CHURCH & STATE
In Defense of Foxhole Atheists
It’s no secret that conservative Christians dominate the U.S. military, but when higher-ups start talking about conversion missions, it’s time to worry. The author meets a group of soldiers who aren’t having it.
By Christopher Hitchenshttp://www.vanityfair.com/politics/feat ... acy-200912
One Monday in May, I was setting off from Washington to Colorado Springs, home of the United States Air Force Academy. I had kindly been invited by the academy’s “freethinkers association,” a loose-knit group of cadets and instructors who are without religious affiliation. As I was making ready to depart, and checking my e-mail, I found I had been sent a near-incredible video clip from the Al Jazeera network. It had been shot at Bagram Air Force Base last year, and it showed a borderline-hysterical address by one Lieutenant Colonel Gary Hensley, chief of the United States’ military chaplains in Afghanistan. He was telling his evangelical audience, all of them wearing uniforms supplied by the taxpayer, that as followers of Jesus Christ they had a collective responsibility “to be witnesses for him.” Heating up this theme, Lieutenant Colonel Hensley went on: “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. Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them in the kingdom. Right? That’s what we do, that’s our business.”
The comparison to the Special Forces would seem to suggest that the objects of this hunting and hounding are Afghans rather than Americans. But it’s difficult to be certain, and indeed I am invited to Colorado Springs partly because chaplains there have been known to employ taxpayer dollars to turn the hounds of heaven loose on their own students and fellow citizens. As the Bagram tape goes on, however, it becomes obvious that Afghans are the targets in this case. Stacks of Bibles are on display, in the Dari and Pashto tongues that are the main languages in Afghanistan. A certain Sergeant James Watt, a candidate for a military chaplaincy, is shown giving thanks for the work of his back-home church, which subscribed the dough. “I also want to praise God because my church collected some money to get Bibles for Afghanistan. They came and sent the money out,” he beamingly tells his Bible-study class. In another segment, those present show quite clearly that they understand they are in danger of violating General Order Number One of the U.S. Central Command, which explicitly prohibits “proselytizing of any religion, faith, or practice.” A gathering of chaplains, all of them fed from the public trough, is addressed by Captain Emmit Furner, a military cleric who seems half in love with his own light-footed moral dexterity. “Do we know what it means to proselytize?” he asks his audience. A voice from the audience is heard to say, “It is General Order Number One.” To this Sergeant Watt replies: “You can’t proselytize but you can give gifts.… I bought a carpet and then I gave the guy a Bible after I conducted my business.” So where’s the harm in a man who is paid by the United States government to be a Christian chaplain strolling condescendingly through the souk and handing out religious propaganda as if it were a handful of small change or backsheesh? Probably not much more damaging to the war effort, or insulting to Afghan sensibilities, than the activities of the anonymous torturers who have been found operating elsewhere on the Bagram base. But it is taking the axe to the root of the United States Constitution, never mind General Order Number One. (Neither of these seems to be in force locally: no action against the uniformed missionaries has been taken.)
The film was originally shot by Brian Hughes, a maker of documentaries and a former member of the United States military who had fought in the Gulf War. It was made available to James Bays, one of Al Jazeera’s more experienced Afghan reporters. By the time I had landed in Colorado Springs, later that day, I expected that the thing would have become a national story and that the cadets, perhaps most especially the freethinkers club, would be talking about it. But I was mistaken twice. Only a few fringe anti-war malcontents had made anything of this outrageous clip, and there was a general shrug when I mentioned it. “That sort of thing happened to me a lot in Afghanistan,” I was told by Carlos Bertha, a veteran of the war who now teaches philosophy to cadets and who helped organize my talk. “I used to complain and sometimes the word would come down to lay off, but it was always ready to start up again.”
He was talking, however, about in-your-face Christian-fundamentalist displays at the entrance to the chow hall. Perhaps local Afghan hired helpers would have to see these, too, but the propaganda wasn’t being inflicted directly on them. So the question becomes two related questions: Is there a clique within the United States military that is seeking to use the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as an opportunity to mount a new crusade and to Christianize the “heathen”? And does this clique also attempt to impose its beliefs on young Americans in uniform, many of whom may even be Christian already? If the answer to either question is “yes,” then we are directly financing the subversion of our own Constitution and inviting a “holy war” where we will not be able to say that only the other side is dogmatic and fanatical.
