Doctor Chaplain and the Army of God

by , October 19, 2010

Is the military feeding traumatized soldiers in need of counseling to proselytizing evangelical chaplains, instead of mental health professionals?

You bet, says Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which has been tracking what Weinstein likes to call the “Fundamentalist-Christian-Para-Church-Military-Corporate-Proselytizing-Complex” for five years. More recently, there’s been “increasingly frequent and alarming” charges that religion is being pushed on soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in lieu of traditional treatment on the battlefield.

In fact, MRFF and Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) recently wrote to Defense Secretary Bob Gates, complaining that “when, on active duty, our service members sought urgently needed mental health counseling while on the battlefield and with the gun smoke practically still in their faces, they were instead sent to evangelizing chaplains, who are apparently being used with increasing frequency to provide mental health care due to the acute shortage of mental health professionals.”

Weinstein said soldiers are being told that finding Jesus is the only way to overcome the trauma.

The Pentagon press office did not return calls or emails for comment.

“What we’re seeing is a national disgrace that is actually increasing suicides rather than reducing them,” charged Weinstein in an interview with Antiwar.com.

While that would be hard to prove, Weinstein has plenty of reason for believing it. In five years of investigations, complaints and lawsuits – amassing a client base of more than 18,000 active duty service members – the former Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) has uncovered a Christian subculture within the military that not only instructs and favors evangelism, it insists upon it, from the service academies on up – obliterating not only the constitutional restriction on state-sponsored religion, but fueling the dangerous perception that America is on a religious crusade against the Muslim world.

“We’re standing by as a tsunami sweeps over us,” he said of the growing military evangelism, or as some call it, Christian supremacy. Weinstein says MRFF has become a shelter for individuals who can find no other remedy or respite from the pressure to conform on campus or on base. His days and nights are spent talking to service members, retaining lawyers, strategizing and filing formal complaints. He insists he is not “anti-religion,” but a tireless defender of the U.S. Constitution.

“Wherever I see unconstitutional religious predators in the U.S. military, of any stripe, I don’t care if I live or die. Someone’s gonna get a beating and we’re going to do it,” he told writer Matthew Harwood of Truth-out.org in July. “The two ways to administer the beating is to go into the media or into court.”

His latest action: protesting the September “Rock the Fort” concert series sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, of which son Franklin Graham is the CEO (yes, the one who called Muslims wicked and evil). MRFF was successful several months before in pressuring the Army to disinvite Graham to speak at its “National Day of Prayer.”

“We’re not supposed to be using the U.S. Army to develop and engender, you know, new soldiers for Christ,” Weinstein told CNN at the time. The concert, scheduled for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, had also been to Fort Jackson (slick promotional video here), and was endorsed and promoted by Army chaplains. The soldiers at Fort Bragg were actually given slips of paper ahead of the concert on which to place names of seven other soldiers who might attend “so they will come to Christ,” added Weinstein.

Weinstein’s radar honed in on the concerts after soldiers at the Fort Eustis Army installation in Virginia said they were punished for not attending another Christian rock concert on base, and were stymied when they tried to complain through the chain of command. The show was part of a “Spiritual Fitness Concert Series,” developed by Commanding General James Chambers in 2008. According to Weinstein, Chambers had shelled out $300,000 in DoD funding over the last two years to bring the born again entertainers to Fort Eustis and Fort Lee. At a prayer breakfast before one such concert in February, U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., spoke warmly of the general’s efforts.

“I want to thank you because in a world where it is so easy to back away from one’s faith you have shown not only the courage to train and equip our Army to fight and defend freedom but to stand for faith across America,” Forbes declared.

These simple snapshots come five years after an investigation, initiated by Weinstein, which found religious intolerance, insensitivity and inappropriate proselytizing on the part of Air Force officers and cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The Pentagon later attempted to play down the report, admitting to a “perception of religious bias” but denying widespread intolerance. By then, the cat was already out of the bag, as similar complaints and testimonials began leaking out of the other service academies and MRFF became a full time advocate with an increasing client base.

Sadly, not so much has changed since 2005, says Chris Rodda, who is Weinstein’s senior researcher at MRFF and author of Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History, Vol. 1.

After a brief period of improvement at the Air Force Academy, she noted, “things are getting worse, again.” She told Antiwar.com that the Air Force Academy had refused to release the results of its 2009-2010 climate survey, which evaluates the cadets, staff and faculty on a number of issues relating to campus life. Word is, the results aren’t that positive. On Friday, the academy announced that a Freedom of Information request pushed its hand, and that it will be releasing the numbers in a press conference Oct. 29.

Rodda says MRFF has been talking with an Air Force cadet who insists he’s part of a group of 100 “underground” cadets who “pretend to be fundamentalist Christians when they are not … just to get through.” They’re disenchanted with sending complaints up the chain of command, where “they’re likely to run into one of these Officers’ Christian Fellowship people,” Rodda added. OCF is a private organization made up of more than 15,000 evangelicals, many of them active duty officers.

Not the “Right Kind” of Christian

Weinstein got into this business when his son Curtis, a second-year Air Force Academy cadet, told his father he had been verbally abused by his peers repeatedly for being Jewish. Weinstein saw little had changed since he was a cadet 30 years ago, when the other cadets twice beat him senseless for being a Jew. But that doesn’t mean today’s victims of intolerance and proselytization are all Jewish, Muslim, or of other minority religions in the military. Some 96 percent are Christian, said Rodda, but “they just aren’t the right kind.”

