Last year, when I invited the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), Mikey Weinstein, to the campus of the College of William and Mary to speak about pernicious and dangerous religious influence in the U.S. Armed Forces, I received several queries afterwards -- particularly from active duty military types -- as to whether or not I really thought the problem were serious. The implied argument was, "I haven't experienced it."
They would have to be blind not to have experienced it now.
In last weekend's football game featuring the U.S. Air Force Academy's team and the University of New Mexico's team, 57 of the 60 Academy football team members knelt and prayed -- ostentatiously, publicly -- in the end zone prior to the game. They did not, as Christ's disciple Matthew advises, put themselves in a closet; they prayed in front of the world.
Therein rests the problem.
When I saw the photograph depicting this "prayer circle," I had one immediate thought: what would have happened if two or three of the team had withdrawn slightly from the clearly Christian circle, dropped to both knees, bent over repeatedly to touch their foreheads to the turf, all the while speaking Islamic exhortations to Allah; or if one or two had stepped back, stood, and recited the Torah, as many Jews do when praying; or if even one had stepped back and simply shrugged his atheist's shoulders at the circle in its worshipful attempt to push its Christian god into favoring USAFA's football efforts (in any event, the Christian prayers did not work; Air Force lost the game).
My next thought was how dangerous such an image was for the United States at this particular moment in time. Here's what one active duty USAF general officer had to say after seeing the event: "The optics are not just bad, but potentially deadly."
No doubt, he was thinking of how almost any Islamic terrorist group, from Lashkar e Taiba, to al-Qa'ida, or ISIS/ISIL could employ the video, or just a still shot, for propaganda purposes.
A retired USAF general officer remarked: "This plays easily into the hands of those trying to portray Muslims as victims of the West, and who make a case to justify defensive jihad. Bottom line: Academy leaders and coaches should ensure religious observances in groups are kept off the field and out of the locker room."
Moreover, one is compelled to ask, how do the football players themselves feel about this public praying, this military-Tebowing -and not simply the brain-washed ones but the critical thinkers? Here's what one football team member had to say: "It is certain cadets on the team who are viewed as leaders (and even some who are not but still have team influence) who are leading the public praying. If you don't go along with it you are not going to be viewed as a good follower or teammate."
Clearly, any U.S. citizen who believes there is not a serious problem in the U.S. Armed Forces with fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity, must be, as I often remark to my students when I describe some particularly egregious and otherwise inexplicable failing, "smoking some good stuff."
Or, of course, they are cut from the same piece of cloth as the fundamentalist, evangelical military members. Apparently, according to rates of self-identification in polls and surveys, that could be as high as 40-50 million Americans. Now, perhaps we can begin to understand why people like Donald Trump and Ben Carson are making such political headway across our land. Because these are not Christians of the Jesus Christ, New Testament variety. No, these are fire and brimstone, your-religion-sucks, and if-you-don't-switch-to-my-religion-right-now-you-will-die-by-the-flaming-sword-of-a-vengeful-Christ "Christians." They live for your conversion or your death. Sounds like the Taliban, does it not? Or worse?
The U.S. Armed Forces must quickly shed this unconstitutional, dangerous blight upon its fundamental fabric. It is time to cease shrugging shoulders and turning deaf ears and blind eyes and saying it is not really a problem or secretly condoning it because we are too stupid to realize it is wrong or believe that it is somehow a positive development.
It is a problem, a huge problem. Leaders who condone it -- even encourage it -- should themselves be removed from their positions of leadership. Summarily. Forthwith. This is no time to equivocate: you are either for the Constitution you took an oath to support and defend or you are out. Period. End of discussion.
Lawrence Wilkerson is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. He was chief of staff to U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell from 2002-2005 and General Powell's speechwriter from 1989-1993.