Not so fast, Christian soldiers
By Michael L. Weinstein and Reza Aslan
Maybe what the war in Iraq needs is not more troops but more religion. At least that's the message the Department of Defense seems to be sending.
Last week, after an investigation spurred by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the Pentagon abruptly announced that it would not be delivering "freedom packages" to our soldiers in Iraq, as it had originally intended.
What were the packages to contain? Not body armor or home-baked cookies. Rather, they held Bibles, proselytizing material in English and Arabic and the apocalyptic computer game "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" (derived from the series of post-Rapture novels), in which "soldiers for Christ" hunt down enemies who look suspiciously like U.N. peacekeepers.
The packages were put together by a fundamentalist Christian ministry called Operation Straight Up, or OSU. Headed by former kickboxer Jonathan Spinks, OSU is an official member of the Defense Department's "America Supports You" program. The group has staged a number of Christian-themed shows at military bases, featuring athletes, strongmen and actor-turned-evangelist Stephen Baldwin. But thanks in part to the support of the Pentagon, Operation Straight Up has now begun focusing on Iraq, where, according to its website (on pages taken down last week), it planned an entertainment tour called the "Military Crusade."
Apparently the wonks at the Pentagon forgot that Muslims tend to bristle at the word "crusade" and thought that what the Iraq war lacked was a dose of end-times theology.
In the end, the Defense Department realized the folly of participating in any Operation Straight Up crusade. But the episode is just another example of increasingly disturbing, and indeed unconstitutional, relationships being forged between the U.S. military and private evangelical groups.
Take, for instance, the recent scandal involving Christian Embassy, a group whose expressed purpose is to proselytize to military personnel, diplomats, Capitol Hill staffers and political appointees. In a shocking breach of security, Defense Department officials allowed a Christian Embassy film crew to roam the corridors of the Pentagon unescorted while making a promotional video featuring high-ranking officers and political appointees. (Christian Embassy, which holds prayer meetings weekly at the Pentagon, is so entrenched that Air Force Maj. Gen. John J. Catton Jr. said he'd assumed the organization was a "quasi-federal entity.")
The Pentagon's inspector general recently released a report recommending unspecified "corrective action" for those officers who appeared in the video for violating Defense Department regulations. But, in a telling gesture, the report avoided any discussion of how allowing an evangelical group to function within the Defense Department is an obvious violation of the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment.
The extent to which such relationships have damaged international goodwill toward the U.S. is beyond measure. As the inspector general noted, a leading Turkish newspaper, Sabah, published an article on Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Sutton, who is the U.S. liaison to the Turkish military -- and who appeared in the Christian Embassy video. The article described Christian Embassy as a "radical fundamentalist sect," perhaps irreparably damaging Sutton's primary job objective of building closer ties to the Turkish General Staff, which has expressed alarm at the influence of fundamentalist Christian groups inside the U.S. military.
Our military personnel swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, not the Bible. Yet by turning a blind eye to OSU and Christian Embassy activities, the Pentagon is, in essence, endorsing their proselytizing. And sometimes it's more explicit than that.
That certainly was the case with Army Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, deputy undersecretary of Defense for intelligence. The Pentagon put him in charge of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in 2003. The same year, Boykin was found to be touring American churches, where he gave speeches -- in uniform -- casting the Iraq war in end-times terms. "We're in is a spiritual battle," he told one congregation in Oregon. "Satan wants to destroy this nation . . . and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army." The story wound up in newspapers, magazines and on "60 Minutes." And, of course, it was reported all over the Muslim world. The Pentagon reacted with a collective shrug.
American military and political officials must, at the very least, have the foresight not to promote crusade rhetoric in the midst of an already religion-tinged war. Many of our enemies in the Mideast already believe that the world is locked in a contest between Christianity and Islam. Why are our military officials validating this ludicrous claim with their own fiery religious rhetoric?
It's time to actively strip the so-called war on terror of its religious connotations, not add to them. Because religious wars are not just ugly, they are unwinnable. And despite what Operation Straight Up and its supporters in the Pentagon may think is taking place in Iraq, the Rapture is not a viable exit strategy.
Michael L. Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, wrote "With God on Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military." Reza Aslan, author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam," is on the MRFF advisory board.