Thursday, May 02, 2013

Religious paranoia over limits on proselytizing in the military

The Pentagon is finally going through the motions, at least, of formally consulting with Michael Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) on the problem of unethical and coercive religious proselytizing in the military. Various conservative media outlets and Christian Right groups and individuals are using the occasion to say that them thar evil atheists and Jews is trying to wipe out Christianity in the US armed forces.

Basically, this the whiny-white-people, we-are-the-victims posture that Christian Right groups favor. This is in a way where it began with the organized Christian Right as we know it today. It was the Carter Administration's decision to deny federal tax breaks to private colleges like Bob Jones University that practiced racial segregation that was the cause that brought the leaders of today's Christian Right together to organize politically for the Republicans. (See: Randall Balmer, Rush, Race, and the Religious Right Huffington Post 03/10/2009; and, Randall Balmer on the formation of the religious right 07/09/2006)

As one can guess from my characterization of it, I don't have a lot of sympathy for that posture. That's especially because I associate it with segregationist attitudes. And it's an unfortunately reality that fundamentalist Christians and white people who were prefer not to have anything to do with blacks except as servants are two heavily overlapping groups. A somewhat more generous way to view would be to say that American fundamentalists put special emphasis see themselves as a Christian sub-culture, a minority that is privileged and burdened with the task of being witnesses to God's truth in a fallen world. Even with the best intentions, self-righteousness and active hostility to out-groups are constant risks with this posture.

This Christian Post article on the Weinstein story tells us in its opening paragraph, "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." (Stoyan Zaimov, Pentagon Hires Anti-Conservative Activist Who Branded Fundamentalists as 'Christian Monsters' 05/01/2013) His article largely recycles the rhetoric from a article to which he links and which reflects the standard sleazy, misleading style of "journalism" that is's trademark. And in case you might have lost the thread in reading the full article, Zaimov concludes his piece by noting that Weinstein "has been named by Forward Magazine as one of the most influential Jewish people in America."

At CitizensLink, the "news" arm of the Focus on the Family, Bruce Hausknecht, Secular Crusader Advises Pentagon: Christians are 'Monsters.' 04/30/2013 lays out a similar polemic against Weinstein, though without the anti-Semitic overtones.

The "monsters" label comes from this recent Huffington Post article by Weinstein, Fundamentalist Christian Monsters: Papa's Got A Brand New Bag 04/16/2013. He's melodramatic in that piece. But he's pretty explicit about to whom he directing his criticisms:

These bandits coagulate their stenchful substances in organizations such as the American Family Association (AFA), the ultra-fundamentalist Family Research Council (FRC), and the Chaplains Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL). The basis of their ruinous unity is the bane of human existence and progress: horrific hatred and blinding bigotry. However, when the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and others correctly characterize them as "hate groups," they all too predictably raise a deafening hue and disingenuously bellow mournfully like the world class cowards they are.
I had a Facebook discussion with someone who posted a piece on this. The discussion mainly served to remind me how attractive the victim posture can be. And how resistant those attracted to it can be to what are quaintly known as "facts," must less judgment outside the narrow confines of fundamentalist victimhood.

Most of what I said in that discussion is the following. Whether Weinstein distinguishes sufficiently between the many shades of opinion among Christian groups on the issues he addresses in that piece is a judgment call. But that's a couple of orders of magnitude less of a criticism than what the piece does. I can say for myself that I didn't feel criticized as a Christian by what he said in that piece. And I'm pretty sure none of the priests at my local parish would, either.

I doubt that Weinstein has said explicitly that he wants to "exterminate" anyone from the military based on their personal religious beliefs, a word my Facebook friend used. Points of contention over what is legitimate proselytizing in the military have to be judged on their individual merits, of course. But I would think that most Christians could agree that officers abusing their authority to coerce adherence to Christianity or a particular brand of it is unethical (not to mention against law and regulations).

And it's a sad thing but true that groups like Westboro Baptist Church do use Christianity to promote hatred and fanaticism around homosexuality, the issue he's addressing in that column. Westboro bases their protests at soldiers' funerals around their beliefs on homosexuality and the view that God is punishing America because of it. Their *theological* beliefs on that aren't basically different than that of many other conservative Christians. But I don't assume every time I see a criticism of Westboro that it applies to every single other group that shares that broader view. Apparently, neither does much of anyone else. Check every time you see someone post something against Westboro on Facebook to see whether they even mention Westboro's views on gays and lesbians, much less specify all the groups with broadly similar beliefs that they are not criticizing.

