(Part 1 of a three part series on religious boundary violations in the U.S. military and what soldiers are doing to fight back.)
When American soldiers come forward with tales of divisive evangelism run amuck in the military -- for example, proselytizing by commanding officers, coerced attendance at revival meetings, distribution of Bibles to Afghanis or Jesus coins to Iraqis -- one problem they face is that people find the stories too outrageous to be credible. A combat soldier being forced to pick hairs out of a latrine because he wouldn't pray? Another being told he's responsible if any of his buddies die? An Iraqi child post-IED given a tract that shows dead Iraqis going to hell and Americans (Christians) going to heaven? Some folks have accused the Military Religious Freedom Foundation of making this stuff up. Military officials insist that each event was the isolated actions of individual soldiers and lacked official sanction.
One recent scandal left little room for such framing. Soldiers flooded the MRFF (pronounced murf) with complaints about an obligatory "spiritual fitness test" on which freethinkers got docked points for their lack of religion, and some got referred to mandatory counseling -- with chaplains. Two hundred twenty-six have signed onto a lawsuit to block the test, which is required annually for active duty soldiers both at home and on tours of duty.
The military has gone to great lengths to insist that spiritual fitness is not a religious concept. Intermixed with images of bowed heads and identifiable Christian symbols is a repeated emphasis on spirit as a secular term, as in "team spirit." In fact, one of the spiritual rituals that appears repeatedly in the training materials is a time honored military haircut, which appears repeatedly in more or less iconic form in the spiritual training materials.
And even if it is about religion, the powers that be included a few Buddhist meditation poses and references to Judaism to provide an interfaith veneer to the project.
But the cumulative message is clear: Spiritual fitness is about being a good Christian of a certain sort.
In the face of recent outcry, the Comprehensive Solder Fitness materials are in motion, and some of the most explicit examples are being removed, including a sequence on Christian flag folding. Even so, as illustrated by the photos and commentary below, the now deleted sequence shows how far the official culture and rhetoric had drifted.
In the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness training materials, the sequence is described in a four image sequence that appears below and a video demonstration of the flag folding ritual links off of the haircut image above. (Note: Originally the respectful flag folding ritual had a practical rationale: "The flag is folded in this way because it provides a dignified ceremonial touch that distinguishes folding a flag from folding an ordinary object like a bed sheet, and because it results in a visually pleasing, easy-to-handle shape. This thirteen-fold procedure was a common practice long before the creation of a ceremonial assignation of "meaning" to each of the steps.")
The sequence begins immediately by assuming that all Americans share a desire for eternal life. By the time it arrives at the fourth fold the spiritual world view in question has narrowed down to an anthropomorphic God who plays an advisory role in war, "for it is to Him we turn in times of peace as well as in times of war for His divine guidance." Many will be reminded of the incident reported by Bob Woodward in which George Bush was asked if he had consulted his father about the invasion of Iraq:
Did Mr. Bush ask his father for any advice? I asked the president about this. And President Bush said, 'Well, no,' and then he got defensive about it," says Woodward. "Then he said something that really struck me. He said of his father, 'He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength.' And then he said, 'There's a higher Father that I appeal to.'
The sixth fold is accompanied by the words of the post 1950's pledge of allegiance, with its modestly divisive insertion of the words "under God" between one nation and indivisible. But the truly divisive words don't appear until the next page. At this point the ceremony becomes one that is uniquely and specifically relevant to conservative Evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists.
The eighth fold makes explicit reference to Jesus "the one who entered into the Valley of the Shadow of Death" and to a specific kind of conservative Christian theology: "That we might see the light of day" represents "atonement theology" in which the death of Jesus is seen as essentially a blood sacrifice, a propitiation for human sin. Atonement theology is widely adopted by Evangelicals, Pentecostals and orthodox Catholics but rejected by many mainline Protestants and modernist Catholics.
The ninth fold appeals to complementarianism, the idea that women attain honor by supporting men through traditional female virtues. In forms of Christianity that claim the Bible as the literally perfect and complete word of God, complementary roles are perceived as God-mandated, with men created for leadership of the church and family, while women attain honor through childbearing and being the devoted and resourceful wife of the psalmist.
The eleventh fold pays tribute to the God of the Old Testament, "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and God of Jacob."(sic) Holding forth the Hebrew lineage within a fundamentally Christian sequence calls upon a theological precept known as supercessionism -- the idea that Christianity supercedes Judaism as God's covenant with the human race. The twelfth fold, which produces the traditional triangle used for honorable storage of the flag is cited as a symbol of the doctrine of the trinity by which the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Nicea resolve the question of whether Jesus was fully human or fully divine. Like the other doctrines described above, it is a tenet of belief for some Christians and not others, and patently irrelevant for practitioners of other faiths.
Soldiers who call themselves "foxhole atheists" have had enough. In response to the Spiritual Fitness controversy and an equally controversial series of evangelistic revival meetings on military bases, they've decided to organize -- in a characteristically millennial sort of way. Leaving the heavy lifting (and litigation about constitutional violations) to MRFF, they aim to focus on social networking. A network called Military Atheists and Secular Humanists -- you got it, M*A*S*H -- has chapters sprouting up on bases across the country. Sgt. Justin Griffith at Fort Bragg, is spearheading a secular tent revival, called Rock Beyond Belief on the base parade grounds for an unspecified weekend in March or April, the same grounds where an Evangelical revival happened last September. He has enthusiastic commitments from a long line of freethought celebrities including biologist Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Jen McCreight of (Blaghag, Boobquake); Eugenie Scott of the (National Center for Science Education) and Hemant Mehta, who sold his soul on Ebay. (It was bought by Seattle minister, Jim Henderson for $504, and the two wrote a book together about what they subsequently learned from their encounter.)
Their way of coming at the problem may be lighthearted, but their aims are serious, painfully so at times. They want the whole humiliating Spiritual Fitness idea dropped. Griffith gets emotional when he talks about the "battle hero" who got sent to remedial spiritual fitness training along with 25 buddies.
"I carry his letter in my pocket. That letter, "I am a Spiritual Fitness Failure", is a drastic reminder of what can happen. The founding fathers were brilliant to foresee these things. We need to enforce laws and regulations that already exist. That's all we're asking. I consider myself American first, soldier second, and atheist third, and I don't think any of those should contradict each other. They don't."
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of 'Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light', (Revised ed of The Dark Side) and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.