Onward Christian Soldiers: How minority faiths are treated in the US Military
Lorie Johnson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Dec 04, 2005 at 01:32:03 PM EST
I am a USAF brat and a USAF veteran. I was also one of a group of military Pagans and Wiccans who dared to poke our heads out of the broom closet and ask for fair treatment. That was also how I learned about how the hard-core evangelicals in the military treated minority faiths... the hard way.

 

My encounters with the hard-core Christians started early in my career- while I was in tech school. I was in the earliest stages of my own esoteric Path, studying Hermetic and Gnostic philosophy. Church and standard religion held no interest to me, but I was more indifferent to it than hostile. To be fair, some of the best people I knew during my Air Force career were chaplains, and one of my favorite hangouts was the Fishbowl at Keesler. I spend many a fun hour watching movies and chatting with friends there.

But I was constantly- and politely- turning away the religious prosetylizers.  When I was in civilian clothes, I would often get sharply questioned about my choice of jewelry- a simple, small, and unobtrusive Ankh pendant. "That is a Satanic sign", one righteous fellow told me after cornering me in a base laundromat. "You will go to hell if you don't renounce Satan and surrender to Christ." I ignored him, just like I ignored the tracts slid under my door, the sometimes not-so-subtle invitations to go to 'parties' which turned out to be altar calls, and the insular cliques of fellow students who were bussed to evangelical churches off base.

It got no better at my first base. There were no dormitories for us at Sunnyvale AFS, so we were housed in townhouses in Milpitas. I played the usual roomie roulette, but one roomie was extremely religious, and was always onto me about my own beliefs. "You need to accept Jesus, and turn away from the occult," she'd lecture me. I told her that she really needed to mind her own business, but she persisted in harassing me. It came to a peak when I came home unexpectedly one afternoon to find her burning some of my books. I'd amassed a small collection of metaphysical books- some rare and expensive, and she took it upon herself to 'save' me by going into my bedroom, getting the books, and burning them on the barbeque in the back yard. I raised a big stink about it, and got repaid for the destroyed books (and a deadbolt lock on my bedroom door), but I also learned my first lesson on how far these True Believers were willing to go to convert people.

The book-burning incident also motivated me to start studying these sects- mostly in self-defense, but also so I could understand what made them 'tick'. The seminal book in these studies was the now out of print "Holy Terror", by Conway and Siegelman. It detailed a lot of the mindset of these sects, and what they believed. It was totally alien and different from my own very casual Catholic upbringing. I learned that some of these sects even believed that Catholics weren't truly Christian, which totally surprised me, but also laid the foundation of understanding their particular kind of fear and intolerance. I also learned something else about military evangelicals in particular when I politely questioned my book-burning roomie's boyfriend about his priorities. Why was he in the military if he was so religious? The answer was surprising, and in retrospect, insightful: He'd joined because the military was a 'mission platform' enabling him to spread his interpretation of the Gospel to people all over the world. He'd hoped to go to Turkey or some other 'non-believing country' so he could save some souls. He didn't care about the Cold War, or defending the US. He only cared about religion, and even told me that his loyalty was to Christ, not to his superiors. I ran into a lot of that while I served, and some of the people who professed loyalty to Christ or the Bible and not their superiors or their country were in positions of power and responsibility. I wondered what would happen if 'God' told them to push the button? I never had the courage to actually ask that last question- I already knew the answer, and it contributed to some sleepless nights.

When I moved to Texas, I stayed in the dorm, and that was when some of the real harassment began. In military dormitories, your property is not private, and your quarters are prone to inspection at any time. Inspections are supposed to be to maintain cleanliness and safety. I learned that it was also an opportunity for people to snoop as well. I had a small metaphysical library with books about alchemy, ancient religions, magic and occult subjects.  Volumes started coming up missing, then mysteriously reappeared on my shelves, with religious tracts tucked into them. I didn't have a roomie, but I did have a very religious first sergeant, who had some pretty harsh views on 'unbelievers'. I found Chick tracts in my underwear drawer, and religious tracts under my pillow. My quarters was inspected and 'seeded' with tracts, and I finally complained to the commander. "Don't mind that sky pilot", he told me. The tracting slowed down, but didn't stop. My copy of "Larson's Book of Cults" vanished and never reappeared.

The dynamic changed when I moved to Germany. I did not live in the dorms on base, so the tracting stopped. But I ended up with a very religious command staff- the commander, vice commander, first sergeant and several other prominent people in my squadron were very religious, and did not hesitate to let me know about it. After being sexually assaulted by a German neighbor, the first sergeant's 'solution' was not to get the local police involved, but instead to pray over the problem. "Accepting Christ will solve your problems, because you are a fallen woman," he told me.  I went elsewhere for help.

