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This Atheist Finds
He Needs a Foxhole

By Robyn E. Blumner, Times Columnist
Sunday, May 4, 2008


[Associated Press]

Jeremy Hall collects his thoughts at a coffee shop near Fort Riley, Kan., where he has been assigned a bodyguard for his own protection.

Maybe the reason the misperception persists that there are no atheists in foxholes is that nonbelievers must either shut up about their views or be hounded out of the military.

Just ask Army Spc. Jeremy Hall, who is making a splash in the news because of the way his atheism was attacked by superiors and fellow soldiers while he was risking his life in service to his country.

Hall, 23, served two combat tours in Iraq, winning the Combat Action Badge. But he's now stationed at Fort Riley, Kan., having been returned stateside early because the Army couldn't ensure his safety.

There is something deeply amiss when we send soldiers on a mission to engender peaceful coexistence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, yet our military doesn't seem able to offer religious tolerance to its own.

Hall recounts the events that led to his marginalization in a federal lawsuit he filed in March in Kansas. Hall is joined by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a group devoted to assisting members of the military who object to the pervasive and coercive Christian proselytizing in our armed forces.

Hall's atheism became an issue soon after it became known. On Thanksgiving 2006 while stationed outside Tikrit, Hall politely declined to join in a Christian prayer before the holiday meal. The result was a dressing down by a staff sergeant who told him that as an atheist he needed to sit somewhere else.

In another episode, after his gun turret took a bullet that almost found an opening, the first thing a superior wanted to know was whether Hall believed in Jesus now, not whether he was okay.

Then, in July, while still in Iraq, Hall organized a meeting of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. According to Hall, after things began, Maj. Freddy Welborn disrupted the meeting with threats saying he might bring charges against Hall for conduct detrimental to good order and discipline, and that Hall was disgracing the Constitution. (Err, I think the major has that backward.) Welborn has denied the allegations, but the New York Times reports that another soldier at the meeting said that Hall's account was accurate.

Hall claims that he was denied a promotion in part because he wouldn't be able to "pray with his troops." And of course he was returned from overseas due to physical threats from fellow soldiers and superiors. Things became so bad that he was assigned a full-time bodyguard.

This is nothing new to Mikey Weinstein, founder of MRFF and a former Air Force judge advocate general who also served in the Reagan administration. Weinstein says that he has collected nearly 8,000 complaints, mostly from Christian members of the military tired of being force-fed a narrow brand of evangelical fundamentalism.

Weinstein, who co-wrote the book With God on Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military, has documented how the ranks of our military have been infiltrated by members of the Officers' Christian Fellowship and other similar organizations. On its Web site, the OCF makes no secret of its mission which is to "raise up a godly military" by enlisting "ambassadors for Christ in uniform."

Weinstein says recruitment is easy in a strict command-subordinate military where the implied message is, if you don't pray the right way, your career might stall.

Beyond the mincemeat being made of church-state separation and religious liberty, it seems particularly combustible for our armed forces to be combining "end-times" Christian theology with military might. That's no way to placate Muslim populations around the world.

But there's no will for change. The military's virulent religious intolerance could be eradicated tomorrow with swift sanctions against transgressors. Instead, it's winked at and those caught proselytizing suffer no consequence. It appears that brave men like Hall, who simply wish to follow the dictates of their own conscience, will be needing bodyguards for a long time to come.

 


 

Fighting the good fight for
religious freedom
in the military

By Lloyd Hellman, Special to The Chronicle
May 4, 2008


Michael “Mikey” Weinstein and Pedro Irigonegaray want soldiers to be able to practice all religions freely.

I spent the day last month with Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, a living Jewish hero.

He is the Air Force Academy honors graduate, boxer, Air Force officer, lawyer, Nixon staff person and bundle of energy who is devoting himself and his own treasure to protecting the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state. That wall of separation is being breached by evangelical Christians who have insinuated themselves into the U.S. military and particularly the military academies. Separation of church and state is the bedrock in the Bill of Rights; a doctrine from which Jews have benefited as in no other place on earth.

