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Religion in the War Zone

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I am admittedly skeptical whenever a film about religion in the military purports to be objective and the filmmakers claim to have no agenda other than exploring the subject. So, when I popped in a DVD of Chaplains Under Fire, a new documentary about military chaplains by independent filmmakers Terry Nickelson and Lee Lawrence, I was expecting the worst. I'm happy to say I was wrong. Not only is this film a must-see for anyone interested in the debate over religion in the military, but it has the potential to be a valuable training tool for military chaplains.

My skepticism remained while watching the first 20 minutes or so of this 90-minute film, which consist of various stories showing what the troops are going through, from monotony and boredom to the loss of friends, and the interaction between the chaplains and the troops. While Nickelson and Lee certainly accomplish their goal of showing what the troops endure from day to day, I found it a bit odd that the subject of religion is almost entirely absent in the interactions with the chaplains, as if it were deliberately being avoided. Every one of the many chaplains in this part of the film comes across as Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, just a guy in the unit who happens to be a chaplain, chatting with the troops about everything but religion while displaying a slight disapproval of things like off-color jokes and songs and posters of half-naked women in the troops' quarters. Although this might not be an accurate depiction of the behavior of all chaplains, it would certainly make a great teaching tool to show chaplains the right way to interact with troops outside of religious services.

By the end of this 20 minutes of watching chaplains behaving in an exemplary manner, I was anticipating another hour of fluff about the devoted chaplains who serve our troops, but the rest of the film was anything but. Through interviews with people on both sides of the separation-of-church-and-state debate, Nickelson and Lee do a superb job of accurately and objectively presenting the divide between the two camps.

A number of commentators appear throughout the film, offering their perspectives on various points. On one side are people like Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF); Lori Lipman Brown of the Secular Coalition for America; and Dr. Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center. Those on the other side include Bob Dees, executive director of Campus Crusade for Christ's Military Ministry; Billy Baugham, a retired chaplain and executive director of International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers (ICECE); Arthur Schulcz, an attorney who represents evangelical chaplain endorsers; and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC).

(The term "chaplain endorser," which appears throughout this piece, refers to the endorsement of a chaplain by a Department of Defense-approved religious body. An ecclesiastical endorsement from an approved religious body is a requirement for a chaplain to serve in the military.)

Like the scenes at the beginning of the film showing chaplain after chaplain doing exactly the right thing in their interactions with the troops, all of the scenes of chaplains praying with wounded service members show absolutely appropriate behavior, with the chaplain first asking the service members if they would like him to pray. In all of these scenes, the service members happen to say yes, so none of these scenes shows how these chaplains would handle themselves with a non-religious service member who doesn't want them to pray. This issue, however, is not overlooked by the filmmakers. It's addressed in the interviews of ICECE's Billy Baugham and the Secular Coalition's Lori Lipman Brown.

Baugham begins with this story about a chaplain and a dying soldier: "And the medic came over and said, 'Chaplain, we have a soldier here who has three minutes to live. Whatever you do as a chaplain, now is the time to do it.'" After graphically describing the soldier's injuries, Baugham continues the story with what the chaplain said to this dying soldier: "He says, 'Soldier, this is Chaplain Ammerman. Do you know the Lord as your savior?' And he said -- no response -- 'Would you like to know him as your savior? You're gonna meet him in a few minutes.'" Baugham then says that the soldier shook his head and uttered a series of groans, imitating this as "ah -- ah -- ah -- ah -- ah." He continues the story: "He says, 'Take my hand, and if you'd like to receive him just squeeze it as hard as you can.' And Chaplain Ammerman reports that he almost broke his hand." Baugham sums up the story by saying, "Now that's real Christianity. That's the difference between proselytizing and evangelizing. He offered him the blessed hope."

Even assuming that the soldier's groans were something more than just noises from a barely conscious dying soldier in excruciating pain, and that the soldier squeezing the chaplain's hand was actually an answer of 'yes' and not just the soldier squeezing the hand of whomever was there as he was dying, the important question is raised by Brown, who is watching Baugham relate this story on a laptop. "What would that minister have done if the soldier had said no?"

A unique aspect of this film is that the commentators from opposite sides had the opportunity to view and respond to one another's comments as the film was being made, making it more of an actual debate than just a bunch of separate comments, so Brown got the answer to her question. Baugham responded: "What if his response was no? I would say, 'Jesus loves you, and I urge you with all my heart to accept his word. ... So you've got to make to make a choice. You've got to make it real quickly.' I would urge that soldier as quick as I could, 'Take your chances with him. It's the best bet you've got.'"

Yes, that's how the man who heads a group representing over 800 evangelical chaplains thinks those chaplains should treat a dying soldier who doesn't want to accept Jesus.

While MRFF does receive a good number of complaints about chaplains, it is actually far more common, in complaints about the pushing of religious beliefs on the troops, for the pushing to be coming from a superior officer or senior NCO than from a chaplain. In Chaplains Under Fire, one of the chaplains interviewed describes an incident that is very typical of the kind of incidents reported to MRFF. The chaplain recounts what he walked into when he was called in after a member of a Marine unit committed suicide and a senior NCO's pronouncement of his theological opinion had made the situation even more upsetting for the other members of the unit: "But the evening after, there was a senior staff NCO who talked with the guys, and he stated, 'We've lost one of our Marines, but we need to go forward with the mission that we have, even though right now that individual is burning in hell.' And luckily I came in afterwards, dealing with especially those who were immediately close with him."

