Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Christian Warriors Soldier On!

I just finished a book about God the other day. Well, it wasn't about God, actually. It was about how fundamentalist evangelical Christians are trying to overtake our military in God's name. Well, not in God's name, but in his son's name. Which, I guess, is really God's name too. Kind of. Or something.

But, the gist of the book is how a faction within the Air Force Academy has, for many years, been turning the Academy into a force of evangelical crusaders. Being in the evangelical "Mecca" of the US (ie- Colorado), the Academy has been transformed from a secular institution into a taxpayer-funded religious one where, at the time of the book's writing (2006), many of the top brass at the Academy were evangelicals.

Now, that's fine and all. Being an evangelical is fine.

Yet... turning our secular institutions into religious ones, isn't fine.

There are many religions. And since we're mere humans, we don't know which (if any) is the correct religion. Perhaps the truth is that all paths ultimately lead to some type of God. But the truth is, some religions claim to be the only path to God and/or claim to be the only correct religion. Yet, there are several religions that claim to be the "correct" religion. So basically, our country is made up of a bunch of people who believe they follow the one "true" religion, that they follow one of many religions that is "true," who don't believe in any religion, or who have various other beliefs.

Accordingly, our country was founded on the idea that, while people should be free to exercise the religion of their choice, the institutions of our nation should not promote or compel the practice of one religion over any other. And thus, we have these push-pull concepts of the "Free Exercise of Religion" and the "Separation of Church and State."

On the one hand, the state should not endorse one religion over any other, but on the other hand, people should be free to express their religion. We always seem to be struggling to keep that balance. And at the Air Force Academy, a national institution dedicated to developing future leaders, that balance became really skewed.

Over the course of many years, the Air Force Academy had turned into a de facto evangelical Christian, state-funded institution. Christian prayers were displayed at mealtimes, military speakers and faculty members ended meetings with Christian prayers, and non-Christians, non-evangelicals, and atheists/agnostics were persuaded to become Evangelical Christians.

And by persuaded, I mean officers, upperclassmen, and military chaplains would present non-evangelical students the gospel of Jesus with the intent that the person convert to Christianity. Now, to be clear, outside of a military environment, and outside of a state-funded institution, such behavior is fine.

But (disregarding the state-action issue), a military environment is different than a civilian one. By its nature, the Air Force Academy's intent is to first physically, emotionally, and spiritually break down a student and rebuild and remold him or her into a leader. I'm guessing you see how evangelizing in this context is problematic, as the goal at the Academy had turned into breaking students down and rebuilding them as evangelical Christian warriors.

By its nature, a military environment is also heirarchical. If a religion is endorsed by a superior officer and this officer encourages a student of a lesser rank to convert- the lines become blurred as to whether the behavior is mere encouragement or an order.

An evangelical Christian may think, "Well, it's inherent within the evangelical Christian faith to evangelize. Therefore, it would violate the 'freedom of expression' to not allow an evangelical Christian to evangelize students at the Academy." In fact, evangelical heads of the Academy used that very argument when confronted with "Separation of Church and State" complaints.

First off, let's remember the constitutional balance that must always exist between "Free Exercise" and "Separation of Church/State." Allowing religious persons free reign on any and every behavior that is defined as "exercise" of religion creates an imbalance.

Secondly, this sneaky shift turns the First Amendment violators into victims. For, some evangelicals are unable to see how evangelizing within a military environment is offensive to the validity of the faiths of other people. Because they so firmly believe that their religion is the correct one, and are so intent on making other people also believe this, they don't seem to stop and think "Maybe this Jewish/Catholic/Muslim person believes that her religion is the Truth just as strongly as I believe that mine is. And maybe I should respect that. "

Which brings me to the lack of tolerance and respect for other religions that became pervasive at the Academy. One report called the situation "reflections of systematic and pervasive religious bias and intolerance at the highest levels of the Academy Command Structure." In short, some military evangelicals are unable or unwilling to see how evangelizing often led to the inhibition of non-evangelical Christians' right to the "free exercise" of their respective religions (or non-religions). Or, perhaps, they just didn't care.

Many are also unwilling to accept that while, yes, one has a constitutional right to "free exercise" of religion, that this right by necessity places limits on actual behavior. One can believe whatever one wants to believe, but one cannot act however one wants to act and then call "free exercise" foul when the state prohibits certain actions. Remember polygamy and the Church of Latter Day Saints? (to use a trusty old analogy).

But, aside from the constitutional issues in this case, the rise of evangelical Christianity in the military should alarm all of us. For, the entire world may suffer the consequences of American-military-might-combined-with-religious-zealoutry. We have known for a long time that our Commander in Chief believes he is on a mission from God.

Yet, many in our military, it seems believe likewise.

What is troubling to me is that ideas espoused by evangelical Christian leaders at the Academy sound eerily familiar. Namely, they frame the war and our military as though we are in the midst of a cosmic battle between "good and evil." As Reza Aslan explains, "What is most revealing about the whole concept of an apocalyptic civilzational clash is that both the evangelicals and the jihadists use it to justify their actions."

Some in the military, it seems, are sort of acting like our "enemies."

When I, for one, think about what our military stands for.... I think of the word "freedom" that so many politicians like to throw out in their patriotic sound bites. Yet, the traits the Air Force Academy has shown include dangerous fundamentalism and religious intolerance- not freedom.

Aren't those the traits we are supposed to be fighting against?

Shouldn't we leave God out of our wars and instead talk about why we really continue to kill each other?

Shouldn't we stop using God to justify violence and intolerance?

Perhaps our nation's founders were on to something when some of them insisted on keeping religion separate from our nation's institutions, and separate from the military....

"If we don't figure out a way to strip these conflicts of their religious connotations, then we will never figure out a way to put an end to them. Because as long as these remain cosmic conflicts, they will go on for eternity." - Reza Aslan

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