What Atheists — and Every American — Can Expect From Our Christian Military

The following is the final installment of a three-part series on the negative effects of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. military. The conclusion will describe the damage of creeping theological tyranny in a military superpower. You can read the first part of this series here, and the second part here.

You'd think we'd realize that poisoning a major armed conflict with elements of holy war would be a bad idea. But clearly, we haven't studied our history. The British did much the same thing in colonial India. The Sepoy Rebellion exploded over the use of beef fat (offensive to Hindus) and pork fat (offensive to Muslims) in the packaging of minié balls. To load their rifles, Indian Sepoys had to bite the cartridge, releasing the gunpowder. Muslim and Hindu soldiers were thus unknowingly violating sacred religious commands. The incident incited religious violence across India, and further convinced India that the British were there not only to rule them, but to remake them.

The similarities between British India and American Iraq shouldn't surprise us. An invading power will probably always be viewed with hatred and suspicion, generally proportionate to the level of force it uses against the occupied territory. In other words, most Americans might not be too terribly surprised that Iraqis loathed our presence in their country. But what most people don't realize is the effect of militarized Christianity on our efforts around the world. In the May 2009 issue of Harper's Magazine, Jeff Sharlet's piece “Jesus Kills Mohammed: The crusade for a Christian military” describes the religious sentiments driving the Iraq conflict, as a part of his wider examination of evangelism in the U.S. Military.  Sharlet shows evidence for the idea that the religious motivations in the War on Terror are not solely Islamic ones. Feelings of holy fury come from our soldiers, too. Sergeant Jeffery Humphrey, then serving in Samarra, described it as follows:

He found his lieutenant, John D.DeGiulio, with a couple of sergeants. They were snickering like schoolboys. They had commissioned the Special Forces interpreter, an Iraqi from Texas, to paint a legend across their Bradley’s armor, in giant red Arabic script.“What’s it mean?” asked Humphrey. “Jesus killed Mohammed,” one of the men told him. The soldiers guffawed. JESUS KILLED MOHAMMED was about to cruise into the Iraqi night. The Bradley, a tracked “tank killer” armed with a cannon and missiles — to most eyes, indistinguishable from a tank itself — rolled out. The Iraqi interpreter took to the roof, bullhorn in hand. The sun was setting. Humphrey heard the keen of the call to prayer, then the crackle of the bullhorn with the interpreter answering — in Arabic, then in English for the troops, insulting the prophet. Humphrey’s men loved it. “They were young guys, you know?” says Humphrey. “They were scared.” A Special Forces officer stood next to the interpreter — “a big, tall, blond, grinning type,” says Humphrey. “Jesus kill Mohammed!” chanted the interpreter. “Jesus kill Mohammed!”

The crusade mentality doesn't spread on its own. Groups like the Officers' Christian Fellowship publish Bible study guides clearly tailored to proselytizing: “We will need to press ahead obediently...not allowing the opposition, all of which is spearheaded by Satan, to keep us from the mission of reclaiming territory for Christ in the military.” In a lecture for OCF titled “Fighting the War on Spiritual Terrorism,” Army Lieutenant Colonel Greg E. Metzgar posited that U.S. troops, who in Metzgar’s opinion are “doomed” without God, must always consider themselves behind enemy lines, because any “unsaved” member of the military is a potential “spiritual terrorist.” With messaging like this, one can begin to understand why Specialist Jeremy Hall was the target of so much harassment that he had to leave the military entirely.

The combination of national security and theology is a dangerous one. The line between soldiers’ commitment to their country and that to their God gets ever blurrier, reinforcing the idea of a militarized Christianity laying waste to the Middle East. Tellingly, a cadet in Sharlet’s piece — who told Sharlet that the separation of church and state is a false idea “not found in the Constitution” — was unable to say what he would do if his military orders ever required him to act against his faith. Military and religious objectives are described more frequently as one in the same, raising the specter of a religious military whose concerns are not only their official orders, but orders to a different power entirely.

The idea that the invasion of Iraq (and the War on Terror as a whole) was actually a religious conflict was furthered by religious terms used by top U.S. officials. George Bush's infamous declaration that the War on Terror was a crusade confirmed what much of the Arab world already suspected: This invasion was little more than an another excuse by a Western power to seize something it desired (oil, empire, etc.) in the Middle East.

Another point worth considering: Because the Constitution specifies civilian control of the military, the actions of our military reflect ultimately on American citizens. In other words, no matter how religious or evangelical our military members happen to be, the institution as a whole should still act in the interests of the country as a whole. Should a military that acts on behalf of a pluralistic society like ours embark on holy crusades?

To fully understand how a message like this is received by the Arab world, we need to understand the history of the region. For centuries, if not longer, the West has seen the East as something to be sampled, conquered, categorized, and studied. The “otherness” of the East has fed imperialist tendencies from the British in Egypt to the French in Vietnam. Edward Said’s Orientalism, long considered the defining tome on the subject, is required reading for anyone who seeks to fully comprehend today’s East/West dynamic. But it shouldn’t be too difficult to understand why much of the rest of the world viewed Bush as Richard III, and the U.S. Marines as his Knights Templar.

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The evangelizing of the military is a toxic phenomenon. It's harmful to our troops, our country, and the world we interact with. But it is not impossible to undo. It will take a recommitment to the separation of church and state, a philosophical reassessment by evangelical Christians, and a whole lot of tolerance for those who don't share the “right” beliefs.

And if you still think there aren’t any atheists in foxholes, consider this: Glen Doherty, who was an active member of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, was one of those killed in the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. There may not be too many foxholes around anymore, but nonbelievers are still putting it on the line for their country.