Chaplains objecting to this sort of behavior by NCOs, officers, and even other chaplains, is not uncommon. Among the thousands of service members who have contacted MRFF -- 96 percent of whom are Christians themselves -- have been a number of Christian chaplains. These are the chaplains who understand what Billy Baugham and Arthur Schulcz, who in Chaplains Under Fire talk about the infringement on the First Amendment's free speech rights of the chaplains, just don't get. Chaplains are there to serve the troops and ensure their First Amendment rights, not the other way around. Chaplains simply do not have the right to push their beliefs on the troops, nor should a chaplain encourage his or her congregants to push their beliefs on their fellow troops, as one chaplain is shown doing in Chaplains Under Fire. While chaplains certainly do have the same right as a civilian minister to preach the beliefs of their religion in the setting of an actual worship service, statements like the following from a chaplain in a worship service are troublesome:

How many of you on a day-to-day basis go up to your neighbors in your workspace and witness to them about Christ? Why not? It's risky, isn't it? Somebody might look at you, and they might label you something, right? Two words: he's a Jesus freak. That's a little bit scary. I'm not saying that God's calling you to go to Baghdad and preach the word there, because, first of all, I don't think you're gonna get clearance to get off the base to do that. But God's got plenty of missions for you every single day right here on base.

On the one hand, evangelizing is part of the Christian faith, so the chaplain has the right to talk about it in a worship service, but on the other hand, the chaplain's military congregation does not have the right do what the chaplain is encouraging them to do -- evangelize in the military workplace.

In a clip that follows, Campus Crusade's Bob Dees claims that there's "not anybody pushing religion on anybody else," that "that's not happening," and that it's a "myth in our media" -- this from the man who heads an organization whose stated mission is to "Evangelize and Disciple All Enlisted Members of the U.S. Military." It is an organization that is completely ingrained in the military, targeting young recruits and future officers with the aid of the chaplains and commanders who allow it to operate on their bases. An organization with the goal of transforming the U.S. military into a force of "government-paid missionaries for Christ." An organization which has stated on its website:

Young recruits are under great pressure as they enter the military at their initial training gateways. The demands of drill instructors push recruits and new cadets to the edge. This is why they are most open to the 'good news.' We target specific locations, like Lackland AFB and Fort Jackson, where large numbers of military members transition early in their career. These sites are excellent locations to pursue our strategic goals.

According to Dees himself, in his Military Ministry's newsletter:

"We must pursue our particular means for transforming the nation -- through the military. And the military may well be the most influential way to affect that spiritual superstructure. Militaries exercise, generally speaking, the most intensive and purposeful indoctrination program of citizens."

Yes, Mr. Dees, quotations like these certainly make it clear that religion being pushed on the troops is just a "myth in our media."

The ongoing debate over prayers in Jesus' name is, of course, addressed in Chaplains Under Fire, with several chaplains giving their opinions on the issue.

One Baptist Navy chaplain, referring to the occasions when he is asked to deliver a prayer over the speakers on a ship, said, "I don't have a right to impose my Christianity on those people who are forced to listen." Another Christian chaplain, referring to the antics of former Navy chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt, said:

My dad called me as soon as the news broke that a Navy chaplain was doing a hunger strike because he couldn't pray in Jesus' name, and my dad's like, 'Is this true?' And people always ask you, but it's not. You have to care about other people and be somewhat respectful. That doesn't mean that I'm limiting my faith.

The chaplain who said this is also shown giving a prayer to group of soldiers about to go out on a mission, and this chaplain did exactly the right thing in that setting. He told the soldiers that he wanted to say a prayer, and gave those who didn't want to participate a moment to walk away and having those who did want to participate gather around him.

In contrast, another chaplain is shown doing the wrong thing, jumping right into a prayer without giving a group of soldiers returning from a mission any choice but to stand there and listen, whether they want to or not. And, in addition to maintaining a captive audience, this chaplain made his prayer specifically Christian by ending it in "thy son's name."

When asked about prayers in Jesus' name, this chaplain gives the typical response, laughing out loud at his own cleverness in getting around the issue by using phrases that everyone knows mean Jesus, but not actually saying Jesus: "If this is your setting with all ranks and all different types of people, and this is a mandatory ceremony, then, of course, you say, 'In the name of the one who died for our sins,' or, 'In your precious name.' That's not a controversy. The controversy is Jesus. The name himself."

This chaplain's ever-so-clever avoidance of actually using Jesus' name while making it clear that the prayer is in Jesus' name is so common that Mikey Weinstein often illustrates the the ridiculousness of this with a made-up example of a non-sectarian prayer, which he repeats in the film: "We now ask our sweet lord's blessing on the assembled troops here today. We ask it in the name of our sweet lord, whose name we can't say because of Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, but it rhymes with 'Besus.'"

Rep. Walter Jones, a crusader for a chaplain's "right" to pray in Jesus' name in all situations, tells the following story about one Air Force chaplain:

He said, "Congressman, I am a major in the Air Force and I cannot tell you how many times after an official event on base that I was asked to pray, that I did not close my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, that I would go back to my office and get down on my knees and ask God to forgive me that I denied his son in my prayer."

But the same chaplain mentioned earlier who has no problem keeping his shipboard prayers non-sectarian, would certainly disagree with Rep. Jones. As that chaplain explains, "Because I always understand my prayers to be going to the person of Jesus Christ -- I'm a Baptist, how else would I understand it -- I don't need to say that name. I don't need to exclude somebody from my prayer by pointing out that very obvious fact."

In the scene described earlier of the chaplain appropriately giving the soldiers the choice to pray or not to pray before going out on a mission, the prayer the chaplain says is the Lord's Prayer. On the surface, this would seem to be specifically Christian, because this prayer comes from the New Testament, but it's actually a pretty generic prayer, and one that really shows the irony of the whole praying in Jesus' name controversy. When Jesus' disciples asked him how they should pray, Jesus himself didn't tell them to pray to him or in his name. He told them to say the Lord's Prayer, called that not because it's a prayer to Jesus or in Jesus' name, but a prayer that, according to the Bible, Jesus composed. Yet now we have chaplains claiming that they are denying Jesus if they can't end their public prayers in his name -- public prayers that are contrary, in the first place, to what Jesus himself told his disciples when he said not to pray in public like the hypocrites, but to pray in private.

Another scene in Chaplains Under Fire shows a National Prayer Luncheon taking place at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. The beginning of the scene shows the Christian chaplain saying it's an interfaith prayer luncheon, and then a Jewish airman praying a Jewish prayer, and a Muslim chaplain praying a Muslim prayer. Great.

The Christian chaplain, being interviewed about the luncheon, says, "The Imam was obviously Muslim. The airman was obviously Jewish. So, we just happened to have a Christian speaker, then."

It's funny how these interfaith prayer luncheons and breakfasts, which are very common events throughout the military, always make a point of having a non-Christian or two participate in a nominal way with a short prayer, but virtually always seem to just happen to have a Christian speaker.

The speaker at the luncheon at Pope Air Force Base was former football coach Tommy Bowden, who proceeded to tell the audience at this interfaith event that America is a Christian nation, using a fake Patrick Henry quotation popular on Christian websites to do it. The film shows Bowden claiming that Henry said, "I strongly emphasize that this great country America was not founded by religionists, but by Christians; not on the basis of religions, but on the basis of Jesus Christ."

Christian nationalist pseudo-history has actually become very prevalent in the military in recent years, and speakers at events such as the one at Pope Air Force Base frequently include a dose of historical revisionism in their speeches.

Billy Baugham says in the film:

The original intent of the founding fathers were to have a country that is essentially Christocentric but tolerant of other faith groups. Therefore, you have the Jews and the others come in. And I do not think the original intent was to bring in every religion under the earth. They didn't even know about them then.

Clearly, George Washington, who wrote to a Jewish congregation in Rhode Island that "it is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights," would have strongly disagreed with Baugham. So would James Madison, who had the word "toleration" struck from the Virginia Declaration of Rights because toleration does not mean full equality, but rather that there is preferred religion that is merely tolerating other religions. As far as the founders not even knowing about other religions, this is a ridiculous claim. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his autobiography, a proposal to insert the name "Jesus Christ" in the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom "was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination."

Rep. Walter Jones also greatly distorted the history of the chaplaincy in his most recent proposed bill regarding prayers in Jesus' name. For more on that, see my previous post, A Little History Lesson For Rep. Walter B. Jones About Military Chaplains.

When asked in his interview for Chaplains Under Fire about the level of communication between fundamentalists like Billy Baugham and someone like himself, Weinstein responded, "If we could improve the level of communication a thousand-fold, then and only then could we say that we're two ships passing in the night, because right now we're two starships in different space-time continuums."

Weinstein is not exaggerating: the divide is that deep. In fact, Weinstein is currently suing Jim Ammerman, the former chaplain whom Baugham talks about in the film, and Gordon Klingenschmitt, who was endorsed by Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches (the chaplain-endorsing agency founded by Ammerman) after losing the endorsement of his former endorser just prior to his court-martial. This is not a MRFF lawsuit but a personal one brought by Weinstein and his wife after Klingenschmitt issued public prayers calling for Weinstein's death. Ammerman has also stooped to slandering Weinstein's family, stating in a speech in 2008 declaring that Weinstein had become a "madman" because his son, Ammerman claims, got saved at the Air Force Academy, a lie that originated in a 2005 email exchange involving Baugham.

For more about Jim Ammerman, including his call for the lynching of four U.S. senators in the 2008 Democratic primary and disturbing connections to the militia movement, see my post Conspiracy Theorist Military Chaplains Promote Anti-American Militia Activity, a post that, with the recent news reports about Christian militia activity, seems more timely now than when I wrote it last spring.

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