This past week we saw a remarkable example of the whipping-up of outrage over the alleged persecution of Christians. The story turned out to be bogus. Christian Right leaders are scrambling to recover. And its getting ugly.
It all started when several prominent military reformers met with top brass at the Pentagon to express concern about, among other things, the persistent abuse of the rights of conscience of military personnel, especially by "dominionist" evangelicals. These included Mikey Weinstein, head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and himself a USAF Academy graduate and a former counsel in the Reagan White House, and two members of the MRFF board, retired Lt Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Colin Powell, and former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson (who blew the whistle on the fabricated claim that Iraq obtained uranium from Niger, that was part of the justification for war).
Then Fox News falsely reported (further exaggerated and promoted by Breitbart.com) that a new Pentagon policy, under the influence of Weinstein, could lead to the court marshal of evangelicals for sharing their faith. This was quickly shown to be baloney. But The Christian Post went so far as to falsely report that the Pentagon was employing Weinstein to help make policy. It also attributed Weinstein's alleged anti-Christian views to his Judaism.
"The Pentagon has hired a Jewish activist who has been outspoken in his opposition to conservative Christianity to serve as a consultant and develop new policies on religious tolerance."The article went on to say that Weinstein "has been named by Forward Magazine as one of the most influential Jewish people in America."
That the Christian Post was so quick to blame the entire bogus affair on a Jew was, to say the least, telling.
Simon Brown at Wall of Separation has a good run down of the bruhaha, and Warren Throckmorton has been engaging in rumor control. The Pentagon insists that it has had policies in place about these matters. Throckmorton writes is that, "According to a DOD spokesman, people can share their faith but cannot force their beliefs on others." The controversy has continued as Christian Right organizations, notably the Family Research Council, issue shrill, paranoid claims of persecution, while the Pentagon tries to calmly explain the policy to the press.
These policies were a long time in development and follow many years of scandal and abuse. The problem of abuse of the military for proselytization and favoritism towards evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs, particularly at the Air Force Academy was the subject of a 2005 investigation, that was widely reported, including in The New York Times. Soon after the Times article was published, a mainline Lutheran academy chaplain who blew the whistle on the tepid response of the service, was fired and unexpectedly transferred. Major newspapers called for reform. Scandals involving the excesses of far Christian Right ideology continued to infect the Academy over the years, such as the time the Academy featured a group of evangelical Christian fake ex-terrorists as experts on Muslim terrorism. While the Academy has been a focus of many controversies, the excesses of unwanted proselytization and harassment have continued across the armed services, well crafted policies not withstanding. That was part of the concern that Weinstein, Wilkerson and Wilson brought to the Pentagon. In an interview with The Washington Post's Sally Quinn, Wilkerson said that aside from proselytizing, other problems include
"sexual assault, suicides, lowering entrance standards and war weariness. They are in trouble, and the leadership is oblivious." Sexual assault and proselytizing, according to Wilkerson, "are absolutely destructive of the bonds that keep soldiers together."Over the past few years many abuses have surfaced across all of the armed services. Here are a few examples: The dissemination of anti-Jewish comic books; the mandatory, evangelically slanted "spiritual fitness" program of the U.S. Army; the false, Christian nationalist history taught in the curricula of the Defense Department's JROTC program; an effort by Campus Crusade for Christ to turn soldiers into missionaries; the effort by the Pentagon chaplain's office to disseminate the controversial Left Behind 'convert or die' video game to troops in the field; and the appearances by active duty generals in uniform in a promotional video for the Christian Embassy, a project of Campus Crusade for Christ.
There are of course, many violations of separation of church and state involved here, but perhaps of greater concern is the spread of a coercive and divisive culture of aggressive proselytization, including compulsory attendance at military sponsored evangelical events documented by MRFF -- and not merely the soft notion of "sharing of faith."
The Christian Right has moved quickly to change the subject and shift the focus to the person of Mikey Weinstein, his colorful rhetoric, his Jewish identity, and a series of false stories about his relationship to Pentagon policies.
But it won't work.