To take the questions in reverse: A few years ago I wrote a book that mentioned an astonishing state of affairs at the Air Force Academy. But don’t take my word for it. An official usaf panel of inquiry, reporting in 2005, admitted that the commandant of cadets, Brigadier General Johnny A. Weida, had sent out an academy-wide e-mail reminding all hands of the upcoming and exclusively Protestant National Day of Prayer. He had further informed cadets that they were “accountable to their God” and came up with an ingenious call-and-response chant that went like this: “Jesus … Rocks! ” Evidently quite a warrior. The head football coach, Fisher DeBerry, had improved on this only slightly by staging locker-room prayer-pleas to “The Master Coach” and hanging out a banner that read, “Team Jesus.” A screening of Mel Gibson’s incendiary, Jew-baiting homoerotic extravaganza, The Passion of the Christ, had flyers in its favor placed on every seat in the Air Force Academy dining hall. A Pentecostal chaplain warned cadets that they should accept Christ or “burn in hell.” About the latter incident, the air-force investigative panel decided to be lenient, on the perfectly good grounds that such language is “not uncommon” in this denomination. And that, I suspect, is part of the problem to begin with: unexamined extremist Christian conservatism is the cultural norm in many military circles. One Lutheran chaplain at the academy, Captain Melinda Morton, resigned from the service after being transferred for protesting that the evangelical pressure was “systematic.” And, despite the tolerance for Pentecostal hellfire rants, by no means all forms of expression could be indulged; a nonbelieving cadet was forbidden to organize a club for “freethinkers.”
That has now changed as a result of the indoctrination scandal, which is why I was able to be at the Springs. The academy’s chaplains still would not allow our meeting to take place on the base, but that was fine by me, as it meant we could all meet out of uniform at the Old Chicago pub downtown. The last survey of student opinion found that of the 4,400 cadets, 85 percent were Christian of one kind or another, 2 percent were declared atheists, 1.5 percent were Jewish, 0.4 percent Muslim, 0.3 percent Hindu, and—note this—9.3 percent either indicated no allegiance or identified themselves as “other.” According to all measurements of opinion, the latter is the fastest-growing minority in the United States, and only slightly under-represented at the Air Force Academy. (The Pew report on the subject says that unbelievers in the armed services overall represent a higher percentage than that of the general population: this would track with my experience and disprove that silly old line about there being no atheists in foxholes.)
I am still not going to give any real names of cadets attending my little event: there were about 20 of them, mostly males. Two of the group, one Baptist and one Mormon, had given up their faith since enlisting at the academy. The others fluctuated between doubt and agnosticism and straight-out unbelief. They were good-humored, outspoken, and tough-minded: the sort of people who make you proud of being defended by a volunteer military. According to most of them, the situation had improved since the last scandal, or rather because of it. In an acronym-dominated world, the school’s spire (Special Programs in Religious Education) could now include meetings for unbelievers, but even so an S.C.A. (Scheduling Committee Action) had to be approved before they could be allowed to meet with your humble servant in a pub overlooked by Pike’s Peak. It seemed weird to me that people willing to fight and die for the United States should be treated as if they were children (or do I mean members of a “flock”?).
They all told me that they felt quite able to stand up to peers and community members who wanted to evangelize them. (The Colorado Springs area is home to James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” campaign, as well as to the fragrant Reverend Ted Haggard, crusader and, when entwined with male hookers, meth buyer as well.) What they would object to would be evangelizing from higher up. And there is ever stronger reason to think that, at the Pentagon, the fish rots from the head. It emerges that during the invasion of Iraq, one of Donald Rumsfeld’s directors of intelligence, Major General Glen Shaffer, began to attach fiery biblical excerpts to the photographs that accompanied the daily briefings. For example, on one document delivered to President Bush by Rumsfeld there was a picture of an F-14 “Tomcat” on the deck of a carrier, with the accompaniment of verses from Psalm 139: “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast, O Lord.” Over a photograph of Saddam Hussein appeared the words, from the first Epistle of Peter: “It is by God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” (I pause to note that this suggests that General Shaffer had no idea what hellishness Saddam Hussein had actually, apart from his inexplicable failure to accept Jesus as his personal savior, been responsible for.)
