May 4, 2009

After revelations that some American soldiers were given Bibles and encouraged to "hunt people for Jesus," the Pentagon on Monday denied allegations that the U.S. military allows its personnel to seek the conversion of Afghans to Christianity. But while the copies of the New Testament translated into Pashtun and jaw-dropping video from Bagram may seem like exceptions that prove the rule of American prohibition on proselytizing by the military, they are just the latest episodes in the disturbing rise in influence of Christian conservatives in the United States armed services.

As Jeremy Scahill detailed in the Huffington Post, the incidents first reported on Al Jazeera are an affront both to the U.S. military code of conduct and America's Afghan allies:

The center of this evangelical operation is at the huge US base at Bagram, one of the main sites used by the US military to torture and indefinitely detain prisoners.

In a video obtained by Al Jazeera and broadcast Monday, Lieutenant-Colonel Gary Hensley, the chief of the US military chaplains in Afghanistan, is seen telling soldiers that as followers of Jesus Christ, they all have a responsibility "to be witnesses for him."

"The special forces guys - they hunt men basically. We do the same things as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. We do, we hunt them down," he says.

"Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into the kingdom. That's what we do, that's our business."

As it turns out, that has indeed been the business of Christian conservatives in the U.S. armed services since 9/11. In word and deed, evangelicals in recent years have aggressively boosted their visibility and influence within the American military.

An early warning came in 2003 in the guise of Lt. General William Boykin.

Boykin, who later became a deputy under secretary of defense, claimed during speeches to prayer groups and breakfasts that militant Islamists sought to destroy America ''because we're a Christian nation.'' General Boykin also explained to evangelical audiences that Muslims worship an ''idol'' and not ''a real God.'' While President Bush expressed his disagreement (noting Boykin "''didn't reflect my opinion" and "it just doesn't reflect what the government thinks"), Boykin remained on the job.

The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has been a hotbed of evangelical activism - and controversy. While cadets in 2004 distributed leaflets at dinner place settings for a screening of "The Passion of the Christ, football coach Fisher DeBerry displayed a sign in the team's locker room proclaiming, "I am a Christian first and last. I am a member of Team Jesus Christ." In May, 2005, Lutheran minister and Captain MeLinda Morton was removed from her post after warning evangelical Christians were trying to "subvert the system" in trying to win converts among cadets at the Academy. A June 2005 study at USAFA described other incidents of religious intolerance, insensitivity and inappropriate proselytizing, and concluded:

"Additionally, some faculty members and coaches consider it their duty to profess their faith and discuss this issue in their classrooms in furtherance of developing cadets' spirituality."

In the wake of the Brady report and complaints from Military Religious Freedom Foundation founder Mike Weinstein (himself a graduate of the Academy), the Air Force in October 2005 moved to withdraw a "code of ethics" document which permitted chaplains to evangelize military personnel who were not affiliated with any faith. ("I will not proselytize from other religious bodies," it read, "but I retain the right to evangelize those who are not affiliated.") Still, even that minor restriction produced an avalanche of opposition from Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition and other groups which protested that the new guidelines abridged "the constitutional right of military chaplains to pray according to their faith."

Undaunted, the push to proselytize in the U.S. military continues. In 2007, an inspector general's report highlighted ethics violations among current and former officers, including two major generals, for appearing in uniform for a promotional and fundraising video for the evangelical group Christian Embassy. As the Washington Post noted, the report "offers a vivid picture of how inappropriately intertwined Christian Embassy had become with Pentagon operations by the time the video, with its extensive scenes inside the Pentagon, was filmed in 2004." Nonetheless, the New York Times reported earlier this year that military personnel were shown videos featuring football's Terry Bradshaw professing his Christian religion as part of an official military production dealing with depression, suicide and "the importance of faith."

The aggressive campaign for military converts is producing a climate of fear and intimdation in the armed forces. Specialist Jeremy Hall sued the Army after a superior officer interrupted his meeting for atheists and free-thinkers by proclaiming, "People like you are not holding up the Constitution and are going against what the founding fathers, who were Christians, wanted for America!" In another case, Army Specialist and Iraq Purple Heart recipient Dustin Chalker filed a lawsuit after being subjected to a mandatory ceremony that began and ended with a Christian prayer. As he put it:

"The Army enforces policies against racism and sexism, but doesn't bat an eye at these kinds of religious discrimination. Why is it acceptable that soldiers are unable to serve this nation without attending state-led religious practices they find offensive and false?"

Of course, it isn't acceptable, not under Central Command's General Order Number One and myriad other guidelines issued by the Pentagon before or since. Tragically, as the United States wages a global struggle against terrorists espousing a virulent strain of Islamic fundamentalism, fundamentalists in the ranks of the American military are betraying its values - and jeopardizing its mission.

(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)

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