Right-wing fundamentalists proselytize US military

According to a couple of articles by Stephen Glain, one in The Nation and one in Foreign Policy, right-wing fundamentalists have been allowed to proselytize in the United States military and in particular in the Air Force Academy. As far as I know, the only organization actively opposing these fundamentalists is the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, headed by Mikey Weinstein.

Glain details a number of abuses that have been brought to Weinstein’s attention. Weinstein’s first case, unless you count the time when he was a cadet and punched an officer who accused him of fabricating anti-Semitic threats against him, was a complaint by Weinstein’s own son, a cadet at the Air Force Academy. Nearly 100 other cadets have also informed Weinstein that they have to pretend to be evangelical Christians, for example, by leaving Bibles and other religious texts on their bunks. Weinstein complained to the Air Force, whose investigation showed what Glain calls “predatory, top-down evangelicalism at the academy.” Glain claims nevertheless that overt proselytizing is not just ignored but rather abetted by the military brass.

One of Weinstein’s cases that stands out is that of Zachari Klawonn, a Muslim soldier stationed at Fort Hood. Harassed by his fellow soldiers, Klawonn was advised to find an apartment off the military base, because the Army brass would not guarantee his safety. Denied an off-base housing allowance, Klawonn appealed to Weinstein, who arranged for Klawonn to receive the housing allowance and also the services of a Muslim imam and a prayer room. Here, sunshine appears indeed to be the best disinfectant: Glain writes that the hostility against Klawonn has subsided as his case has been made public.

Other military personnel report having to attend sectarian lectures or listen to sermons. A Jewish soldier, who has since left the military, was subjected to anti-Semitic comments by his sergeant and his commanding officer, and was court-martialed on what he says are trumped-up charges. A young Catholic cadet was recruited by something called Cadets for Christ and discouraged from pursuing her military career in order to pursue what Glain calls “the divinely inspired role of wife and mother.” The Air Force denies that the Cadets for Christ, a private group, has been allowed to proselytize, but “dozens” of cadets corroborate the fact.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation had a budget in 2009 of about one-half million dollars, according to the Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Weinstein, who is said to work countless hours in a day, was the only employee, apart from contractors, and his salary was about three-fifths of the total budget. If you read not so very far between the lines of Glain’s articles, however, you find that Weinstein and his wife must have virtually bankrupted themselves founding MRFF. Even so, Weinstein apparently accepted no salary in 2007, the first year for which I could find a Form 990.

MRFF is up against organizations like Military Ministry, which is affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ, which in turn has a budget about three orders of magnitude – a factor of 1000 – greater than that of MRFF (if I read Glain’s syntax correctly). Glain quotes a retired Army general as saying that the Military Ministry “must pursue our…means for transforming the nation–through the military. And the military may be the most influential way to affect that spiritual superstructure.” The military probably helped racially integrate the country, which in a way gives all the more reason to be afraid.

Weinstein’s 20,000 clients have mostly been punished for their beliefs or have been actively proselytized. They are predominantly Catholics and Protestants, with a small number of Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, atheists, and homosexuals. Nevertheless, Weinstein is predictably subjected to anti-Semitic hate mail and death threats. He takes them seriously enough to have retained security experts and explosives experts, and he uses trained guard dogs and positions firearms in strategic locations in the house.

Weinstein told David Belden of the New Humanist magazine that he traced the problem to the ending of the draft in 1972. After 1972, the military became less representative of the population as a whole and more representative of rural and small-town America. Another factor, which Weinstein does not mention, is the departure of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps from many northeastern college campuses; I, at least, would rather recruit military officers from Harvard and Rochester than from Bob Jones and Liberty. Perhaps less plausibly, Weinstein also implicates the admission of women to the Air Force Academy and the subsequent sexual-harassment scandal there; Weinstein thinks that evangelicals essentially convinced the military that they knew better how to train young men to respect young women. Additionality, Belden notes that beginning in the 1990’s, for a number of reasons, the number of evangelical ministers in the military greatly increased while those from Catholic and mainline denominations decreased. At any rate, he says, European nations managed somehow to integrate women and homosexuals into their militaries; maybe the United States military needs to start teaching liberal values itself.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a disquieting increase in the number of hate groups over the last decade; they now count just over 1000 such groups. They further document a startling increase in the number of “patriot” and militia groups from 149 in 2008 to 824 in 2010 – and that is following a steep decline between 1995 and 2008. I do not want to suggest that any group that thinks it is the Only Right One and tries to convince others of its Rightness is necessarily a hate group. Only when that group begins to punish or persecute other people for not accepting its arguments does it adopt the mantle of a hate group. If the officers in the military and at the Air Force Academy permit the behavior that Weinstein has documented, however, then the military is getting dangerously close to the threshold. Combined with the growth of hate, “patriot,” and militia organizations, the situation in the military and especially at the Academy is at a minimum grave cause for concern.