It was in Germany that I met fellow Pagans, and it was there that some of us got together and compared stories. I was not the only person subject to prosetylization and harassment by aggressive evangelicals. My other Pagan peers reported the same problem, and an overt lack of respect, and even hostility by the Christians in their various units. We could not get dog tags which stated our religious faith. We were stuck with either 'no religious preference', 'none', or 'other', which generated more hostile questions from evangelicals. With fellowship in mind, I created the "Farwander Fellowship" which eventually morphed into the Military Pagan Network. It was meant to permit military Pagans to find likeminded people, so that they did not believe that they were totally alone.  The press got wind of this, and an article appeared in the Air Force Times about our attempts to get a little respect and recognition.

It worked: the Army Chaplain's handbook now contains a section about Wicca, the earliest versions written by me. It's since been revised, but the bulk of my work remains.

But it came with a price: my career. I never desired the limelight, and avoided it like the plague, but the infamy of being mentioned by name in those articles followed me to my next, and last assignment. There, a group of very religious colleagues was determined to end my career one way or another. They resorted to sabotage in order to get me demoted and removed from the USAF because of high year of tenure requirements. I was discharged honorably.

Wiccans and other Pagan faiths are still legally recognised in all branches of the military, but they also still face harassment, prosetylization and outright hate by the hard core Christian evangelists among them. Like other minority faiths, Pagans are constantly targeted for conversion by increasingly bold and hostile Christians, who see the military as a 'mission platform' and their participation as a religious duty.

I will talk more about these Christian Soldiers in future diaries.

For further reading:

Witches able to worshp on US Military Bases

Should the Witches be welcome?

Bush's anti-witchcraft statement




Display:
And for your bravery, while in the US military, in defending religious liberty. Such truth telling is hard and sometimes does not instantly evoke tidal waves..... sooner or later though, somehow, it usually does.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 12:23:31 AM EST
There is a point in everyone's lives when they have to decide whether to stand up for what is right, or to be steamrolled into a defeated two-dimensional automaton.

I had to stand up for myself, and for the people I knew who were experiencing the same, or worse, problems. Some would say that the military is not a democracy, and that is true, but neither is it a monolithic dictatorship, much as the dominionists would like it to be.

When I was a member, the military had people from all walks of life, who chose to swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution. And that Constitution guarantees the freedoms of all who are citizens. You give up certain rights when you join the military, but religion is not one of them. We just wanted to be treated with the same respect that the mainstream faiths got as a matter of habit. We worked as hard as our Christian peers, we suffered the same long shifts and isolating assignments, got the same lousy pay. But they didn't get their dorms tossed for having a Bible. One of my peers had to explain to his commander why he had a book of herbs, and had to take urinanalysis tests for six months because the commander did not believe that any herb could be 'benign'.

by Lorie Johnson on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 01:48:59 PM EST
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of harassment at one place where I was stationed but not to this extent.

One Halloween, a group of Wiccans wanted to celebrate the holiday by having a bonfire or something (please excuse my ignorance) but the local rabid evangelicals got up in arms over it. The chapel tried to explain to them that these folks were allowed to practice their religion, but in the end the bonfire was denied because of the safety issue.

My point is that the Wiccans were really not allowed to practice their faith on the base without someone sticking their nose in to cause trouble.

I am so sorry that you were harassed like you were.

by arkylib on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 01:32:56 PM EST

I remember the series of letters to the editor of the Stars and Stripes expressing outrage that 'satanic pagans' were permitted to use the base chapel if they wanted to.

The irony was that the base chapel is meant for multidenominational use, and if we did use the facility, we'd be using the classrooms for workshops, and not the sanctuary itself. Most Pagans prefer to worship outdoors.

We never used the chapel, and we did our ceremonies on private land far from the base. But the outrage in the paper simmered for months. Someone had to point out to one outraged writer that Jews and Catholics use the chapel too...

by Lorie Johnson on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 01:40:41 PM EST
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Your story reminds me a lot of an experience a friend of mine related to me years ago, except he wasn't in the military. He played football. And he wasn't a pagan. He was Catholic.

He got into SMU on a football scholarship (I think it was SMU; anyway, it was in Texas). The coach was a fundamentalist and most of the team were evangelicals or fundamentalists. He was inundated with offers to pray or come to church with them and one day he made the mistake of telling one of his teammates in response that he was a Catholic.

From that point on, he said, it was like somebody had declared open season on him. Somebody went through his locker, then filled it with religious tracts. His quarterback--a fundie--refused to speak to him at all, and most of his teammates refused to speak to him about anything other than his 'conversion'.

He was a pretty good player, and the Dallas Cowboys made some noises about drafting him. They invited him to training camp (this was in the late 70's) where he met Tom Landry and Roger Staubach. There were evangelical and fundamentalist tracts all over the locker room, they prayed before practice (and before and during half-times at games, he was told), and Landry spent his time with my friend talking religion, not football. He seemed to think they were the same thing.