On the issue of chaplains not being able to share their faith, I don't know what if anything that complaint addresses. I'm going to have to ask him about that the next time I see him. I do know that the position of a military chaplain is a different calling from being a civilian pastor, not least because that ministry requires them to deal with people not always of their particular denomination or religion in a way a civilian pastor doesn't have to.

I've done a bit more web research, and the complaint that chaplains aren't allowed to share their faith is pushed by a seemingly fundamentalist/Pentecostal group, the Chaplain Alliance, which elaborates as the first item in its list of "common faith": "The Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God in the original languages and the absolute standard for moral conduct." You can quickly get lost in the endless hair-splitting of fundamentalism. But the "original languages" part caught my eye. The more familiar formulation of the "inerrant" position is that the books of the Bible were inerrant in their original autographs, meaning their original written versions. That allows a tiny amount of theoretical wiggle-room since none of the original "autographs" are extant.

A Facebook friend of a Facebook friend, whose name I won't use here in case they later realize that what they were saying is, well, what they're saying, wrote the following (paragraph breaks added).

I find it humorous that they keep pointing to Christians when they talk about 'religious intolerance' When's the last time you watched a news story about a bunch of people being beaten or murdered in the name of Jesus Christ? I see posts and articles all the time written or shared by atheists and agnostics filled with hate and innuendo toward Christian believers, but rarely do I see the faithful followers of Christ posting venomous attacks or cutely worded retorts directed towards those who don't believe.
Really? I see them all the time. But for those familiar with this thought-world, "faithful followers of Christ" is an open-ended alibi. An antiabortion fanatic shooting Dr. George Tiller in the head at his church? Rightwing fanatics heavily influenced by Christian Identity doctrines? Not "faithful followers."

well [sic], get ready, cause here it comes. This Christian IS becoming 'intolerant'. Intolerant of the arrogance being spewed forth by those who are ignorant of the true practice of Christianity. That intolerance wraps around and includes those who call themselves Christians but do nothing more than walk around and give our Lord, and His followers, a bad name. Romans 2:24 says 'the name of God will be blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you' well you went and did it, didn't you?
Here, we get into cultish redefinition of common concepts. In the most basic political theory sense, tolerance means you don't shoot people or put them in jail for having or expressing a different opinion. But fundamentalists use "tolerance" to mean deference to Christian fundamentalists, including their political and legal preferences in everything from evangelizing by military chaplains to banning the teaching of post-1850 biology in public schools. This person here uses "tolerance" and "intolerance" as synonyms for agreeing or disagree with fundamentalist positions. (I don't follow exactly who they're saying is responsible for the blasphemy among the Gentiles, or who they think the "Gentiles" are in this situation.)

This whole thing is asinine to me. We all know, our Bill of Rights states: 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof' They even deemed it important enough to put it as the number one thing to address, Top on the 'to do list', even above our right to bear arms. I just don't understand it. How in the world, can you expect to take one of our RIGHTS away from the very people who sacrifice the most to ensure them? I don't understand the wisdom in calling this man in to talk about religious tolerance when he HAS NONE.
Again, when "tolerance" means deference to fundamentalist preferences across the board, anyone who questions them or insists on enforcing laws and regulations on ethical proselytizing they are by definition intolerant. There's also an element of projection in this discourse: No, we're not intolerant, its the libruls that are intolerant of us; and so we have to be intolerant to them and it's still all the libruls' fault!

To say that a warrior sharing his or her faith with another should be counted as treason, yet talk of cutting out a piece of our Bill of Rights isn't? It's foolishness to me. We need to get this article out and get it read. Let the people know what's being kicked around at the Pentagon and in the Oval Office before it's too late. Everyone should be appalled by this. Believer and non believer alike. If this doesn't infuriate you, then guess what, you're part of the problem. It wont be long until the rights that are near and dear to you will start being whittled away at and taken from you.
This last mood of impending doom is a dominant mood in the apocalyptic thinking that is so prevalent in American fundamentalism. It's actually a common characteristic of various kinds of religious fundamentalism.

Do I even need to ask how the folks at would react to reports that Muslim chaplains in the service were pressuring Christian soldiers to convert to Islam?

Despite the fog of fundi victimization and melodramatic self-pity, when Weinstein and the MRFF advocate for following the law and military regulations on proselytizing in the military, we're talking about the armed forces of the United States, not of Christianity or Islam or any other religion.

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