The following is the first of a three-part series on the negative effects of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. military. The first segment will focus on how non-evangelicals are discriminated against.
One of the most famous phrases regarding faith and the military is the self-assured statement that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” To anyone with a basic respect for facts, this is patently untrue. This idea is ridiculous, and were it “just a phrase,” we might leave it at that. But the underlying sentiment — that the military consists solely of believers, should be run as a Christian organization, and should seek to impose spiritual standards on its soldiers — is one of the most destructive threats to the efficacy of our military.
Evangelism is firmly entrenched in American military culture. It pervades several aspects of military life, and each of these — from the social exclusion of nonbelievers, to the influence of evangelism on access to military resources, to the toxic fusion of national security objectives with religious terminology — warrants serious consideration. For all the honor and respect we give our soldiers, we certainly don't hold some of the ideas they defend — namely, the separation of church and state — in very high regard.
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Former Vice President of the National Association of Evangelicals Richard Cizik defines an evangelical as someone who (1) believes that the Bible is infallible and inerrant, (2) has a born-again experience, and (3) shares this message of faith with others through evangelism and social witness. The third trait is the most salient, because it takes religion from being something personal and private and turns it into a matter of contention, an argument to be won by those on God’s side. Evangelicals have designated the military as a prime target for conversions.
Evangelicalism wasn’t always this prevalent in the military. In fact, through World War II, religion was not a major source of contention at all. Race was the biggest issue until 1947, when the Army finally integrated. The religious pluralism found in the military at the end of WWII sustained itself, and respect for different religions ensured that no one group came to dominate the others. That changed with the progression of the Cold War. Suddenly, communism and godlessness were inexorably linked, meaning any good American soldier should declare devotion to a god, and preferably the Christian one. The idea of religious pluralism was slowly replaced by the idea that the armed forces would be effective only as a monolithic, spiritually homogeneous force.
The divisions caused by the Vietnam War fueled the evangelizing of the military. Mainline Protestant churches, which were generally opposed to military action in Vietnam, saw their representation in the military drop precipitously in the 1970s. Picking up the slack was the evangelical community, whose churches were generally in favor of the war.
These deep political divisions within American Christianity had long-lasting effects. Because evangelicals supported the war in greater numbers, they subsequently became the Army’s next generation of leaders. This shift coincided with the rise of the religious right in 1970s and ‘80s, resulting in a military that was 40% evangelical by 2005. Even more significant is the concentration of evangelicals in the chaplaincy: A full 60% of military chaplains are evangelicals.
Source: Military Atheist
Positions of leadership allow evangelicals to proselytize in remarkable ways. Just ask Army Specialist Jeremy Hall, who was sent home from Iraq in 2006 because the military could not protect him from Christians in our own army. Because Hall respectfully declined to join a Christian prayer before mealtime, he was ridiculed, threatened, and ostracized. He needed a bodyguard full-time to protect him from his Christian peers and superiors who could not comprehend the presence of an unbeliever in their ranks. As the Tampa Bay Times pointed out, it’s somewhat ironic that the nation spending billions to keep peace between Sunnis and Shias was unable to protect even one nonbeliever in its own ranks.
The Air Force in particular has been a hotbed of evangelical controversy. Major Warren Watties, the USAF’s 2004 Chaplain of the Year, kindly explained to new cadets that those not “born again will burn in the fires of Hell.” Additionally, cadets who declined evening chapel services were mockingly marched back to their dormitories in the "Heathen Flight." And then there’s the 2004 survey of cadets at the Air Force Academy that revealed close to half of non-Christian cadets said classmates are intolerant of those who do not "follow a religion" or "believe in a divine being." But the winner is Brigadier General Johnny Weida, the evangelical commander who
“commonly included Biblical passages in his emails to the cadets, established National Prayer Day as an exclusively Christian event, informed cadets that every one of them was “accountable first to your God,” and worked out a chant with evangelical cadets where he would say “Airpower” and the cadets would respond “Rock, Sir,” referring to Jesus.”
-Institute for Science and Human Values, 2010
If that's not enough, try to imagine this: Before deploying on a patrol in Iraq, your commander asks you to participate in a specifically Christian prayer. It happened to Jason Torpy, who is just one of thousands of atheists, agnostics, and humanists who are regularly reminded by their evangelical peers exactly how welcome they are.
The Officers' Christian Fellowship (OCF) represents another aspect of the evangelizing of the military: faith groups known as “parachurches” operating within our armed forces. The group’s goals are quite clear: It is the job of the OCF to “carry the gospel through the medium of ordinary relationships among the entire military community.” Currently, the OCF has a presence on 80% of military bases, and continues to grow its membership by 3% a year. The idea of a fully Christianized military is not out of the realm of possibility for groups like the OCF. Campus Crusade for Christ, another parachurch group, is remarkably honest about its own aims:
This idea — that the entire institution of the military should be occupied and run by Christians — reflects the politically oriented Christian Dominionism movement. To Dominionists, the separation of church and state isn’t just a falsehood, it’s an obstacle to their goal of institutionalized evangelism. And before you think a complete Christian takeover of government institutions is simply impossible, it’s a good idea to examine how Campus Crusade for Christ (later CRU) convinced the U.S. government to fund Christian missionaries.
It's clear that discrimination against non-Christians runs rampant in the U.S. military, and that religious intolerance emanates from both the military leadership and the soldiers themselves. In the next part of this series, I will explore how nonreligious members of the military are fighting back against harassment.