Now, this isn't as disturbing as soldiers putting god before their country and seeing the military as some kind of missionary outpost, but it strikes me that there are certain similarities between football and the army: the rigid discipline, the constant training, the mindless repetition, and so forth. Maybe there's a connection.

- mick -


by mick arran on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 03:04:36 PM EST
If you think about it, the differences between the world of professional athletes and the military are not that great. They both emphasize tactical and strategic skills, obedience to authority, physical prowess, and most important, masculine companionship. They are (for the most part) the last bastions of 'true masculinity', and women are either not welcome (the military) or not admitted at all (mens athletic teams).

So, with that in mind, the whole adaptation of fundementalist Christianity and its top-down Big Daddy paradigm fits in quite nicely with these worlds. It is the model that the Promise Keepers have adapted, as well as the model that the dominionists want to impose in their theocratic government. Women do not have a place in this world at all, except as servants, wives, mothers, and housebound slaves. If the dominionists get their way, women will be banished from the workplace, denied their rights as human beings, and blamed for all the ills that the Bible lists them as causing.

As a woman in the military, I ran into that attitude a lot. I was in a 'nontraditional' career field (electronics) which emphasized brains over brawn, but I was still treated like an intruder, in spite of my skills.

It's funny- 'open season' has been declared on me twice: once when I was in high school and it was discovered that I was Catholic, and again in the military when it was discovered that I was not Christian.

Can't win for losing...

by Lorie Johnson on Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 04:24:22 PM EST
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for all Americans to hear.

I am honored that Lorie is choosing to tell her story here.

It is an outrage that Lorie -- and so many others -- have had to go through so much religious intolerance and indeed -- persecution -- at the hands of employees of the people of the United States.

All of our freedoms are at risk when gangs of religious supremacists in the armed forces are allowed to operate flagrantly, and with the apparent aquiesence if not participation of officers to pressure, prosteletize and persecute fellow Americans who wear the uniform of their country.

When one swears to defend the Constitution of the United States, it means the Constitution as it applies to all of our people, not just practitioners of preferred religions.

 

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Dec 06, 2005 at 02:44:17 AM EST


Lorie - this is a great article!  I couldn't help but relate a personal experience on my blog... Since it isn't a statement about the Religious Right per-se, as much as a question of why fundamentalist Christianity is so intolerant, so I've declined to re-post it here in it's entirety.

Here's the first paragraph:
What strikes me about Lorie's experience, as well as the experiences of those that replied to her article, is that the people persecuting those of a minority religion somehow feel that the target of their harassment deserves that kind of treatment.  (It is very much like talking to bullies - they sometimes justify their actions by saying that their victims are "asking for it" by their behavior/attitudes/looks/mode of dress/etc.)

You can read the rest at:
http://emilywynn.blogspot.com/2005/12/i-deserve-it.html

-Emily


by EmilyWynn8 on Tue Dec 06, 2005 at 02:54:38 PM EST


Lorie,

Knowing that fundamentalists see Wiccans and Pagans as Satanic, you were very brave to be so open about your beliefs. And this is a wonderful article.

by Joan Bokaer on Fri Dec 09, 2005 at 04:59:24 PM EST

Some of them see Catholics as Satanic, too. I caught a lot of flack and outright cruelty from classmates in high school when they found out I was raised Catholic. People would scream "Witch!" at me in the cafeteria, and hardly a week would go by where someone didn't tell me that I was going to burn in hell unless I was saved.

I couldn't win for losing! In retrospect, it was very clear that there was only one way to salvation- theirs. No amount of discussion, arguing, reasoning, etc. could get them to even admit that there were many ways to experience grace. It was their way or the highway. I joke that I ran away and joined the USAF, but in a way, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Happily, no one bothers me now about religion. I must have that battle-scarred veteran aura around me that keeps them at bay.  

by Lorie Johnson on Sat Dec 10, 2005 at 08:54:53 AM EST
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Very interesting account, Lorie.  

Here's a really serious issue, and it's surprising I haven't seen a comment on this so far:

"He only cared about religion, and even told me that his loyalty was to Christ, not to his superiors."

I was utterly shocked to read that.  Seems to me that the above quote is grounds for immediate action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  And it would be logical to assume this is the tip of an iceberg.  

In case anyone here doesn't know: every enlisted person and officer takes an oath of service, which affirms loyalty to the Constitution and to the chain of command.  This is the basis for assuring that the professional military will act in accord with the orders of the elected civilian government; in other words, it protects us from coups and a wide range of other potential rogue behaviors.  

