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Christianity in the Military: Are Chaplains Becoming Increasingly Fundamentalist?

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The evangelical transformation of the military began during the cold war, in a new American Great Awakening that has only accelerated across the decades, making the United States one of the most religious nations in the world. We are also among the most religiously diverse, but as the number of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and adherents of hundreds of other traditions has grown, American evangelicalism has become more entrenched, tightening its hold on the institutions that conservative evangelicals consider most American -- that is, Christian.

"It was Vietnam which really turned the tide," writes Anne C. Loveland, author of the only book-length study of the evangelical wave within the armed forces, American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993. Until the Vietnam War, it was the traditionally moderate mainline Protestant denominations (Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians), together with the Catholic Church, that dominated the religious life of the military. But as leading clergymen in these denominations spoke out against the war, evangelicals who saw the struggle in Vietnam as God's task rushed in. In 1966, Billy Graham used the pulpit of the Presidential Prayer Breakfast to preach a warrior Christ to lead the troops in Vietnam: "I am come to send fire on the earth!" he quoted Christ. "Think not that I am come to send peace but a sword!" Other fundamentalists took from Vietnam the lessons of guerrilla combat, to be applied to the spiritual fight through the tactic of what they called infiltration, filling the ranks of secular institutions with missionaries both bold and subtle. That same year, one Family organizer advised inverting the strategy of the Vietcong, who through one targeted assassination could immobilize thousands. Winning the soul "key men" in the military could mobilize many more for spiritual war.

"Evangelicals looked at the military and said, 'This is a mission field,'" explains Captain MeLinda Morton, a former missile launch commander who until 2005 was a staff chaplain at the Air Force Academy and has since studied the history of the chaplaincy. "They wanted to send their missionaries to the military, and for the military itself to become missionaries to the world."

The next turning point occurred during the Reagan administration, when regulatory revisions helped create the fundamentalist front in today's military. A longstanding rule had apportioned chaplains according to the religious demographics of the military as a whole; that is, if the census showed that 10 percent of personnel were Presbyterian, then 10 percent of the chaplains would be Presbyterian. However, all chaplains were required to be trained to minister to troops of any faith. In the mid-1980s the Pentagon began accrediting hundreds of new evangelical and Pentecostal "endorsing agencies," allowing graduates of fundamentalist Bible colleges trained to see those from other faiths as enemies of Christ to fill up nearly the entire allotment for Protestant chaplains. As a result, more than two thirds of the military's 2,900 active-duty chaplains today are affiliated with evangelical or Pentecostal denominations. Morton thinks even that figure is an underrepresentation: "In my experience," she says, "80 percent of the chaplaincy self-identifies as conservative and/or evangelical."

The most zealous among the new generation of fundamentalist chaplains didn't join to serve the military; they came to save its soul. To that end, they cultivated an ethos now echoed by personnel up and down the chain of command: faith first, family second, country third. Captain Morton began to see that hierarchy realized after 2001, as a new generation of midcareer officers who'd come up under the evangelicalized chaplaincy returned to the Air Force Academy to become air operations commanders (AOCs), in charge of cadet squadrons. They, in turn, began promoting God's will in the academy not as chaplains but as ostensibly secular officers. Captain Morton realized what was happening when female cadets began telling her they were giving up their coveted pilot slots to pursue "God's purpose." "These women were being counseled by their AOCs that what God really wanted them to do was to bear children and be someone's wife."

Morton was alarmed not just as a chaplain and as a woman but as an officer -- fundamentalist AOCs were deliberately sabotaging a competitive system designed to produce the best pilots. The results will ripple outward for years, as women who passed up their wings are passed over for promotion, creating an officer corps shaped by religious orthodoxy at the expense of ability. Morton contributed her concerns to the 2004 Yale Report and submitted it to the head of chaplains at the academy, Colonel Michael Whittington, for whom she served as executive officer. He shelved it until Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), made it public in 2005. In response to media reports, Morton's superior asked her to declare the report a mistake. "I refused," she says. "That pretty much sealed my fate." Maj. Gen. Charles Baldwin, air force chief of chaplains, announced an inquiry into the report's conclusions, but that didn't give Morton confidence. An adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on ethical issues, Baldwin had instructed chaplains at the academy not to screen a clip from Schindler's List in a religious diversity program because he thought "it made Christians look like Nazis." He was even less pleased with the Yale Report. Morton realized her military career was over when Baldwin told a meeting of the academy's chaplains that they "were one big family that could tolerate no disloyalty in our ranks." The next day, "I was fired as Chaplain Whittington's executive officer ... [and] he refused to give me a new assignment." She went public. The air force tried to transfer her to Okinawa, but Mikey Weinstein demanded an investigation, and eventually a deal was struck: the only chaplain to speak up for religious freedom was made a civilian.

This post is an excerpt from C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, Chapter 5, "The War."