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Troops Being Force-Fed Christianity?

Jane Lampman of the Christian Science Monitor reports on several cases where American troops felt they were force-fed evangelical Christian beliefs and castigated for their own dissenting views. The piece is somewhat disjointed and is simply a series of anecdotes, allegations, and rehashed incidents, some only tangentially related to the charge.

The retired colonel and Air Force Academy graduate who decided that his son would not follow in his footsteps after “an overt evangelistic approach during part of the orientation so upset them” is both outrageous and amusing. Outrageous, because such displays are not only illegal but counterproductive. Amusing, because it’s likely that Cadet David Antoon was marched to chapel and sat through Christian prayers at his meals; the former practice didn’t end until a 1972 court order. The idea that the military should be a secular institution is, after all, relatively recent. Previously, “God and country” were intertwined in the indoctrination.

There’s an argument made by one activist quoted in the piece — and it’s an observation that I’ve heard repeatedly from knowledgeable sources — that what’s new is the rise in the officer corps of a particularly dogmatic evangelical strain that’s intolerant of other views and pushed aggressively by senior leadership. How true this is, I can’t say; I didn’t experience it (or perhaps just didn’t find it unusual) during my time in service (cadetship and Reserve Component 1984-1988, active duty 1988-92).

For a variety of reasons, the military is more dogmatic in key ways than it was a generation ago. The crackdown on drunk driving in the mid-to-late 1980s, followed by the ban on alcohol for reasons of cultural sensitivity during Desert Storm, and the general demise of the Officer Clubs has radically transformed the culture of the officer corps and, to a lesser extent, the military as a whole. There’s zero tolerance for insobriety and especially bad behavior associated with it. The Desert Storm drinking ban has become the norm for troops deployed into hostile fire zones. Certainly, that sort of military is more attractive to and likely to be dominated by Evangelicals.

Further, commanders have enormous discretion. So, if a particularly religious fellow takes charge of a unit, he may well push the envelope regardless of the general command climate.

And, of course, there are networking effects. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes and similar groups at the academies would carry their bond into the service and continue similar associations. A critical mass of Evangelicals would likely work together to promote their own and discourage the promotion of those who don’t measure up to their own moral standards. (Then again, in recent years almost everybody willing to stay in has been promoted at least up to lieutenant colonel/commander.)

My strong guess is that there’s nothing sinister or nefarious going on here. It’s quite likely that there are simply numerous isolated incidents taking place where real or perceived pressure is being applied. It’s certainly something that merits investigation. In the meantime, it would likely be useful to have some refresher training for commanders on military law.

UPDATE: Colonel Antoon responds at length in the comments below. While acknowledging that institutionalized religion was the norm at the Academy in the 1960s, he notes that the tone and emphasis has changed radically.

At the time, the Academy had 6 chaplains: 3 mainline Protestants, 2 priests, and 1 rabbi. They were pastoral types with no recruiting coercive agenda by any faith. The Academy now has these same 6 positions PLUS 12 additional evangelical preachers (a 300% increase with much smaller cadet wing)-plus 25 evangelical reserve chaplains assigned to the Academy. During the orientation of 04 I attended, Chaplain Watties, side by side with 10 evangelical chaplains chanting amen’s and alleluias (not one mainline protestant or priest or rabbi was allowed to be present at the orientation reported by the exec officer) boasted of having half the cadet wing attend bible studies on Monday nights in the dormitories and challenging the new appointees to increase these numbers. The Yale Report (Yale Divinity School) after observing that summer’s basic training stated the overt and strident evangelical themes from senior officer down were divisive and destructive. I know of no other federal or state institution that has this many chaplains, nor can afford such–one assigned to every sports team. None of this existed when I was a cadet, nor was there over coercive pressure from senior commanders or the chaplains staff. The base newspaper did not in the 60′s print advertisements signed by half of the Academy staff and leadership stating that Jesus is the only true answer.

I had no idea things had progressed to that level. It’s simply astonishing.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    Of course you’ll only find anecdotal evidence, as there will be no proof of a systematic conspiracy to push evangelical beliefs in the military. However, I have to say, the Air Force is much more “straight arrow” than the Army. I was berated as an Air Force captain by a superior officer for having used a profanity in his presence. When I worked on the Army Staff with a group of O-4/O-5 combat arms officers, practically every other word was a profanity. That was also the most fun I ever had in my government career. I entered the military on the tail end of those days when it was acceptable to drink and be inebriated within the confines in the Officers Club, and that was in the Strategic Air Command. Those days are long gone, and not for the better. To be able to let loose and blow off some steam is tremendously beneficial, and if someone disapproves, they don’t have to join in the fun.

