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Among military chaplains, fundamentalism is taking hold

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sommerville Photo

[Episcopal News Service] As an Episcopal priest who is also a retired member of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, I am prompted to write after reading a very disturbing article in the May edition of Harper's magazine: "Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military."

In the story, author Jeff Sharlet writes that a voluntary association called the Officer's Christian Fellowship (OCF) is aggressive and coordinated in furthering its evangelical agenda. The story states that several high ranking officers have inappropriately used Pentagon facilities and other national symbols for their Christian propaganda in the media and that they have been challenged legally and successfully.

It says that a popular OCF Bible study, Mission Accomplished, distorts the constitutional principle of the "wall" between the state and religion in order to create the idea that the wall surrounds the state with its official true religion protected on the inside. The wall is also intended to protect America from all other outsiders who do not profess the fundamentalist creed.

The article documents the harassment of cadets who are not militant fundamentalists at the Air Force Academy in Colorado and notes that 80% of the Protestant military chaplaincy self-identifies as conservative/evangelical.

The article quotes Mikey Weinstein, a former JAG Corps officer and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which legally challenges military leadership violations of church and state.

I have to ask whether there is enough active concern about this on the part of those Christians, like us in the Episcopal church, who live routinely -- and lovingly -- with neighbors who are different, and who do not believe as we do.

American fundamentalism will not go away. It has to be managed. I believe there is a need for a resolute stand to be taken with the gentle firmness that is a hallmark of our church. We need to manage the surge of fundamentalist triumphalism all over our country to be sure. But my first priority has to do with the endorsement of qualified chaplains. How can we do it? We must come to terms with our need to be persistent in finding qualified people in our ranks to fill chaplain quotas.

Churches that fail to fill their allotted quotas end up having them filled by fundamentalists. We need to direct our good candidates to our Episcopal endorsing office headed by Bishop George Packard. We should be recruiting them at every diocesan convention, and have a strong presence at the General Convention as well. We should be advertising and making contacts with people.

I hope this issue will be firmly addressed by all faith communities with sympathetic denominational endorsing agencies. Agencies, like ours, the American Baptist Convention, and the Jewish Welfare Board just to name two, represent faith communities that value the religious freedom and the diversity of our society. There are hundreds of other endorsing agencies authorized by the armed forces - one for every organized church or faith group by name except the Society of Friends or the Amish, since their members do not serve in the military.

I suspect that there is a continuing need for endorsing agency executives to support one another in resisting the triumphalist error that the Harper's article documents. (Fundamentalists believe that their mission is not accomplished until all whom they engage have become fundamentalists). Our corrective mission will have to be disciplined.

There are too many chaplains on active duty that come from backgrounds that are inflexibly biased with racially white, patriarchal, and heterosexist American delusions of superiority. What I hope to do is help the general readership of our church become more aware of the swelling river of this triumphalism, a movement that is both naive and arrogant, eroding the constitutional wall set up by our founding fathers between the government of the United States and religion. After reading the Sharlett article, I began to wonder: Could this wall fail?

Fundamentalism reflects a shortage of emotional security for a portion of our society that is under-educated for the twenty-first century milieu. I believe that portion is growing. It is anxiety, feelings of helplessness, and the loss of control people get which come from changes in the world they are not prepared to cope with, and do not feel they can manage.

In a recent Newsweek article, writer Jon Meacham (who is an Episcopal lay leader) reviews American religious history and reminds us that an America that is not Christian is the only kind of place where Christianity in its best forms can flourish.

Paradoxes are difficult, but they can be dealt with so long as individuals challenged by them have the resources of a community that is open, embraces ambiguity, and values diversity. Fundamentalists struggle to be rugged individualists in their campaigns to make those who are different from them into their clones. They hate ambiguity. For them there is no community. What they might argue to be community are really loose networks of mutually agreed-upon factions.

I am not finished with my study and prayer over the fundamentalism issue that I find so disturbing, but I have an observation. We as American citizens need to support and defend the very thing that guarantees a particular freedom that is actually in the best interests of the fundamentalists -- the free practice of religion.

What do we need to do and where do we start? Recruit chaplains who truly understand their job description. Encourage the Episcopal Church’s work in communicating this concern with the many highly competent endorsing officials in the other mainline churches.

-- The Rev. David Somerville currently serves as interim priest at Saint Athanasius church in Brunswick, Georgia.


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