How Atheists Are Fighting Back Against Military Discrimination
The following is the second part of a three-part series on the negative effects of evangelical Christianity in our military. This segment will describe efforts to combat harassment by the evangelical establishment. The first article in the series can be found here.
The evangelizing of the military that I discussed in my previous article has not come without a backlash. The controversies at the Air Force Academy were enough to galvanize one man to begin the long fight to roll back Christian Dominionism. Mikey Weinstein, whose son, a cadet, was slurred and harassed as a “dirty Jew” who “killed Jesus,” founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) in 2005. Weinstein, a registered Republican and former lawyer in the Reagan White House, has made it his goal to assist members of the military who are targeted, excluded, or harassed for their beliefs or lack thereof. (He’s also living proof that the separation of church and state is something that all of us — not just those on the left — can support.)
The watchdog MRFF, whose explicit mission is the defense of each soldier’s control over his or her faith, has found itself involved in several controversies since its inception. Its 2007 report on government involvement with parachurch organizations revealed the paid missionaries noted above. But the group is far from the only one pointing out the evangelizing of our military, specifically at the Air Force Academy. The Yale Divinity School’s 2004 report to Chaplain Colonel Michael Whittington detailed systematic proselytizing toward non-evangelical soldiers.
The evangelized military is, as you might imagine, horribly oppressive to those who don’t drink the same flavor-aid. The effects of exclusion and discrimination don’t need to be repeated here. Thus it is easy to imagine how damaging such exclusion would be to the military, which prides itself on the cohesion of its units. Put quite simply, as social cohesion decreases, so does the efficacy of the whole group. There is a clear psychological basis for the negative effects of rejection, which supports the idea that it is simply a terrible idea to discriminate against members of an incredibly important team.
Attempts to protect soldiers from proselytizing and other harassment have met with little success. Attempts to make the military more inclusive for nonbelievers has met with even less success. Congress recently reaffirmed its opinion that nonbelievers deserve none of the resources of the chaplaincy. In voting against allowing secular chaplains in our armed forces, the House sent a clear message to atheists, humanists, and other nonbelievers that they do not deserve access to chaplains who share their philosophy.
What would a humanist chaplain do? Basically everything a theist chaplain does. As Hemant Mehta, author of the blog linked above, writes:
There’s nothing a chaplain does that a humanist can’t do in an analogous way. Hold weekly services? Check. Perform burial services? Check. Pray to a fictional god? Nope. But the job of the chaplain is not to convert, but to comfort and counsel. Atheists in the military deserve that, just like everybody else.
Other efforts to change the current environment of religious intolerance have met with varying degrees of success. The Obama administration opposed Rep. Louie Gohmert's (R-Texas) amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which would have specifically protected the right of superiors to proselytize to subordinates in the U.S. military. Because of this, Gohmert, for whom facts have always seemed optional, graciously reminded the nation that Obama is anti-Christian. In reality, Gohmert’s amendment was a backhanded attempt to justify anti-gay sentiment in the military by describing it as protected religious speech. Gohmert attempted to justify this violation of the separation of church and state under the guise of “religious freedom,” which has been appropriated recently to justify other forms of discrimination, like denying employees access to reproductive medical care.
Seven years ago, an anti-proselytizing amendment to the 2006 NDAA was voted down. Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), citing the Yale Divinity Report mentioned above, proposed an amendment to outlaw “coercive and abusive religious proselytizing” at the USAF academy. The House, unmoved, acted to protect the “right” to proselytize.
President Obama has done little else to combat evangelism in the armed forces. A petition asking the president to end discrimination against nonbelievers has gone unanswered since 2011.
Access to mental health resources is another way in which religious intolerance affects military nonbelievers. The army's “spiritual fitness test,” which is used to assess resilience to post-traumatic stress and other psychological disorders, reveals the opinion that the military leadership sees belief in the supernatural as a prerequisite for mental fitness. Indeed, the Marine Corps recently listed “lack or loss of spiritual faith” as a risk factor for the health of Marines. On top of these absurd implications, the “spiritual fitness” mentality denigrates those who don't score well. For example, an atheist soldier whose answers are “not spiritual enough” might receive this summary after completing the test:
"You may lack a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and to others around you. You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself. You may question your beliefs, principles and values."
In other words, because the soldier's answers don't reflect the “correct” beliefs, his commitment to values like honor, sacrifice, and duty, common among those in the armed forces, are questionable and weak.
Psychological resources aren’t the only military assets to be co-opted by evangelicals. In a 2007 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Mikey Weinstein and Reza Aslan (who was recently excoriated by FOX News, apparently because Muslims should not be allowed to talk about Jesus) discussed a shipment of care packages that were quietly not sent to Iraq. The “care packages” contained Bibles, conversion materials in English and Arabic, and a Left Behind videogame. (If you didn't know better, you might think people want the world to think this is actually a crusade.)
It gets worse. The infamous “Jesus rifle” incident of 2010 shows the extent to which believers strive to introduce Christian Dominionism into U.S. foreign policy. Michigan-based arms manufacturer Trijicon, whose equipment has been used by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, was found to have inscribed references to Christian scripture on the scopes of their rifles (see below). As put by MRFF founder Mikey Weinstein, the inscriptions could be a major problem for a captured U.S. soldier. To the Taliban and the insurgents in Iraq, many of whom are drawn by the opportunity to engage in jihad, the Jesus rifle is perfect physical proof that U.S. invasions are very much Christian crusades. After Weinstein brought the case to national attention, Trijicon pledged to discontinue the inscriptions on scopes sold to the government, offering to provide “fix-it” kits to modify existing weapons.
As of 2012, however, very little had been done. Few if any of the existing inscriptions had been removed, leaving an estimated 250,000 such scopes in the hands of soldiers who deal with Muslim populations daily.
Despite a valiant — and bipartisan — effort to combat the military's culture of evangelical domination, progress has been slow in coming. What can we expect in the future if progress slows even further, and the military becomes evangelized even more? In the third and final article in this series, I'll answer that question.