Divided loyalties are strictly prohibited.  For example, what do you do with a soldier whose ethnic ancestry is from country Q, and who claims that his loyalty to his ancestral homeland is more important than his loyalty to the United States?  What do you do with a soldier who claims his loyalty to Marxism or some other philosophy supersedes his loyalty to the United States...?   Cases of these types end up in courts martial for good reason.  (Strictly speaking, a person who joins up in good faith, and then subsequently finds him/herself in that situation, has the option of exiting the service without penalty; but continuing to serve while holding conflicting interests is a different matter.)

So what we have here is, a potentially large number of soldiers, sailors, flyers, and Marines, who would defect on their oath and their loyalty to the United States if push came to shove.  It is difficult to find words strong enough to state exactly how dangerous this is.  

What is needed immediately is a thorough investigation and the discharge or court martial of those who are found to have conflicting loyalties that prevent them acting in accord with their oath of service.

As well, any warrior who hears a colleague spouting off about having conflicting loyalties should be prepared to ask a couple of clarifying questions and then immediately report that person to the proper military authorities.  It doesn't matter whether the conflicting loyalty is to religion or to communism or whatever, the result is the same.  

Question is, how best to get the word out?  And what to do next...?  

---

BTW, Lorie, I have a friend in the military who is Wiccan and says he's never been hassled seriously for it; perhaps he and others serving now have benefitted from your activism.  

I wonder about this:  counter-tracting.  Proselytizing for the Constitutional principles of separation of church & state, the American value of respect for others' beliefs, the necessity of fidelity to the chain of command, and so on.  In other words, go on the offensive rather than the defensive, and do it in terms that any oldschool Eisenhower conservative would heartily approve of.  What do you think?  

by gg on Sat Dec 10, 2005 at 10:56:24 PM EST

When I was in, my superiors were far more interested in 'outing' and getting rid of gay members than they were in finding and getting rid of subversive religious elements. This was probably because the people who were intent on hunting down and kicking out gay people were part of  the religious subversive element in the military.

Here's the irony: the gay people I knew (and several 'outed' themselves to me) were by far the most hardworking, best dressed, and had the best military bearing of any of my colleagues. Their records were spotless. They were never late, they were always at functions that were more 'face time' than practical, and they worked hard to maintain their top marks in their ratings. They were a joy to work with.

On the other hand, many of my hardline religious colleagues were more interested in Bible Study than preparing for deployments, would beg out due to family duties or church functions, and would hang back and let others do the jobs that they were supposed to do. I remember manning the communications center at one base pretty much alone because my partner was too busy doing a Bible Study using our teletype circuits (this was before the Internet, he was using ARPANET and our TTY links). Since he outranked me, I could not do anything about it, and since his superior was also a member of this group, my complaints fell on deaf ears. I remember him giving me a length of ASCII teletype tape to read, as practice for reading the tape directly. It contained a verse from Psalms.

I plan to make a post about the Oath of Enlistment and why these religious sorts dismiss it. You will understand (as I did, to my horror) why they do not take this oath seriously.

by Lorie Johnson on Sun Dec 11, 2005 at 10:21:58 AM EST
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Hi Lorie; thanks for replying & I'll read your new piece shortly.  Seems to me the issues you're pointing to here are related.  

Re. religious extremism:

From your comment it would appear that this conflict of loyalties is widespread to the point where it is impacting military readiness and capability.  By definition, if the "religiously conflicted" are routinely slacking in their duties, then we're not up to full strength, and that's downright dangerous.  How does it affect combat performance when you can't count on the person next to you because you've seen them missing practice exercises and suchlike, for whatever reason...?  

So what we have is an epidemic of less-than-ready warriors whose loyalty is questionable, and their COs have bought in.  And what that looks like, in terms of its social dynamic and impact on performance, sounds remarkably like the effects of an epidemic of drug abuse, for example as we heard occurred in Vietnam and immediately after, with marijuana and heroin.    

Gay warriors:

My friend tells me that throughout the time he has served (many years now), there has never been an issue or problem about anyone's sexuality; he's known openly gay soldiers, and the people he serves with say it doesn't matter, what matters is skill, commitment, capability, and so on.  

Seems to me this issue was solved decades ago.  The National Security Agency has long had the policy that it does not discriminate against people based on sexuality, but that gay employees must disclose their orientation to family and close friends in order that they cannot be subjected to extortion threats by foreign hostiles.  You could call this "don't discriminate, do tell the truth."  

If it works for an agency in which every single employee handles TS material every single day, it can work for the regular armed forces.  

All it will take to do this is an order from the Commander in Chief, same as was done for racial integration.  And if the presence of (as you said) impeccable gay warriors chases out slackers with divided loyalties, all the better for our strength and preparedness.  

by gg on Tue Dec 13, 2005 at 04:07:11 AM EST
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thank you for your post. it's informative and distressing.

by IseFire on Mon Dec 12, 2005 at 03:49:48 PM EST


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