I drove Mikey, a 50-year old fireplug of a guy, from KCI to Topeka for his meeting with his civil rights lawyer Pedro Irigonegaray. He was also interviewed by a New York Times reporter that day. Mikey’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation (militaryreligiousfreedom.org) has pending in the Federal District Court in Kansas City, Kan., a lawsuit wherein the co-plaintiffs are Army active duty Specialist Jeremy Hall, an atheist, who was decorated during his two tours of duty in Iraq, and the MRFF. Hall is now stationed at Fort Leavenworth. He was relieved from his post in Iraq a month early, because he was threatened with “fragging” — military slang for physical harm — because he stood up for his Constitutional rights against officers who were aggressively attempting to proselytize him to fundamentalist Christianity. Defendants are Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Air Force Major Freddy J. Welborn. The suit alleges retaliation and reprisals taken against Hall when he resisted the evangelicals’ entreaties.

The windows in Mikey Weinstein’s home have been shot out, and he and his family receive telephoned death threats daily. Dead animals have been thrown at his front door. On the road between Lawrence and Topeka, he received a death threat on his cell phone, which he took in stride and immediately punched one number to reach the FBI agent on his case to report the “female voice which repeated ‘You’re going to burn in hell’ over and over.” Nice folks, huh? The FBI have offered to place a trace on his cell phone, but Mikey has declined because that would mean they would also have an automatic trace on the soldiers in Iraq who call him to report aggressive proselytizing, and he says he can’t have that. He did not appear to be armed, although he was wearing a sports jacket.

Mikey asked if I had incurred any anti-Semitic experiences in the Marine Corps back in the 1950s, and I assured him I had not. He remarked, “I’m not fighting Jesus, just the evangelicals’ takeover of the U.S. military.” We agreed that esprit de corps was a vital part of the mission statement of every U. S. military unit, and that invasion by a divisive force, insisting upon a superior loyalty to a religious creed, was of grave damage to that military unit, and, if widespread, to the entire force.

Mikey’s book, “With God On Our Side,” contains clear evidence that the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., from which two of his sons recently graduated, has been invaded by its neighbors, the evangelical churches that dominate the landscape and even paint their buildings Air Force blue. Their entree is through the chaplaincy, approved by the commanding officer of the institution. Their message that Jesus must be accepted as one’s savior is rampant throughout the cadet corps. Some say the religious atmosphere at the Air Force Academy has improved after an investigation. However, the evangelicals insist it is their religious right to proselytize the “un-churched,” even while in uniform, on government property and to cadets under the control of superiors. Mikey strongly disagrees, and so do I.Mikey notes that the Air Force controls our atomic arsenal, and senior Defense Department officials therefore can not tolerate division of loyalty or authority.

When Hitler came to power in Germany, the Jewish soldiers who had served Germany in World War I were not honored for their service to the fatherland. It did not protect them or their families. That’s because the Nazi creed had superseded military honor.

An American soldier’s loyalty must steadfastly be to the United States and its Constitution, and not be superseded by any particular religion. We Jews cannot allow evangelical Christians to divide and take control of our military, and particularly the military academies. We have way too much to lose.

I support the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and wish Mikey a lynga-leben. I hope you will support MRFF too at: Military Religious Foundation, 13170-B Central Ave. SE, Albuquerque, NM 87123.

Lloyd Hellman, a retired attorney, lives in Overland Park, Kan.

 


 

Controversy in appointment
of new commander

By William Cole
May 5, 2008


Maj. Gen.
Robert L. Caslen Jr.

The selection of a new 25th Infantry Division commander is making waves even before he takes on the Schofield Barracks job.

The Pentagon on Thursday announced that Maj. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., the commandant of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., will be the new commanding general at Schofield.

The Army said no change-of-command date has been set.

Caslen's appointment was met with criticism from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

The Defense Department's inspector general last August found that Caslen and six other military officers improperly participated in a promotional video for an evangelical group called Christian Embassy.

According to the inspector general's report, the four generals and three other officers violated rules by giving the appearance of governmental sanction to the Christian group, and did so while in uniform.

"The officers were filmed during the duty day, in uniform with rank clearly displayed, in official and often identifiable Pentagon locations," the report said.

