Are U.S. troops being force-fed Christianity?
A watchdog group alleges that improper evangelizing is occurring within the ranks.
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"My son had dreamed of doing what I had done, but it was no longer the institution I went to," Colonel Antoon says, his voice cracking with emotion.Skip to next paragraph
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The Air Force set about reaffirming basic principles in religion guidelines, as a basis for widespread training, but a pushback by Evangelicals later led to Congress setting them aside until hearings could be held. The hearings have not taken place.
In 2006, MRFF learned of a video produced by Christian Embassy, a group that conducts Bible studies at the Pentagon and seeks to evangelize within the armed services. Aimed at fundraising for the group, the video was improperly taped in the Pentagon and involved endorsements by Army and Air Force generals in uniform.
MRFF's public alert spurred a DOD investigation. In a report critical of the senior officers, the Inspector General said they gave the appearance of speaking for the military. One general defended his role by saying "Christian Embassy had become a quasi-federal entity."
The report noted that Maj. Gen. Paul Sutton participated while he served as chief of the US Office of Defense Cooperation in Turkey, a largely Muslim nation whose military takes pride in protecting the country's secular status. After a Turkish newspaper wrote about the video as promoting a "fundamentalist sect," General Sutton was called in and questioned by members of the Turkish General Staff.
"They had to give him a lesson in the separation of church and state," Weinstein says. "Imagine the propaganda bonanza! And how this upset Muslims."
The DOD report on the video recommended "appropriate corrective action" be taken against the officers. According to Army spokesman Paul Boyce, "The Army has not yet completed any planned actions associated with the Christian Embassy review."
MRFF claims a victory in the case of the evangelical group Operation Stand Up. Earlier this year, OSU was preparing to send "freedom packages" to soldiers in Iraq as part of an Army program. Along with socks and snacks, the packages included proselytizing materials in English and Arabic, and the apocalyptic video game, "Left Behind: Eternal Forces." In it, Christians carry on warfare against people of other faiths.
After the plans were made public, the Pentagon announced in August that the materials would not be mailed. OSU did not respond to a request for comment.
Weinstein – an intense, voluble attorney who prizes blunt, no-holds-barred language – has struck more than one nerve with his bird-dogging. He says numerous threats have been made on his life. Last week, the front window of his house was shot out for the second time. After the lawsuit was filed, talk of "fragging" (killing) Specialist Hall surfaced on some military blogs. The Army is investigating.
Others sympathetic to Weinstein's concerns say some tactics undermine his efforts, and they question aims.
"He's uncovered some very disturbing stuff that shouldn't be going on in the armed forces," says Marc Stern, a religious liberty expert at American Jewish Congress. "But it's important that you not go too far." Mr. Stern disagrees, for instance, with Weinstein's stance on the Air Force guidelines, such as preventing military supervisors from ever speaking of religion to people under their command.
"He did a disservice to his and our cause by taking a position beyond what the law requires, and in fact may intrude on people's rights," Stern adds.
Several conservative Christian ministries publicly proclaim an evangelistic aim "to transform the nations of the world through the militaries of the world," and they are active at US military installations in many countries. (See www.militaryministry.org or militarymissionsnetwork.org.)
MRFF sees that as a harbinger of a volunteer military falling under the sway of increasing numbers of Christian soldiers. Others see a military leadership, with the exception of a few generals here or there, well aware of its constitutional responsibilities, but challenged by the demands of training on these issues in a military of millions. A group such as MRFF can provide a crucial service, they say, if it is willing to work with the military.
Right now, Weinstein is counting on a set of lawsuits to bring serious issues to the fore. The question is whether those suits will go beyond individual cases of discrimination to prove an unconstitutional pattern within the armed forces.