In the 2012 feature film Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise plays the title role of a military police officer working in an elite investigations unit. While tracking down a rogue ex-military assassin, Jack observes that:
“There are four types of people who join the military. For some, it’s family trade. Others are patriots, eager to serve. Next you have those who just need a job. Then there’s the kind who want the legal means of killing other people.”
But Jack clearly omitted fifth general category
“And finally there are those who believe it is their holy mission.”
For Evangelical Christians, the military is not a secular institution in which Christians merely serve as good citizens; it is–or should be, they think–a Christian institution, a mighty holy sword that must be wielded by god’s chosen ones to smite nonbelievers. Toward this end, evangelicals have been working tirelessly since the rise of evangelism in the 1960’s and before. And this consistent, long term effort has not been wasted. The occasional high-profile news scandals of indoctrination by chaplains, of bible verses etched on guns, and of Generals making frightening religious proclamations are not anomalies but are rather indicative of a deep systemic infestation of religious fundamentalism in our military.
In their 2006 book, With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military, Michael L. Weinstein and Davin Seay detail the widespread and concerted program of religious indoctrination at the U.S. Air Force Academy and throughout our entire military. They document what they call “a program of Christian fundamentalist indoctrination … befitting a theocracy … utter disregard for the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”
Christian zealotry is not merely the isolated culture at the U.S. Air Force Academy, but saturates our military training institutions and extends throughout actively serving soldiers -and particularly among the leadership.
According to the Washington, DC-based Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), 63% of chaplains are evangelical, serving only 18% of self-proclaimed evangelicals in the military population. There are at least a dozen major Christian military boarding schools that intentionally conflate service to god with service to country. How often do we hear “god and Country” or “Guns and Bible” inextricably linked?
Perhaps the most ambitious institution to actively work to co-opt our military is the patriotically named Liberty “University” – (sorry but I cannot legitimize them by allowing them to adopt the word University without quotes) – which has recently launched a major marketing campaign to promote their new drone warfare training program. Liberty “University” is not some tiny Christian enclave. Founded by the late evangelical Southern Baptist pastor and ultra conservative Jerry Falwell, it has 12,000 students on campus in Lynchburg, VA and another 60,000 online. More than 23,000 of these online students are in the military.
As with most Christians, Liberty “University” loves guns. The bigger the better. And drones are the biggest and best guns we have right now so naturally they want them wielded by Christian Soldiers. Now, their side argues that such programs are merely job training: that their only goal is to prepare their students for good jobs and careers in the blossoming drone warfare industry that are the opportunities of the future. They also argue that since drones are a reality in today’s world, it is best that they are wielded by soldiers with a sound Christian moral and ethical foundation.
But regardless of these innocent sounding rationales, as a secular citizen, nothing frightens me more than yet more fanatical Evangelical Christians with their fingers on the triggers of yet more devastating and powerful weaponry. Remember that their Christian moral foundation teaches them to have no problem with killing whatsoever. For them, the commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill, is widely open to interpretation. Clearly god did not mean killing, he meant murder. Any kind of justifiable killing is fine, that’s not murder -as in the case of Trayvon Martin. All State-sanctioned killing is just fine. All killing in the name of god is just fine. In fact, the only killing that god apparently prohibited with absolute dogmatic clarity is when it involves unborn fetuses.
Beyond the clear agenda of these Christians to co-opt the military from within and without, there is another reason to be deeply concerned. Do we really want Christians training our military instead of secular military leaders? How can secular military leaders instill their essential institutional values when their recruits have already been indoctrinated in a deeply disturbing vision of the military’s holy mission under god?
Religious military training feels like a technical “loophole” around the spirit of the Lemon Test for separation of church and state. In 2010, Liberty “University” received over $420 million in financial aid from the government. As such it was the #1 recipient of Pell Grant money in the state of Virginia. Christian-style military training, especially in glorifying and legitimizing the highly questionable ethics underpinning drone warfare, is certainly not something that the ethical foundations of most atheists would easily rationalize, support, engage in, or condone.
We atheists must take a public ethical stand for moderation and sanity with regard to the proliferation of drone weaponry and other highly controversial tools of war. We should also push back against religious military training programs that are designed to co-opt rather than simply support our military. In these ways we can very clearly expose the twisted ethical façade of the Religious Right as well as tangibly protect our separation of church and military.