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    America’s Jacksonians have always played a prominent role in our military and the trends both in the military and the society at large have worked together to make that even more so today. A substantial portion of America’s Jacksonians are members of various reform Christian denominations broadly referred to as “evangelical”.

    Those who are really concerned about “evangelical Christians” playing too prominent a role in our military and who don’t hold those views themselves should join the military and/or encourage their kids or people they know who hold other beliefs to join the military. It’s an honorable profession.

    I’m not making a chickenhawk argument, merely the obvious observation that if those who join the military are preponderantly evangelical Christians, the beliefs of evangelical Christians will be prominent in the military. If there’s a problem there, the way to solve it is to have people with diverse beliefs in the military, not to suppress the beliefs of those who are willing to serve.

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  3. Dale says:

    I’ve been in the Marine Corps for 19 years now and can’t ever remember being force fed religion. Having said that I have and indeed do know quite a few evangelical christian officers and elisted Marines. But I’ve never felt that they were pushing anything on me. Maybe they weren’t being evangelical enough or I just didn’t pick up on it.

    Things are certainly more “strait and narrow” these days than when I came in, in 1988. For instance as was noted above alcohol consumption was condoned and in some cases encouraged (certainly via peer pressure anyway) back in the very early 90′s but by 1995 that had pretty much changed. Alcohol abuse started being identified and dealt with earlier. Profanity at least in public settings (around civilians or when addressing formations) is looked upon as being “unprofessional” (rightly so I think) but I’ve never been told that I was being “unchristian” for using it.

    When I was a drill instructor at MCRD, San Diego from 1995 – 1997, the drill instructors of my company were instructed to make sure the recruits go to church on Sunday. I, being a paralegal before drill instructor duty, immediately spoke up and informed the group that you can’t force someone to go to church. I was immediately informed by the 1stSgt, in a way that only 1stSgt can do, that he wasn’t sending them to church to get religion in fact he could care less about them getting religion. He wanted them to go so that the recruits could get away from the drill instructors for 1 1/2 hours. The only time during a given week that they didn’t have a drill instructor around. It makes sense.

    I have had to deal with one situation where someone was clearly crossing the line in mixing military service and religion. When I was in Okinawa in 2002, I came out of a resteraunt to find a sailor in uniform standing outside the entrance passing out religious pamphlets from an offbase church. Looking at her rating insignia I noticed that she was not a religious programmer (chaplain’s assistant) so I asked her why she was passing out religious pamphlets in uniform. She informed me that she didn’t know she couldn’t. I then informed that “now she knew” and directed her to leave. She left.

    On the whole I haven’t seen religion getting pushed on me or any of the Marines I’ve lead over the years. My experience though has been in the enlisted ranks. It may be entirely different within the officer ranks.

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  4. MikeT says:

    This must be more of an Air Force thing because one of my best friends is a very traditional Christian, and he is nearly at the point where he feels he **has** to leave because of how toxic the culture is around him. He’s in the Army, and he said that boot camp reminded him of some of the bad frat parties he had seen in college. Drinking and sex were way out of control when anyone had free time.

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  5. jpe says:

    It’s quite likely that there are simply numerous isolated incidents taking place where real or perceived pressure is being applied.

    That becomes systemic, though, when the command knows about the proliferation of isolated incidents and doesn’t do anything about it (which could be as simple as reminding people in command positions to permit free exercise, etc.)

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  6. bob in fl says:

    When I was a drill instructor at MCRD, San Diego from 1995 – 1997, the drill instructors of my company were instructed to make sure the recruits go to church on Sunday. I, being a paralegal before drill instructor duty, immediately spoke up and informed the group that you can’t force someone to go to church. I was immediately informed by the 1stSgt, in a way that only 1stSgt can do, that he wasn’t sending them to church to get religion in fact he could care less about them getting religion. He wanted them to go so that the recruits could get away from the drill instructors for 1 1/2 hours. The only time during a given week that they didn’t have a drill instructor around. It makes sense. Posted by Dale | October 5, 2007 | 11:07 am

    It may make sense, but it is still clearly a violation of the 1st Amendment clause about the establishment of religion. By demanding attendance at church services, he was establishing the Christian religion as a part of the Marine Corps. There are other ways to separate the grunts from the DIs for 1 1/2 hours a week w/o violating the Constitution.