Caslen and another general "accepted full responsibility for their actions and committed to be more alert to ethical issues in the future," the report said.

Caslen also testified he agreed to participate in the Christian Embassy video, in part, because other senior personnel had agreed to participate, including Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, who was chief of Army public affairs, according to the report. It also said Caslen believed the project had been "appropriately coordinated."

The Associated Press reported that the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Mikey Weinstein, said Caslen's new assignment in Hawai'i is further evidence of a pattern by the military to tolerate the promotion of fundamentalist Christianity among its ranks.

"And we're going to put this guy in charge of the 25th Infantry Division?" Weinstein said.

Army spokesman Paul Boyce said Caslen and Brooks received "written memoranda of concern" from the Army based on the August 2007 inspector general report.

The inspector general said Christian Embassy, a non-federal religious organization providing religious instruction and fellowship, had been conducting activities in the Pentagon since 1978.

 


 

Religious Contempt Among
Americans May Foreshadow
Actions Overseas

By Dan Ivers
May 7, 2008

The very words “radical fundamentalism” undoubtedly produce many similar thoughts and images in the minds of the average American. It is generally associated with Islam, terrorism and much of the struggle we face in our current war in Iraq and larger war on terror.

However, a story that has recently emerged from the Middle East changes the face of that dirty phrase. Army specialist Jeremy Hall has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. military, alleging he was the target of harassment by his superiors and fellow soldiers regarding his atheist views. He also alleges that he was sent home from Iraq after filing complaints, as well as that he was blocked from being promoted because of his views and threatened by other soldiers and superiors to the point where the Army had to assign him a bodyguard.

While none of Hall’s claims have been substantiated, they don’t seem that far out of the box. It’s not hard to cast the war in a Christian-versus-Muslim light, and the original post-9/11 rhetoric from President Bush and many other politicians suggested just that (Bush even called it a “crusade,” which he apologized for later). While this has been toned down severely, it’s not difficult to imagine that a certain number of recruits may be motivated by religious reasons; they may be there to fight for “God and country,” in the truest sense. These concerns are even more serious when you consider just who we will let in the military these days (seemingly anybody, including those with violent criminal histories).

The military has vehemently denied Hall’s accusations, and the Constitution clearly states that no one can be denied a position of employment based on faith, which presumably extends to a lack thereof. However, reactions to atheism can be severe, and it’s not always observed as being under the umbrella of religions to be tolerated. Atheists are seen as morally lost by many who will tolerate your difference of faith from their own, provided that you do claim to adhere to some religious set of morals. A 2006 University of Minnesota survey found that atheists were the least-trusted group in America, below Muslims, homosexuals and recent immigrants. They also got the lowest ratings when people were asked whether they thought a group “shared their vision of America.” I’m sure many were surprised to hear that there even was an atheist soldier, as stereotypes would hold that they are unpatriotic.

Many atheists do not openly espouse their views for fear of being ostracized (hence the popularity of non-offensive terms like “agnostic” and all the cop-outs you hear, like “I’m spiritual, just not religious,” or “I just don’t like organized religion.”). Someone like Hall is brave to announce his religious philosophy, although he has admitted that it took a long time for him to comfortable with it. His attorney —Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and an Air Force veteran who also served in the Reagan White House has seen thousands of similar incidents over the years. He co-authored a book with Davin Seay titled “With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military” in 2006.

After 9/11, America enjoyed a sense of unity against a common cause, and most backed our efforts to fight in the Middle East. However, this was very short-lived, and clearly discrimination and divisiveness are back with a vengeance. There’s no doubt that our soldiers are patriotic, for they put their lives on the line for our country; but it shouldn’t be only for their vision of our country, and they shouldn’t be out there fighting a neo-crusade against any non-Christian, whether Muslim, Atheist or any other denomination. Like it or not, soldiers are ambassadors, and this kind of conduct against one of their own doesn’t speak well for how they might treat Iraqis or Afghanis. Terrorists are often called radical fundamentalists because of their extreme adherence to their religion and their lack of tolerance for anyone who will not show the same adherence. Incidents like the ones raised by Jeremy Hall show that this might not just be their holy war, but ours, too.

