Fundamentalists and the Military: James Carroll on the Danger of a New Crusade
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Tue Sep 18, 2007 at 12:46:14 PM EST
James Carroll, author of the best-selling book Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, has strong opinions about the dangers Christian fundamentalism presents not just to the United States but to the world.

Carroll, in a recent interview with Tom Engelhardt of the Nation Institute, talked about his experiences working on a documentary version of the book. Part of that project involved delving into allegations that an evangelical Christian subculture had taken root at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and, by larger extension, across the U.S. military.

Carroll was appalled by what he found.

"In the Pentagon today," he says, "there is active proselytizing by Christian groups that is allowed by the chain of command. When your superior expects you to show up at his prayer breakfast, you may not feel free to say no. It's not at all clear what will happen to your career. He writes your efficiency report. And the next thing you know, you have, in the culture of the Pentagon, more and more active religious outreach."

Continues Carroll, "Imagine, then, a military motivated by an explicit Christian, missionizing impulse at the worst possible moment in our history, because we're confronting an enemy - and yes, we do have an enemy: fringe, fascist, nihilist extremists coming out of the Islamic world - who define the conflict entirely in religious terms. They, too, want to see this as a new `crusade.' That's the language that Osama bin Laden uses. For the United States of America at this moment to allow its military to begin to wear the badges of a religious movement is a disaster!"

A former Roman Catholic priest, Carroll also warns about rising tide of Christian fundamentalism around the world.

"My own conviction is that a crucial twenty-first century problem is going to be Christian fundamentalism," he says. "Its global growth is an unnoticed story in the United States. Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia are now absolutely on fire with zealous belief in the saving power of Jesus, in the most intolerant of ways. A religious ideology that affirms the salvific power of violence is taking hold. It denigrates people who are not part of the saved community, permitting discrimination, and ultimately violence. Hundreds of millions of people are embracing this kind of Christianity."

While the interview veers into some other areas, such as the war in Iraq, Carroll's warning on the dangers of politicized fundamentalism is well worth heeding. Fundamentalism's main fault, as Carroll points out, is that is often impervious to facts and stubborn. Its adherents admit no new information and insist on looking to their interpretation of religious texts as a sole guide for governance.

The problem is, those ancient books were never intended to fill that role. The Bible may have a lot to say on how to worship God or get to Heaven, but it can be made to speak on issues like stem-cell research, cloning, in vitro fertilization and other modern controversies only through the interpretation of a human agent.

We have no shortage of fundamentalist "guides" who would claim to interpret the text and tell the government how it ought to respond in the "biblically correct" way. Interestingly, what the Bible mandates the government do and what various fundamentalist leaders would have the government do just happen to always be one in the same. (Just a coincidence, I am sure.)

There is a better way, as Carroll remind us: "America is also a secular nation, of course. The separation of church and state was a critical innovation, giving us this special standing as a people. The separation's purpose was to protect the conscientious freedom of every individual by making the state neutral on questions of religious conscience. An absolutely ingenious insight."

Carroll mentions.

What seems extremely strange to me, as I've pushed the bounds of research into the influence of the fundamentalist (and usually apocalyptic) Christian right in the US military, is that no one has thought to do  much research into the subject before. My working assumption is simply that everyone who actually has been tracking the Christian right as a movement was simply overwhelmed. But, the question of influence the movement might or might not have in the US military seems like a central one to me - central to the health of American democracy.

Some of the programs I've been studying have been growing and developing for years, but no one has - up to now - bothered to study them. Actually, no one outside of the military, in many cases, seems to have even been aware of their existence. The scope of likely constitutional violations I've uncovered is, in certain case, massive.

I was having  a conversation, recently,  with an associate editor of a major distribution magazine who is working on a soon to be released and very ambitious story on the influence of the Christian right in the federal government. He  apologized to me, saying he said he had been highly dubious of my initial take on the spread of apocalyptic religious ideology in the Pentagon. Now, he's convinced - I've demonstrated it, with more on the way.

Carrol's summation is, in my mind, keenly insightful. He sees the outline of the problem. Along with Chris Rodda, I've been fleshing out that outline with facts.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Sep 18, 2007 at 03:23:44 PM EST

I would love to see Carroll's research notes. This is the EXACT OPPOSITE of my experience with the military, whether active duty or as a contractor who dealt daily with the Pentagon and others (who shall not be named ). There were small groups of Christians present, but I never have witnessed something like this. I really have a problem believing this dude

by BobValerius on Tue Sep 18, 2007 at 05:53:39 PM EST
It would depend on when and where you were in the military.

But for a short example : the Officer's Christian Fellowship, a subsidiary of Bill Bright's Campus Crusade For Christ, has roughly 15,000 members in the US military officer corps on 200 US military bases worldwide. The OCF appears to espouse apocalyptic theology and is fundamentalist.

Another group, "Christian Embassy", proselytizes directly within the Pentagon and under its auspices reportedly some 350 Bible study groups meet regularly. Christian Embassy appear to advocate the position that the US invasion of Iraq was Biblically justified and is fundamentalist, Christian Embassy is also a subsidiary of Campus Crusade For Christ.

Beyond the US military, there are a number of other fundamentalist, apocalyptic Christian ministries that target the US military.  Campus Crusade is far from the only player.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Sep 18, 2007 at 06:32:34 PM EST

I did not see any political machinations, or any mobilization towards any ends other than forming Bible studies (much like any evangelical denomination would), primarily on overseas bases (where English speaking service-members would have a hard time finding fellowship outside of the base chapel arena). They seemed to work pretty well with the chaplain corps in CONUS, too; and, went out of their way not to step on the toes of the on-base chapel programs. Rather they supported them. I saw nothing I am concerned about, even in retrospect. Even at the USAFA, where I was a cadet (76-80) there were other groups, FCA and NAVs, and a certain USAF LTC's fellowship group, that were WAY more aggressive than OCF. Now, if you tell me something changed in the 90s, I can't challenge that, but in the late 70s and 80s (CO, CA, TX, MO, MD, 7th Corps Germany) I saw nothing scary about OCF or its mission.

by SharonB on Wed Sep 19, 2007 at 12:05:49 PM EST
I gather that most reports of intrusive evangelizing in the Armed Forces are relatively recent (2000 onwards), and that the AFA is a hotspot but in general the intrusive activity is sporadic. What seems worrisome is that the rhetoric concerning "discrimination" against conservative evangelical chaplains (ie, making them follow the chaplaincy rules) and concerning evangelization of Iraqis is hot, on various large-audience radio programs aimed at the general (non-military) audience.

by NancyP on Wed Sep 19, 2007 at 09:01:49 PM EST

And, the OCF now appears to espouse apocalyptic theological views - as is the right of its members too, but the tendency might worry some Americans. Still, such tendencies present no affront to the US Constitution...  

That's all I'll say right now.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Sep 19, 2007 at 11:32:39 PM EST

Growing up attending a fundamentalist church where end time prophecy was rigorously taught, and seeing how certain bible verses were repeatedly used to explain current events and justify military action, it is no surprise that military personnel would find this type of teaching appealing.

by offbeatjim on Wed Sep 19, 2007 at 08:26:57 AM EST

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