In fact, recent estimates place the number of self-described evangelicals in the military at close to 30 percent. Hardly a majority, yet their cohesion and pervasiveness throughout the system make for a formidable presence on campus, MRFF contends. Groups like Campus Crusade for Christ and Cadence International – which have lots of money and access to students and soldiers – openly proselytize. One look at Cadence International’s website, for example, and it’s clear they’re conflating military duty with service in “God’s war,” where the enemy is the non-believer, and that enemy is a lot closer than you think:

From Capt. Chris Hopkins, USMC in Iraq, explaining the “Christian’s Code of Conduct” in an article for Cadence:

“Make no mistake, if you love the Lord Jesus you are in a war. … Even now, this war is beginning to manifest itself in the government and population of many countries, including our own. Some of you who are faithful to not deny the name of Jesus will become prisoners of this war, and the price you pay will be great. However, just as the US prisoners of war were sustained many times by this code, so shall we be by the Word when we are taken captive.”

Like Michael the Avenging Archangel draped in the American flag, the religious warrior meme permeates every stage of a born again soldier’s life. From the academy to active duty, professional careers and overseas deployments, this fully entrenched subculture is starting to make the military look less and less like the America outside and more like its own tribe, or even its own nation (don’t miss this 2005 promotional video for Christian Embassy in Washington, in which an Army Brigadier General says, “we are the aroma of Jesus”).

Like it or not this affects us in the worst way. MRFF has been spending years now trying to show the rest of the nation what is being done in our name, and it boils down to this: evangelical soldiers who have been hardwired to believe a.) they represent the one true faith and b.) Muslims are wicked and evil, are going to Iraq and Afghanistan with a two-pronged mission – to kill and convert.

There are plenty of examples of both. The worst in killing: a Bradley tank scrawled with the words “Jesus Killed Mohammed” barreling down the residential streets of the Holy City of Sammara, daring any Iraqi to respond, and then spattering them with gunfire if they do. “(The soldiers) thought he was a hero, a kamikaze on a suicide mission,” wrote Jeff Sharlet, who wrote about the modern day crusaders for Harper’s in May 2009.

The worst in converting: a group of soldiers in “Bible study” on base in Afghanistan, armed with Bibles written in Dari and Pashto, readying to engage in direct missionary work with the Muslims outside. The video here, shows them concocting ways to get around Army rules that forbid proselytizing. Meanwhile, the chief chaplain in Afghanistan preaches to a packed house of soldier-worshipers, urging them to recruit Muslims for conversion. “We hunt people for Jesus … that’s our business,” he says.

“No rational person can say this doesn’t have an effect” on the U.S. mission over there, said Rodda. “And we hear about this stuff all of the time – a constant stream of emails about abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan.” This year the Pentagon was forced to stop buying guns with sights that were outfitted with biblical references. Not only unconstitutional, says Rodda, but not very helpful, either.

“We also have a lot of examples of soldiers who were making progress (with locals) and then one of these crazy incidents happen and then all of a sudden they’re back to square one. You hear of these missionary groups and then all of a sudden there are a thousand Afghans protesting in front of a mosque, shouting ‘death to America,’” she added.

“Christian proselytizing and growing evangelism in the military only contributes to the wide disconnect between what we say we want to do abroad and what we are really doing,” said M. Junaid Levesque-Alam, writer and publisher of the Crossing the Crescent blog. “This notion that you can send 20 year olds with guns to a completely alien place and win over foreigners is absurd, but it’s particularly absurd when those foreigners are Muslims and our military sanctions the message of religious demagogues (like Franklin Graham) who despise the Muslim faith.”

No one knows what kind of violence was spawned when U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin declared that “we in the Army of God, in the House of God, the Kingdom of God, have been raised for such a time as this,” or how many al Qaeda recruitment videos are using photos of large Christian murals painted on the outside of U.S. forward operating bases, or of American soldiers smiling, holding their rifles and Bibles.

Meanwhile, the military’s reported practice of allowing chaplains – 60 percent of whom are evangelical, according to recent surveys – to fill the shortage of mental health professionals on the battlefield uncovers yet another venue of exploitation for recruiters to God’s Army. What could be a more tempting target then a soldier, beaten down mentally and physically and waiting for something – anything – to ease the pain?

And because these soldiers are not getting the help they need, the pain and burden on themselves and on society when they come home will be that much more acute.

From the MRFF/VCS letter to the Pentagon, dated Aug. 9:

“According to the reports of these veterans, the chaplains they were sent to for evaluation and treatment had the unmitigated temerity to urge, as a medicinal cure, a conversion to evangelical Christianity, and sometimes even went as far as disgustingly lacing their ‘counseling’ with the soldiers’ need to stay on the battlefield to ‘kill Muslims for Christ.’ Even in the best cases, while the chaplains’ words of proselytizing may have provided a temporary placebo, allowing these soldiers to return temporarily to combat for the remainder of their deployment, within months of returning home from war, their ‘temporary religious faith’ wore off as their profound mental health symptoms, quite predictably, returned in all their fury.”

The Pentagon has not responded to these charges, which are all based on complaints gathered by MRFF and VCS.

But the growing body of evidence indicates that what Weinstein calls the Fundamentalist-Christian-Para-Church-Military-Corporate-Proselytizing-Complex has grave consequences for the greater population, too. This endless cycle of Muslim jihadist/American holy warrior hate and vengeance has added untold years to the war. Sadly, while the rest of us are looking to end it, our American archangels seem happy to let the war continue until every last non-believer is killed or converted.

The rhetoric is also mimicked to great effect by populist political figures like Sarah Palin (who says soldiers set the moral standards for America) and Glenn Beck, and in the Tea Party movement itself. It should be no surprise that Beck’s “Restore Honor” rally was no different than an evangelical event, in which a military non-profit was given a percentage of the proceeds and the Armed Services a lavish tribute. How far this goes and to what ends should be a concern for us all – not just those “unbelievers” in the military.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos