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2009-05-06

"The Crusade for a Christian Military": Are US Forces Trying to Convert Afghans to Christianity?

Topics

Guests

Jeff Sharlet, contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine. He is author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, which is coming out in paperback next month.

Mikey Weinstein, Air Force veteran and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. A registered Republican, he served as legal counsel to the Reagan administration for three years. He is the author of With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military.

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The military is denying it allows its soldiers to proselytize to Afghans, following the release of footage showing US soldiers in Afghanistan discussing how to distribute Bibles translated into Pashto and Dari. We speak to Air Force veteran and former Reagan administration counsel Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and journalist Jeff Sharlet, author of a Harper’s Magazine article on "The Crusade for a Christian Military." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The former prime minister of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, has called for an investigation into allegations that US soldiers are trying to convert Afghans to Christianity. He said, quote, “This is a complete deviation from what they are supposed to be doing.”

His comments come after a report on Al Jazeera showed footage of soldiers at Bagram Air Base discussing how to distribute Bibles translated into Pashto and Dari. The US military is denying it allows its soldiers to proselytize to Afghans. The military claims the Bibles shown in the video had been confiscated and destroyed and were "never distributed." Admiral Mike Mullen told a Pentagon briefing Monday, quote, “It certainly is, from the United States military’s perspective, not our position to ever push any specific kind of religion, period.”

The Pentagon has also sharply criticized Al Jazeera for releasing the year-old footage, which was shot by filmmaker and former soldier Brian Hughes. Military spokesperson Colonel Greg Julian said, quote, “Most of this is taken out of context. This is irresponsible and inappropriate journalism. There is no effort to go out and proselytize to Afghans.”

Well, on Tuesday, Al Jazeera released unedited footage of the US soldiers’ Bible study in Bagram to counter the Pentagon’s allegations. These excerpts from the unedited video show military chaplain, Captain Emmit Furner, leading the discussion on the definition of the US Central Command’s General Order Number One that explicitly forbids active-duty troops from trying to convert people to any religion.

    CAPTAIN EMMIT FURNER: By all means, do as scripture tells you to do and share the word, but be careful how you do it. Do it professionally; represent the Christian faith in a professional manner. Proselytizing is against the rules. That means going out and just actively seeking out somebody. I’m not going to say a lot about it. Just be careful. Remember to represent the Christian faith in a respectable, professional manner. And there are ways to win people to Christ that not overbearing or offensive to people. There are ways to do it.

    Why do you think there’s a general order against it, proselytizing? Do we know what it means in order to proselytize?

    SOLDIER: You mean, Army [inaudible] a general order?

    SOLDIER: It’s General Order Number One.

    CAPTAIN EMMIT FURNER: Number one, man.

    SERGEANT JON WATT: You cannot proselytize, but you can give [inaudible].

    CAPTAIN EMMIT FURNER: Alright, let’s talk about it. What do you think? Our ability to interact with the culture here is important for our mission in this country, so we can eventually hand this thing back over them to let them do their own thing. The more that we win over the hearts and minds, the better we’re going to be in accomplishing our mission to eradicate insurgents and Taliban and everybody else who’s bad. We want more on our side, and we’re not going to have more on our side if they see us as Bible-thumping, finger-pointing, critical people. I’m not saying you don’t share the word. That’s what you do as a Christian. But you share the word in a smart manner: love, respect, consideration for their culture and their religion. That’s what a Christian does is appreciation for other human beings. But at the same time, I’m not telling you not to share the word of God. I’m telling you to share the word of God, but be smart about it, please.

AMY GOODMAN: Another part of the unedited footage released by Al Jazeera shows Sergeant Jon Watt, the chaplain’s assistant, describing his experience of distributing Bibles in Iraq.

    SERGEANT JON WATT: The expressions that I got from the people in Iraq was just phenomenal. They were hungry for the word. And the carpet seller, when I bought my carpet, and then I put it away and came back to buy it from him, he kissed it three times and saying “Thank you” three times.

    When I had plumbers working on my building, the we could have moved into a brand new building on Camp Liberty, and I’ve been talking with the guy for a while, and there was three plumbers [inaudible] Hummer, and they jumped out of the back of it, and the guy was going, “In Arabic? In Arabic? Is it in Arabic?” because they can’t [inaudible] the Bibles, and yet the Koran tells them that is the word of God.

