“When Barack Obama moved into the Oval Office in January, he inherited a military not just drained by a two-front war overseas but fighting a third battle on the home front, a subtle civil war over its own soul.” So writes Harper’s contributing editor, Jeff Sharlet, in a deeply-reported, equally troubling essay (not yet available online) chronicling the rise of the evangelical right in the U.S. Military since the Vietnam War.
At the end of the piece, titled “Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military,” the reader is left with the strong impression that if tens-of-thousands of recruits, along with certain high-ranking officers—including General David Patraeus—get their way, evangelical Christians will bring the “Lord of all’ to the entire armed forces. The U.S. Constitution be damned.
According to Sharlet, there is a “small but powerful movement of Christian soldiers concentrated in the officers corps” who see themselves not as subversives or radicals, but as “spiritual warriors” and “government paid missionaries.” Within this “fundamentalist front,” the best organized group is the Officers’ Christian Fellowship, which has 15,000 active members at 80 percent of military bases and an annual growth rate of 3 percent. The group equates military duty with Godly duty and routinely casts the world in stark terms of good and evil. The men and women in American uniform are the Lord’s to do with what he pleases. Everyone else is, literally, on the side of Satan.
While reading the piece, I couldn’t help but recall that in 2006 the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report warned that white supremacists and neo-Nazis were infiltrating the U.S. military, joining up with “the world’s best-trained, best-equipped fighting force” in order to walk away with valuable combat training and weapons skills. The magazine followed up in its Winter 2008 issue, concluding that since its original report, military officials “seem to have made no sustained effort to prevent active white supremacists from joining the armed forces or to weed out those already in uniform.”
Of course, there’s more than a fine line between Neo-Nazism and evangelical Christianity. Yet, it deeply concerns a number of military personnel, both conservative and liberal, when any group, no matter their religious or political agenda, is allowed to bring their beliefs to work. As Sharlet writes, “a soldier in uniform can’t endorse a political candidate, advertise a product, or proselytize. That rule is for the good of the public—no one wants men with guns telling them who to vote for—and for the military itself. And officer can tell a soldier what to do, but not what to believe; conscience is its own order.”
Yet, as the Harper’s story makes clear, preaching the word—which sometimes morphs into harassment and abuse of nonbelievers—is becoming both more common among the rank-and-file and too often ignored by commanders all the way up to Obama himself. It’s gotten so bad, in fact, that lifelong republican Mikey Weinstein, a former graduate of the Air Force Academy, a ten year veteran of JAG, and former assistant general counsel in the Reagan White House, is serving as president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a small, scrappy organization whose primary mission is to protect soldiers who don’t walk the evangelical line from harassment. He tells Sharlet that his enemy is “weaponized Christianity.” And he believes this “country is facing a pervasive and pernicious pattern and practice of unconstitutional rape of religious rights of our armed forces members.”
Ultimately, what makes Sharlet’s story so haunting is the on-the-ground reportage. The writer weaves together a host of troubling anecdotes to make his case, including the opening scene (from which the story gets its name) about a National Guard Infantry Unit stationed in Samarra on an Easter Sunday. They begin the day eating breakfast while watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. They end the day in a Bradley Assault Vehicle, its armor decorated in red Arabic script that’s meant to agitate the enemy. Its rough translation: “Jesus Killed Mohammed.”
The story concludes at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, long-considered ground zero for the military’s evangelical movement, where Sharlet asks a cadet what he would do if he ever received an order that contradicted his faith. What if he was ordered to bomb a building in which terrorists were hiding, even though there were civilians in the way?
“He shook his head. ‘Who are you to question why God build up nations just to destroy them, so that those who are in grace can see that they’re in grace?’ A smile lit up half his face, an expression that might be taken for sarcastic if [he] wasn’t a man committed to be earnest at all times.”