Coercive Religion Misplaced in US Armed Forces

Raised in the Catholic Church, I was a pretty confused kid. Father O'Reilly, one of the priests at St. Peter's, the church our family attended most of the time, spoke with such a pronounced brogue that I couldn't follow him. But I didn't understand the Mass either, so I smiled and pretended he made sense, just accepted him on faith along with the rest of it.

But at some point, it all began to itch. Ours was the “One True Faith” and everyone else was damned to hell. Really? That was tough to think about, because some non-Catholics we knew seemed like pretty nice folks – well, most of them, anyway. And what about the people in Africa and other places who maybe never even had a chance to know about Jesus and Peter, The Rock Upon Which He Built His Church?

Hell for everybody but us? It clearly made some feel special, but I couldn't make it sit right.

Of course, that was a long time ago, and things have changed in the church to some degree. Not soon enough to keep me, but I hope it's less confusing for kids today, especially now, when religious extremism is all you hear about in the media.

To listen to the bloviators, “religious extremist” means Muslim, and too many Americans buy in without understanding that this “God is (only) on Our Side” nonsense infects elements in pretty much every belief system. But while violent fanatics are certainly dangerous and should be dealt with appropriately, it's vital that we recognize extremism wherever it appears. Because in some cases fanatical belief puts on a benevolent face and encroaches through stealth; rather than fly planes into buildings or massacre nonbelievers on a train or in gas chambers, these adherents ease into institutions and infiltrate systems with the aim of gaining legitimacy and, eventually, control.

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No, I'm not talking about Scientology, but that's a good guess.

Take a look at fundamentalist, Dominionist Christianity. That's the bunch, per writer and researcher Chris Berlet, that is called not only to be “active political participants in civic society, but also seek to dominate the political process as part of a mandate from God.” Or, as sociologist Sara Diamond puts it, they “alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns – and there is no consensus on when that might be.”

A mandate from God that the adherents of this particular “One True Faith” should take over our nation's institutions? Yup. And I'm afraid it's easy to dismiss the idea as arrogant posturing and just laugh. O.K., maybe wince when that clown in Florida burns the Koran, or shake our heads when a Christian organizer says gays are Nazis, or, per another more recent source, “barbarians.” Maybe you scoffed when a Christian leader said 9/11 was God's punishment for creeping secularism, but these folks are serious.

For example, one of the secular institutions on which this bunch is working its wiles is our armed forces. Hard to imagine, isn't it; that a cult-like extremist group could quietly weave its way into control of the command structure of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines? But think about it; did the “Jesus Rifles” just happen by accident? Remember the 800,000 high-powered rifle sights engraved with Bible codes proclaiming, “Jesus as the light of the world” and other quotes that our troops unwittingly carried into battle in two primarily Muslim countries? Just a fluke? Ya' think? Just an innocent mistake, the unfortunate mix of a zealous Christian manufacturer and a sleepy Pentagon acquisitions officer?

Hard to imagine, isn't it? How could religious zealots possibly infiltrate and gain control over our military? Well, for one, you might start with the military academies at West Point, the Air Force Academy and Annapolis, the institutions where young Americans train to become the commanding officers who control the kids carrying those rifles.

A friend called my attention to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF, and Mikey Weinstein, the Air Force Academy graduate who founded it. Going through the Academy some years ago, Weinstein, who is Jewish, encountered some bias. but nothing that seemed engrained in the system. Going through the same Academy in recent years, however, his Jewish sons and Christian daughter-in-law encountered a systemic level of anti-Semitism and fundamentalist Christian proselytizing that was insulting, infuriating and alarming.

A lawyer and a Republican who served as legal counsel to the Reagan White House, Weinstein is a strong supporter of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. Armed with his belief that the separation of church and state must apply to our nation's military, he met with walls of denial and indifference from the Academy's leadership. Finally, frustrated at his inability to make those in charge understand that not only his kids, but all cadets have a right to an education at the Air Force Academy free of religious oppression, indoctrination and intimidation, Weinstein formed the MRFF to ensure that all young Americans who choose to serve their country can do so without being coerced to buy into the Dominionist Christian belief system. And it's a tough fight.

On too many levels, it's a lonely fight. Upon seeing the degree of craziness – and personal danger – Weinstein, his family and the MRFF staff face on a regular basis, I offered a bit of help and am now a member of their advisory board. Though I've dealt with cults and their apologists in the past, working with the Cult Awareness Network (the original CAN that was put out of business and taken over by Scientologists), I was only vaguely aware of the degree of religious wackiness in the military. Now, I find the parallels striking. And dangerous. The level of vitriol directed at this work by so-called Christians, most of it at Weinstein himself, demonstrates a degree of loopiness I haven't encountered since mixing it up with the Moonies, Scientologists, and other groups back in the anti-cult days.

Aside from dealing with the everyday verbal and written assaults like “Kike,” leader of “the forces of Satan,” “devoted servant of Satan,” “… are all Jews just money-grubbing busy-bodies,” “… grind yourself into dust against the wave of Christianity that is sweeping this nation,” “… you and your atheist comrades' days are running out,” “jew lawyer crybaby who sucks moslems (sic) c**k…” and other such homilies from his Christian detractors, Weinstein and the MRFF (now including a security staff to deal with death threats and assassination attempts) work to safeguard the right to religious freedom of thousands of marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen and women of all faiths (96 percent of them Christian – Catholics and mainline Protestants), Academy staff, cadets, midshipmen, military personnel, and others whose education, jobs and careers are in jeopardy if they fail to toe the line dictated by military superiors who claim to be the only true followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

So, think about it. Please. Unless you're comfortable with the idea of a Hyper-Christian American military, do something.

This article was first published at Truthdig.