    So you make it as a gift, not as — you know, you don’t have to sit there and — if you make it as a gift and walk away from them, you know, I know like as our mission especially shows friendship, so the guy wants the Bible, and he can have it. That’s great. I know that a couple of the guys have got friendships built with Afghanis. That’s great. Otherwise, just let them remember they can have — where they can get it. Do not bring it personally. That way, you’re not in violation of the regulation, because that was what was determined from sticking into the regulations and everything, and the chaplains were saying you could to do it this way.

AMY GOODMAN: The initial report aired by Al Jazeera included footage of Lieutenant-Colonel Gary Hensley, the chief of the US military chaplains in Afghanistan, calling on soldiers to hunt people for Jesus.

    LT. COL. GARY HENSLEY: The Special Forces guys, they hunt men, basically. We do the same things as Christians: we hunt people for Jesus. We do. We hunt them down, get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into kingdom. Right? That’s what we do. That’s our business.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m joined now by two guests who have closely followed this story. Jeff Sharlet is the contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine. He joins us from Rochester, New York. He’s author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American [Power], which is coming out in paperback next month. His latest article is the cover story of the May issue of Harper’s Magazine. It’s called "Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military."

And we’re joined from Albuquerque at KNME-PBS by Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force veteran and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. A registered Republican, he served as legal counsel to the Reagan administration for three years and is author of With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military.

We did call Colonel Greg Julian in Afghanistan and invited him on the program. He said, “We have a war to fight here,” and was unable to join us.

Jeff Sharlet, first you. Talk about your reaction to these videotapes and the response by the military that it’s taken out of context.

JEFF SHARLET: I think that’s anything but the truth. You know, what we see on that videotape is really just the tip of the iceberg. When Mikey Weinstein, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, came to me and said, “You know, you should be writing about this subject,” I was a little skeptical that it could be as widespread as they said. But in more than a hundred interviews at every rank, I encountered that same kind of thinking. And the same kind of thing that you see there on display with Lieutenant-Colonel Hensley is replicated over and over and over, from private to general. But most frighteningly, it’s concentrated in the Officer Corps.

AMY GOODMAN: You write extensively about Hensley. Tell us who he is and the significance of this videotape.

JEFF SHARLET: Well, Lieutenant-Colonel Hensley, that you see in that videotape, you know, talking about hunting people for Jesus, was at the time the top chaplain, top military chaplain in Afghanistan. And I don’t know if you can quite make it out on that videotape, if you look closer at the T-shirt he’s wearing, it shows his affiliation with a sort of fundamentalist group called Chapel NeXt. And you can see a sort of a Christian cross inscribed over a map of Afghanistan.

And if you follow that — I mean, the rest of that footage is just as equally disturbing. At one point, speaking of the sort of the apocalyptic times that he believes we’re in, he says that, you know, the US soldiers there have a mission basically to, you know, carry out the work of God. And then he declares that we, meaning the US military, “We are the new Israel,” and repeats this for emphasis, “We are the new Israel.”

You know, I would have thought that was — this guy was just a kind of a rogue, a maverick, if I didn’t speak to so many other officers with just the same attitude. In the story, I talk about Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Young, who is also in Afghanistan at Kandahar Air Base, and he was quite plain in boasting about a PowerPoint presentation he had given to Afghan warlords explaining that American government was based on Christianity, that our Christian god was what made it great, and Afghanistan had a choice if it wanted to achieve democracy. And of course that choice was going to be for Jesus.

These people don’t even know that they’re crossing the line between church and state.

AMY GOODMAN: The title of your piece in Harper’s is called "Jesus Killed Mohammed." Tell us where this comes from.

JEFF SHARLET: Well, after about a year of interviewing military personnel, this was, in some ways, the most frightening story that I encountered. A man named Staff Sergeant Jeffery Humphrey, one of the very few soldiers who, in this military climate, had the courage to come forward and speak out about what he had seen, he had been stationed in Samarra. It was Easter. The day began calmly. A chaplain brought around a copy of Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic film Passion of the Christ, which they then put on constant play throughout the day.