More alarming still is a book called Under Orders: A Spiritual Handbook for Military Personnel, by an air-force lieutenant colonel named William McCoy, publicity for which describes the separation of church and state as a “twisted idea.” Nor is this the book’s only publicity: it comes—with its direct call for a religion-based military—with an endorsement from General David Petraeus.
It is outrageous that brave and intelligent young officers, seeing such theocratic absurdity rampant among the top brass, could suspect even for a second that their road to promotion was a longer one unless they acquiesced in this use of public resources for the promotion of (a single) religion. And if that thought can arise in a military academy or the corridors of the Pentagon, how much more oppressive is it when the volunteer is far from home, on the frontier, on a firebase, or aboard a submarine or a carrier, and being told that this time the objects of conversion are also the people we supposedly came to rescue from the Taliban and al-Qaeda? Captain Melinda Morton was, before quitting the Air Force Academy, a missile-launch commander. She believes that there is a fusion between the two types of proselytization. The evangelicals, she told Jeff Sharlet— whose work on this has been path-breaking —see the whole military as “a mission field. They wanted to send their missionaries to the military, and for the military itself to become missionaries to the world.” If this bizarre ambition came anywhere close to being realized, it would make civilian taxpayers into mere hewers of wood and drawers of water for an armed but unelected religious elite, and it would make our soldiers into unwitting pawns in a very dangerous game where they were considered expendable cannon fodder for Christ. The only certain winners would be the death cultists of jihad, who are already marveling at their luck in being proved right about the Americans as “crusaders.” This is as near to mutiny and treason as one could hope to sail and still wear the uniform.
And please do not think for a single second that, if proselytizing in our armed forces is permitted to extremist Christians, the precedent will not be taken up by other fanatics as well. There was a time when a man named Abdurahman Alamoudi was operating freely in this country, and even being deployed as a “moderate” Muslim spokesman by the State Department. More than once received at the White House, he also helped found an outfit with the intriguing name of the Muslim Armed Forces and Veteran Affairs Council, which was used to select Islamic chaplains in the armed services. Mr. Alamoudi’s run of luck ended in 2004, when he was given a long sentence in federal prison for activities related to terrorism. Since then, serving officers like the now famous Major Nidal Malik Hasan have had to go online for their extremist spiritual advisers, such as the fugitive preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who issued a general religious permission to shoot down U.S. servicemen only a short time before Major Hasan rose to his feet and sprayed his fellow countrymen at Fort Hood. Awlaki later praised the gallant major as “a hero.” This was not the only evidence of an early-stage attempt at setting up jihadist penetration of the ranks, but, yet again, the authorities decided to treat Major Hasan’s alarming statements as if they were protected religious speech rather than early warnings of the effect of a homicidal theology. A psychiatrist gives a lecture at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, on the government’s dime, and exclaims proudly that Muslim fighters love death more than we love life … Not very Hippocratic.
Throughout modern American history, the armed forces have been a great engine for assimilation and integration. Segregation of blacks was abolished in the services long before it was done away with in the wider society. Hispanic soldiers who are not yet full citizens have won many awards for bravery in the field. Women—not always approved of by religious fanatics—have risen to occupy serious command posts at all levels. (Discrimination against homosexuals, another religion-based prejudice, remains official, but that is a political decision, not a military one, and even the British services now recruit gay men and women, so change is probably not far off.) It would be an unimaginable catastrophe for America if the ranks became an arena of contestation between competing religious sectarians, and the effect on morale in the field would be disastrous also. It is of high importance to stop it before it can get started, and this means applying the principle of church-state separation right across the military spectrum.
James Madison was the co-author with Thomas Jefferson of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which became the basis of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Not accidentally the first clause of our Bill of Rights, this amendment unambiguously forbids any “establishment of religion” in or by these United States. In his “Detached Memoranda,” not published until after his death, Madison even wrote that the appointment of chaplains in the armed forces, and indeed in Congress, was “inconsistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principles of religious freedom.” He could never have foreseen a time when state-subsidized chaplains would be working to subvert the Constitution, and violating their sacred oath to uphold it. Let us be highly thankful that we have young soldiers and sailors and air-force personnel who, busy and devoted as they already are, show themselves brave enough to fight back on this front too.
Christopher Hitchens is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. Send comments on all Hitchens-related matters to firstname.lastname@example.org