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.