Furthermore, atheists have the same right to not believe as anyone else to subscribe to their religion, yet it’s still somewhat socially acceptable to hate them. Atheists may be without a god, but they are not universally without morals. Unfortunately, they are shunned and are fairly poorly organized, so they have almost no one to fight for the respect and tolerance granted to other religions. It’s not hard to imagine how an Islamic terrorist would react to someone who says they are godless, but apparently a lot of soldiers—and Americans—wouldn’t feel too differently.

 


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Talk To Action

PBS "Carrier"
A Mixed Blessing

By Bughouse Square
May 8, 2008

Watching the PBS miniseries "Carrier" was a revelation, but not always a pleasant one...

The PBS documentary “Carrier” was an eye-opener, especially for an old civilian such as me. As a retired high school teacher I was particularly interested in the kids as they told their stories, especially since, as any teacher watching the series would attest, we’ve known these kids, shared their lives and heard these same stories.

We’ve nurtured these kids, wheedled and cajoled them, laughed and cried with them, and when all the motivational tricks failed we’ve probably all thrown up our hands and sent ‘em down to the office. So it was a revelation to see that archetypal wiseass who was the bane of your existence for up to four years trying real life on for size, and for the most part finding it a pretty good fit.

From that perspective, then, the series was a truly rewarding experience. But certain aspects of the show were troubling, particularly segment on religion and faith. I approached the hour with a fair measure of misgiving, having been following, and covering, the heavy-handed attempt to Christianize the military that has reached crisis proportions and shows no signs of letting up.

Frankly, I expected this hour to reveal a bunch of wild-eyed Christian warriors piloting the USS Jesus, nee Nimitz, toward her inevitable rendezvous with her millennial destiny. Instead, we were shown what appeared to be a paradigm of religious tolerance and diversity, with any number of Protestant and Catholic observances taking place. There was even a small coven of practicing Wiccans aboard, a handful of Muslims and at least one token Jew who maintained he’d not been hassled at all.

Part of me wanted desperately to believe what I was seeing, since it seemed to fly in the face of all that I’d heard, read and reported. Perhaps, I thought, there may still be some reasonably enlightened religious folk, especially among the chaplain corps, who actually get it and were playing by the rules because they thought it was the right thing to do.

On the other hand, I told myself, this series was produced by Mel Gibson, whose own track record on religious tolerance is of course dubious at best. What also started bouncing around in my brain pan was the old adage that if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. So I got in touch with Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who has been the point man on this issue for some time now, to get his take on the series, particularly the religion segment.

Weinstein had indeed watched the show, and he too was concerned that art was not exactly imitating life where matters of shipboard faith were concerned. In fact, among the nearly 8,000 service people and their families who have contacted the MRFF with concerns, complaints and anguished cries for help are a dozen or so from the Nimitz. Because of sensitivity and security concerns, and that fact that these are open cases, Weinstein would not elaborate on the nature of the grievances, but he did characterize a couple of the incidents as “vicious.”

Regrettably, this appears to be consistent with the tone and substance of many of the cases that have been widely reported, from the Weinstein family’s own ordeals at the Air Force Academy to the story of Jeremy Hall, the atheist GI whose personal safety has been threatened by fellow soldiers after news of his lawsuit against the Army went public.

So, as much as I would like to believe what I saw in the faith segment, it appears that we may have been shown a Potemkin facade, at least as far as a truly balanced presentation is concerned. And that’s a shame, because a lot of what we did see appeared to portray the American religious experience at its freewheeling best. But just as much of a large ship’s activity takes place below the water line, and therefore remains largely unseen, so too, it seems, can a similar case be made for an unseen current of religious extremism flowing unchecked below the line, under the radar, out of sight, out of mind.

On balance, therefore, “Carrier” was a mixed blessing. It was well crafted, and at its best insightful and moving. It’s just too bad that there couldn’t have been a little more filmic and intellectual honesty devoted to an issue that remains, to our national detriment, the elephant in the room.

 


 

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