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  7. Dale says:

    It may make sense, but it is still clearly a violation of the 1st Amendment clause about the establishment of religion. By demanding attendance at church services, he was establishing the Christian religion as a part of the Marine Corps.

    You are quite right about the establishment of religion. I did fail to mention in my initial comment that it didn’t matter which service (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim) they went to, that was up to the individual, just so long as they went to something.

    As for other ways to separate recruits from DI’s…no there aren’t. But that is a discussion for another time.

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  8. bob in fl says:

    Dale, your additional comment doesn’t matter. Jewish & Muslim Sabbath falls on Saturday. Besides, you ignore the unbelievers. And there SHOULD be alternate activities.

    Your 1st Sgt also used a specious argument about getting them away from the DIs. The only way he could do that was to deny the DIs the opportunity to attend services of their choice.

    Your original instincts at the time were, indeed, correct.

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  9. just me says:

    My husband was in the Navy from 1989-1995, and there wasn’t much of a religious push.

    This may be something new, and may be something that fits more with one service than the other, or it may be some changes with Iraq being in the picture.

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  10. superdestroyer says:

    One of the things that affects the religious practices is that the Army is almost 1/3 blacks and the black soldiers have a very different opinion of church and state. They basically believe that it does not apply to them. They were open in their religious opinion and beliefs and because of political correctness, very few white soldiers would challenge them on it. ( I guess the same goes for black politicians).

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  11. David Antoon says:

    James Joyner, in the 60′s when I was a cadet, Sunday chapel was mandatory, unless you were an atheist. Meal time prayers, when they occurred were secular — not “Christian”.

    At the time, the Academy had 6 chaplains: 3 mainline Protestants, 2 priests, and 1 rabbi. They were pastoral types with no recruiting coercive agenda by any faith. The Academy now has these same 6 positions PLUS 12 additional evangelical preachers (a 300% increase with much smaller cadet wing)-plus 25 evangelical reserve chaplains assigned to the Academy. During the orientation of 04 I attended, Chaplain Watties, side by side with 10 evangelical chaplains chanting amen’s and alleluias (not one mainline protestant or priest or rabbi was allowed to be present at the orientation reported by the exec officer) boasted of having half the cadet wing attend bible studies on Monday nights in the dormitories and challenging the new appointees to increase these numbers. The Yale Report (Yale Divinity School) after observing that summer’s basic training stated the overt and strident evangelical themes from senior officer down were divisive and destructive. I know of no other federal or state institution that has this many chaplains, nor can afford such–one assigned to every sports team. None of this existed when I was a cadet, nor was there over coercive pressure from senior commanders or the chaplains staff. The base newspaper did not in the 60′s print advertisements signed by half of the Academy staff and leadership stating that Jesus is the only true answer. When media pressure was brought to bare on these issues, DOD IG Joe Schmitz sent LtGen Brady, an evangelical, to investigate. The lack of accountability by the DOD IG, Joe Schmitz, a Christian Supremacist (read Blackwater) in giving Gens Boykin, Weida, Catton, Caslen, Sutton, Brooks, and others a pass leads straight to the top. Please google and observe the “Christian Embassy Video”. Note Boykins connection to torture and rendition, Gitmo, and Abu Graib. Joe Schmitz is now an exec at Blackwater.

    I suggest you read the “Little Blue Book” Code of Ethics written in 1997 after several egregious violations. In part, and in the same section with sexual predation, it states:

    . Military professionals must remember that religious choice is a matter of individual conscience. Professionals, and especially commanders, must not take it upon themselves to change or coercively influence the religious views of subordinates.

    I do find these egregious violations “outrageous” and unconstitutional—“amusing” not at all—and not related at all to your anecdotal stories about officer’s clubs and drinking.

    The Supreme Court outlawed mealtime prayers decades ago, along with mandatory chapel. The military and our government has always been secular. “God and country” perhaps, but not a coercive “Born again, evangelical, dominionist God and country!” being pushed by senior military flag officers.

    David Antoon
    Colonel USAF Retired

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  12. Billy says:

    You are quite right about the establishment of religion. I did fail to mention in my initial comment that it didn’t matter which service (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim) they went to, that was up to the individual, just so long as they went to something.

    Um, still unconstitutional. If they’re being told that “it doesn’t matter what religion you belong to, so long as you belong to a religion,” this is overtly discriminatory with regard to non-members and is a violation of their 1st amendment rights.

    We as Americans might not like that there are atheists and agnostics in our midst, but that does not confer the right of any government institution to insist that they pick something or be treated differently than those who have.

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