri dishes of theocratic political experimentation, particularly for the Dominionist politics of the New Apostolic Reformation,” a form of network Christianity whose leaders are self-proclaimed prophets and apostles, rather than mere ministers. Just the sort to endorse Trump’s grandiose politics. Dominionists believe in religious domination of society—not an end to democracy, necessarily, as long as all the candidates are dominionists, too. The military is a natural target for them.
“Parachurch evangelizing in the military is a classic of how they operate and the kinds of abuses they engender,” he said. “They are not traditional campus ministers, but outside agencies seeking to recruit and indoctrinate young men and women, often into cultures and belief systems that make their duty to their country secondary and even subservient to the religious and political mission of groups that are unaccountable to anyone but themselves.”
This stands out in video segment mentioned above, where Army Ranger Chaplain Maj Jeff Struecker talks about the Army Ranger school as the perfect recruiting ground for this unaccountable, predatory brand of Christian supremacy:
It puts the student, the Rangers student in the absolute worst possible conditions. most of them will go a couple days with no food, some of them have gone as long as three days without any sleep whatsoever. My goal has been to meet them when they’re at their absolute worst, when they’re coldest and the most tired and the most hungry that they’re going to be. Because the more difficult the circumstances the more receptive the average person becomes to issues of faith.
What he’s talking about here is a form of brainwashing. The rigors of military training are intentionally designed to challenge, disorient and break down ego defenses, to create a break one’s former self and to bond with one’s fellow trainees. But there are limits—ultimately grounded in the Constitution. Similarly strenuous trainings by terrorist groups produce a break so deep and fundamental that subjects would destroy everything their lives have been based on. We saw echoes of that in January 6th insurrection. But that’s not what American military training is supposed to it. Nor should abusive chaplains seek to hijack it for that purpose. Yet, that’s exactly what’s been happening for the entire 15-plus years that MRFF has been in existence, fighting to protect the men and women of America’s military from a still only vaguely perceived enemy within.
MRFF’s letter to the Air Force Academy concludes:
We told you this was happening.
We told you the consequences.
Now condemn it on the public record and work with us to fix it.
But the truth is, the Academy alone cannot fix this. The Air Force alone cannot fix it, either. Nor can the Pentagon or the whole of the DoD. It’s a problem for all of America. And it’s going to take all of America to fix it. Or else January 6th was only the beginning.