When they came under attack, the Special Forces, Army Special Forces to whom he was assigned, had their Iraqi translator, an Iraqi American Christian, paint in giant red Arabic letters on the side of a Bradley fighting vehicle the words “Jesus killed Mohammed.” Then, while they put the translator on the roof with a bullhorn, shouting in Arabic, “Jesus killed Mohammed,” and then training their guns, training American guns on anybody who responded, the Bradley fighting vehicle rolled out into the city of Samarra and drawing fire everywhere it went, leading the Special Forces to conclude that every single Iraqi who took offense at these words, “Jesus killed Mohammed,” was part of the enemy and therefore needed to be destroyed.

And I spoke to the man who drove that Bradley, Lieutenant John DeGiulio, now Captain John DeGiulio, promoted since. And he describes wreaking almost biblical destruction on one whole block, blowing up every single thing he saw. And he said he was able to do this, because God was on his side and because he had been spiritually armored by watching Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. And then he thanked his chaplain for preparing him for that kind of spiritual battle on the streets of Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Mikey Weinstein, Air Force veteran, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, talk about how common this is and this videotape, what is your understanding of it, and how you experienced this in the military, if you did.

MIKEY WEINSTEIN: Well, Amy, there’s a couple things. The first is, is that everyone remembers Eisenhower’s famous farewell speech, which was warning America of the dangers of a military-industrial complex. What we’re really faced with here is a fundamentalist-Christian-para-church-military-corporate-proselytizing complex.

A few months ago, a four-star general, a commander in the US military — I won’t give his exact name, but commands hundreds of thousands of troops — asked me, “How bad is it, Mikey?” And I’ll tell your viewers today, and I’ll show them, exactly what I did. I said, “General, hold your pen six-and-a-half inches above your desk. Now drop it,” as I’ve just dropped that pen. I asked him why it dropped. And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Why did it drop?” He said, “Well, gravity.” That is how bad this is. It is that ubiquitous. It is that — it is in the very particulate of the technologically most lethal organization ever created by humankind, which is our US military. It’s everywhere. We’re about two inches away, you know, from a fundamentalist Christian America through our US military.

You know, I’ve come from a conservative military Republican family with three generations of Military Academy graduates. Three of my kids have graduated from the Air Force Academy. The only journalist that has grasped this and moved it into the mainstream media has been Jeff Sharlet. And he was incredibly, you know, skeptical when we first started talking a couple of years ago.

And I beg everybody out there to at least just do two things. You know, read Jeff’s book — you know, it’s more than ten pages, so you actually have to read it — The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, or Empire, or whatever you want to say, and then the Harper’s cover story by Jeff.

It’s very incontrovertible. What you saw in that, what Al Jazeera released, is nothing new. We’ve been talking about it forever. But there are hundreds of thousands of translated — into Arabic, Pashto, Dari — biblical tracks, Bibles, coins. There are so many para-church organizations: the Worldwide Military Baptist Missions, the Soldiers Bible Ministry, the Campus Crusades Military Ministry. You can’t count them all. This is how bad it is. And, you know, docile and supine America needs to wake up, because what we’re doing, we look exactly like the Crusaders of 1096 to the Iraqis and now the Afghans. And that’s all there is to it, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN:

Mikey Weinstein, tell us what the Christian Embassy video is.

MIKEY WEINSTEIN:

This was first written about by Jeff in, I think it was 2006 — wasn’t it, Jeff? — in an article in Harper’s that came out.

JEFF SHARLET:

Yeah.

MIKEY WEINSTEIN:

And we took a look at this, and I was astonished. I remember it was Thanksgiving Day, and I was trying to find a way to stay out of the kitchen, so I wouldn’t have to help with the meal. I was reading Jeff’s story, and this thing blew up in my mind, couldn’t believe what I saw.

This was a group of senior Pentagon officials, some of them like Pete Geren, who’s currently the Secretary of the Army, a number of generals and other folks that were in uniform being filmed in the Pentagon, and they were pushing the mission of this extreme right-wing fundamentalist Christian organization called the Christian Embassy.

We demanded — we held a press conference at the National Press Club on December 11th, I think it was, 2006, demanded that the brand new Secretary, Gates, who had taken over for Rumsfeld, that he conduct an investigation. And the DODIG came back. And earlier in Democracy Now! today, we saw what one of the DODIG reports talked about with regard to those seventy-five senior military officials that were trying to sell the validity of invading Iraq. And that report came back and faulted seven of the senior officials for clearly crossing the line, not constitutionally, but essentially for wearing their Halloween costumes, their uniforms, at the wrong time. And most of them have since been promoted.

