Is the American Military Too Christian?
Last year, former NFL player Terry Bradshaw starred in an official military video that espoused "the importance of faith" in combating post-deployment depression. In January, news broke that a Michigan company had been inscribing coded references to the New Testament on high-powered rifle sights sold to the U.S. military. Weeks later, a giant cross was placed in the center of a newly constructed pagan worship site at Colorado's Air Force Academy, built to accommodate practicing Wiccans.
And those are only the incidents that have gone on within our borders. In May, Harper's Magazine published a 13-page expose that included provocative details on war-zone religiosity in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, advocates for religious equality in the military are speaking out over yet another incident. Focus on the Family, an evangelical group known for its recent Super Bowl ad featuring football star Tim Tebow, has had a lucrative arrangement with the Pentagon to host seminars and marriage conferences for personnel. Next week, at least two bases will partake in an all-day Focus on the Family simulcast being broadcast to 300 churches nationwide.
The simulcast, like any religious event, ritual or celebration within the military, is technically voluntary. But dozens of base members have complained about "aggressive" e-mails from chaplains and commanders who "strongly suggest" they attend.
In an e-mail, one unnamed base member wrote of Focus on Family: "This isn't just a religious organization, it's a political organization. At what point did it become appropriate or even remotely acceptable to use government facilities to promote a very specific political religious agenda?"
The ongoing events are part of a larger effort by Focus on the Family, called The Truth Project. It's become a core component of military efforts at reducing divorce rates among military couples. The "group curriculum designed to disseminate the Christian world view" is often taught on bases. Base members told AOL News that non-Christians and those who are Christian, but aren't evangelical, are "strongly encouraged" to attend.
Focus on the Family spokeswoman Caroline Inman confirmed the simulcast and the ongoing partnership. She said specific military bases "came to us and asked to participate" in Focus on the Family events.
Focus on the Family marriage therapist Mitch Temple said the group encourages everyone to attend. "We welcome and encourage non-Christian couples to attend this event. Though some of the content is based on Christian principles, there are many practical ideas presented in each session designed to help couples whether they are Christians or not," he told AOL in a statement.
Mikey Weinstein, a former JAG lawyer and the founder of the Military Freedom Foundation, said that events steeped in evangelical Christian ritual are commonplace on military bases. And their voluntary nature often comes with strings attached.
"If someone doesn't attend, even if they are Christian, they might be told they aren't religious enough, and that this makes them dishonorable, not courageous, not good people," Weinstein said. "And that's not just an unfortunate situation. These people are being religiously raped."
Weinstein estimates that about 88 percent of the U.S. military is either protestant or Catholic, with 4 percent representing other faiths, atheists and agnostics. According to Pentagon statistics, 22 percent of active personnel are evangelical Christians.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation counts around 16,000 members, including vets and reservists. Of those, 96 percent are Christian.
The Department of Defense has made several highly publicized efforts at greater religious accommodation, especially since 2005, when a football coach at the Air Force Academy posted a "Team Jesus" banner in the locker room.
At the time, NPR reported that the Academy would be hosting mandatory religious tolerance seminars for cadets. The Department of Defense has also proactively built worship facilities for those of minority faiths and improved pluralist training for chaplains. Still, of the 2,900 active chaplains with the military, two-thirds are evangelical -- and that number continues to rise.
Despite public efforts, Weinstein says the religious culture of the military keeps getting worse. "In 1972, when the military went from draft to voluntary, representation from wide swaths of the country soared," he said. "It's led to fanatical religiosity, mixed up with wrong-headed patriotism."
Strong Bonds pre- and post-deployment family retreats are another ongoing dilemma.These are often held at ski lodges or resorts, participants say, and the weekends feature a heavy dose of Christianity. Each attending service member recently received "Every Soldier's Battle Kit," imprinted with the name of a prominent evangelical ministry and its phone number. The kit also contained a tome written by pastor Gary Chapman, who is described on his Web site as "the leading author in biblical marriage counseling."
The Department of Defense Web site bills the weekends as religion-free, but it often shells out for Christian entertainment. One base spent $38,269 on Unlimited Potential Inc., an evangelical baseball ministry with the mission "to use our God-given abilities in baseball to reach those who do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
The top-down hierarchy of military units also means that troops on the receiving end of offensive material often feel helpless. Recently, dozens of service members complained about an e-mail sent around by command staff titled "Moses the Leader: How Would You Like to Lead 1,000,000 Whiners?" According to unnamed recipients, the e-mail contained derogatory references to Jews and promoted a prayer circle being led by command staff.
Wrote one service member: "The [e-mail memos have] already turned every Commander's Call into a mandatory prayer session, but this just seems to cross a line. ... And what recourse is there here? Is it even worth bothering with for someone who's PCSing [permanently relocating] in 30 days?"
But not every expert is convinced of Weinstein's interpretation. "I don't necessarily see this as a sign of growing conflict," said Robert W. Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University Law School. "To me, this is a sign of growing openness, that people are willing to come forward about their discomfort or report misconduct."
Tuttle said he is hopeful that more efforts to accommodate diverse faiths will mitigate any sense of discomfort among non-evangelical troops. That includes space and time to practice a religion, as well as amendments to clothing restrictions so that Muslims and others can dress to reflect their beliefs.
One U.S. Navy veteran, who enlisted in 1979, disagrees. Akiva David Miller, a former evangelical Christian who has converted to Orthodox Judaism, recalls his military service as a time when religious imposition was impermissible. "We were trained not to cross those lines, and we didn't," he said.
After moving to Iowa City from Portland, Ore., Miller says he experienced ongoing anti-Semitism at a medical center run by Veterans Affairs. Finally, his medical coverage was denied, and Miller was forced to return to Portland for treatment of chronic kidney stones and PTSD.
Miller's complaints were confirmed by a military chaplain who later investigated the Iowa clinic.
The Department of Defense didn't respond to calls for comment. But in January, Air Force Academy spokesman John Van Winkle told the L.A. Times that tolerance was top priority. "It boils down to the key issue of respect -- respect for everyone's right to practice their faith as they choose," he said.
In the military, many ceremonies, speeches and events are mandatory, and include innumerable evangelical references. That's a violation of the First Amendment, Weinstein said..
"In the eyes of the law, everyone's got even playing status to celebrate their faith," he said. "That means no favored position, no special recognition, no gospel from one group bleeding into the others."
On that point, Weinstein, Tuttle -- and the Pentagon -- all seem to agree. This week, Weinstein will give a speech on religious tolerance at the Air Force Academy's annual National Character and Leadership Symposium. He says he's hopeful for continued progress, and that he's not after abolishing religion in the armed forces.
"We just refuse to accept fanaticism, we refuse to accept proselytizing" he said, "and we refuse to accept a military that our founding fathers wouldn't even recognize."