Mikey Weinstein asked me to pass along this statement from an Army officer and West Point graduate about the constant problems he has faced in the military from aggressive Christian superiors who have badgered him relentlessly about his own religious views. The whole thing is worth reading.
I am a United States Army Captain. On a spring day at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York several years ago, I took a solemn oath to support and defend the United States Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic as an officer in the United States Army. I took a legally altered oath which omitted the words “So Help Me G-d.” When I submitted my first signed copy, with those words neatly crossed out and initialed, I was informed that it was not valid. When threatened with the prospect of not graduating and being refused a Commission, I stood by my refusal to sign the Oath as it read. I could not in good conscience do so because I was deeply disturbed by fusion of religion and military service. I could not reconcile the suspicion that the Oath itself was establishing religion in a way which contradicted the spirit of the Constitution with the intensity of my commitment to defend same. I believed, and still believe, that my personal metaphysical experience of the universe must be separate from my role as a military professional. In the passing years, I have come to the unsettling conclusion that the sentiment in the Oath which so disturbed me is a practical reality in my United States Army.
Based on my alteration of The Oath, you may be tempted to label me “non-religious.” I find this odd, because religion has broadly influenced my life and values. I was born into a mixed Jewish and Catholic family. The family I belong to now is mixed Buddhist and Agnostic. I attended Catholic high school where I excelled in my religious studies. I was one of a literal fistful of non-Christian students voluntarily attending a religious institution, and I never once felt pressure to conform. In our mandatory religious classes we studied Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Quaker, Mormon, Jewish, Protestant, Wiccan, and other religions and we were taught that mere “tolerance” was abhorrent and basic “acceptance” was the absolute minimum standard. I learned during my second semester as a Plebe (freshman) at West Point that even lowly tolerance is a privilege not to be bestowed on all Soldiers in the United States Army.
During my second year at the West Point, my Squad Leader for summer training expressed disapproval on numerous occasions with my being Jewish, and, during one mission, he grabbed my MRE (a military meal) as we sat down for lunch and handed me another. He ordered me to eat the pork chop and I reminded him that I refrain from pork for religious reasons. He told me that I could eat the pork or eat nothing. One of his peers, a female Jewish cadet, urged me to obey him and not to make him angry; I declined. The next day, my cadet Platoon Leader presented me with a written counseling statement detailing my signs of “anorexia” and a “troubling” refusal to eat which was detrimental to my health and indicative of “incapacity for leadership.” I was filled with righteous indignation. I went through the Cadet and Commissioned Chain of Command and my rebuttal culminated with a conversation with the Active Duty Major in command of the summer training. When I explained the events in detail, he told me that my Cadet Chain of Command was right to be concerned, and spoke words I will never forget: “the Army is not in the business of catering to people like you.” Those words have haunted me throughout my career as an Officer. They were the turning point for me–when I finally understood the message several of my leaders had been expressing to me all along: the Army has no place for people like me: dissidents who stray from the unofficially mandated military religion; conservative fundamentalist Christianity.
Throughout my service, I have been inundated by reminders of the tenacity of this “Army Religion”. On a regular basis, I am confronted with being forced/coerced to partake in involuntary prayer. At change of command ceremonies, promotions, retirements, banquets, mandatory Officer/NCO call, the list goes on. What do I do when this happens? I see no reason why I should have to bow my head to participate in this involuntary prayer. But if I stand at attention, I am still showing that I am subject to religion in my professional duties. I have discovered that any other movements or fidgeting are viewed as disrespectful to those who wish to pray. Army leaders send the message out that prayer is voluntary, and that Soldiers do not have to participate. As a Platoon Leader serving in Iraq, my Squad Leaders and I were ordered to attend a mission briefing with the Battalion Command Team’s security squad. The briefing concluded with a Soldier being ordered to lead the group in prayer. I was disturbed because I knew that there were Soldiers on this team who did not share the specific, sectarian Christian religious beliefs being expressed. I was standing at the edge of the formation, and chose to quietly walk away. I was later counseled by my Commander and informed that the Battalion Command Team had heard of the incident and recommended I be relieved from my duties as Platoon Leader. My Commander explained that, by not bowing my head in blatantly Christian prayer with the others, I was sending a message that I “want my Soldiers to die.” These words penetrated my core. What leader can imagine a worse accusation? Who wouldn’t doubt herself or himself when confronted with this message? The threat of being relieved was completely overshadowed and, again, I was an outsider, incapable of leadership because I refused this unconstitutional perversion of Christianity synonymous with the Command.Could I not, would I not be an effective combat ready officer/leader/warrior without first very publicly and repeatedly demonstrating my singular loyalty to Jesus Christ? Could I not lead brave military women and men into combat for my country without being an avowed fundamentalist Christian? I stopped practicing my own religion; I disassociated myself from Soldiers who were similarly persecuted; I lost hope.
Who can you talk to about something like this? Certainly not my Chain of Command- my immediate supervisor/rater and senior supervisor/rater had threatened to relieve me. Obviously my counseling statement wouldn’t address mandatory prayer, but what did it matter what it said if both my rater and senior rater agreed I was “unfit” and there were no other Officers who I worked with or around? I later contacted the Equal Opportunity Office to make an official anonymous report about the noxious, compulsive Christian, command climate. Shockingly, the NCO I filed the report with wasted no time in contacting my Battalion Commander directly, in complete violation of the privacy regulations and guarantees of protective anonymity attendant to such hyper-sensitive filings. I later became a member of an Installation Inspector General Team and observed firsthand the impotent, incapacity of the IG to affect any meaningful change. The difference between lower enlisted Soldiers and myself is this: they suspect that they have nowhere to turn in order to escape this unbearable religious persecution–in contrast, as an officer, I do not suspect. I know.
Looking back over all my time in the Army and at the United States Military Academy at West Point, I know that there were so many good memories, so many wonderful opportunities, and so many outstanding leaders of character I met along the way. Yet, the time is painfully tainted for me by a long shadow of bitter religious persecution by zealously righteous Christians essentially universally extant throughout the United States Army command structure.What has most surprised me about this struggle is how utterly powerless I am as a Captain- a Command level Officer- to stand up for my rights and for the Constitution and Country I love. I am a great Soldier, a great leader, and a great person, and I am a victim. It is not comfortable to admit one is a victim; I believe that admitting it takes a certain type of personal strength. The first day I met my current military superior/rater, he was playing Christian gospel music in his office while he called me in to talk. Perhaps it was an innocent oversight on his part, or perhaps it is another hint of the sinister nature of the current “Army Religion”. There is no safe way to find out. My experiences have shown that the inundation of invitations for fundamentalist Christian prayer and fellowship, “spiritual growth” and “moral development” that target fellow Soldiers tends to thinly mask an undeniable and comprehensive underlying propensity for aggression, hatred, and ambition to subjugate the United States Army to an official religion; fundamentalist Christianity. The result for the American military is a total destruction of esprit de corps, teamwork, morale, good order and discipline. The result for the fundamentalist Islamic enemies we fight is an immeasurable bonanza of emboldenment for their recruitment, propoganda and insurgency efforts to maim and kill our soldiers down range in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was there. I saw it. I lived it. I am still living it.
When Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation describe this catastrophe of fundamentalist Christian usurpation of the command and control of our armed forces as a “national security threat of the gravest magnitude”, they are precisely correct. It is injuring and killing our brave military members, specifically. It is desecrating the magnificent Constitution we swore an oath to, generally. And it is destroying our military’s solidarity of purpose and ability to accomplish The Mission, completely.
I’m sure JD will be along any moment to tell us that this officer is lying because his experiences don’t match up to the pretend world JD lives in.