And what generally happens when we catch the military desecrating the Constitution, which is pretty much every couple of hours, is that, you know, they stretch the crime scene tape, they say, “Move on, move one.” Their code one is it didn’t happen. Code two is it’s an isolated incident. Code three, it was taken out of context. And to Colonel Julian, who was too much of a coward to come on Democracy Now! today, when he says we have a war to fight, well, unfortunately, the war seems to be between fundamentalist Christians and the Constitution.

What I would say to him is what Martin Luther King said, which is, in the end, Colonel Julian and Pentagon, we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. And there comes a time when silence becomes betrayal. And our United States military, in the main, is betraying the oath it took to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, not a particular weaponized gospel perspective of Jesus Christ, of which Jeff speaks about and has written about for many years.

AMY GOODMAN:

Jeff Sharlet, talk about the transformation of military culture. You do it very well, talking from World War II to now. If you could briefly tell us how it has changed.

JEFF SHARLET:

Yeah. You know, you could almost tell the story through one organization, Officers Christian Fellowship, which began in the World War II era. It was just what it sounds like, a fellowship of officers, mostly evangelical and conservative Christians. And it was fine. It was officers who wanted to get together and share their faith, and that’s why we have the First Amendment, so they can do that.

Things started changing. After Vietnam, you stopped seeing a lot of liberal chaplains from the liberal Christian denominations. They didn’t want to serve in the military anymore. It really accelerated under Ronald Reagan, who took away all the restrictions and regulations that ensured, when you saw a chaplain in the military, it really was a little bit like Father Mulcahy, you know, someone who — Father Mulcahy in MASH is Catholic, but, of course, he can help and minister to everybody, and he’s trained to do that. Reagan wiped that out, so that the Chaplain Corps became predominantly fundamentalist. Some chaplains estimate today it’s about 80 percent fundamentalist.

And then things really picked up after 9/11, when this group, Officers Christian Fellowship, started seeing America’s conflicts as what they described as “spiritual war.” And what’s really frightening is they describe it as a spiritual conflict between good and evil. They describe Mikey Weinstein as Satanic. This show would be Satanic from their perspective. And that’s the problem. They see — not only do they see those whom they’re fighting overseas as part of the opposition, but they see even those within the military who are not a part of their movement as, at best, unwitting tools of Satan.

I mean, this sounds like loony stuff, but then you look at the size of the organization. It’s 15,000 members. It’s growing at three percent a year. It’s represented on 80 percent of military installations around the world. And you see, really, the fruition of a very long campaign that predates George Bush, to view the military as what missionaries called a mission field, not a branch of government, but as a place to go and harvest souls. And they’ve been successful now. And as Mikey Weinstein says, they’re so dominant within the military that they have become, in some ways, the mainstream rather than the fringe.

AMY GOODMAN:

Jeff, we only have a minute, but President Bush was close to the religious right. Obama isn’t as close to the religious right. Will this change the military? And what about his associations with Rick Warren, who was — you know, who gave one of the prayers at the inauguration?

JEFF SHARLET:

Well, if things go as planned, a general named Mike Gould is about to take over at the Air Force Academy, where Mikey Weinstein has been fighting for years for First Amendment freedoms. Mike Gould — in my story, I report, when he was at the Pentagon, he forced on his subordinates Rick Warren’s teachings, regardless of his subordinates’ religions. He said, “You need to look at Rick Warren.” That guy is about to be promoted under Obama. No one thinks Obama shares these points of view. I think there was some hope when he came in. And I think Mikey had hoped that there would be some real action. And instead, we see the same old guys being held over and, in many cases, even promoted. And it seems that Obama has taken a hands-off approach to this problem and is just ignoring it, and that’s only going to allow the movement to grow stronger.

AMY GOODMAN:

Mikey Weinstein, ten seconds.

MIKEY WEINSTEIN:

I would say that this is not a fight between Christianity and Judaism or between Christianity and Islam. It’s not a political spectrum, left or right, issue. It’s a constitutional right and wrong issue. And that’s what most of our military has forgotten or is deliberately, willingly, you know, forgetting.

AMY GOODMAN:

I want to thank you both for being with us. Mikey Weinstein, Air Force veteran, his book is With God on Our Side. And I want to thank Jeff Sharlet, whose cover story of Harper’s Magazine, author of the book The Family.

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