Well, another one of Shirley Dobson's big National Day of Prayer shindigs has come and gone, with all the same regulation-violating military participation as last year and the year before that and the year before that. As usual, they had their Army band, military color guard, and speakers that included uniformed service members going all the way up to a major general -- all in blatant violation of the very clear military regulations prohibiting service members from participating in religious or any other "non-federal entity" events of this kind while in uniform. But, rather than go into detail about that, which would basically just be a repeat of what I wrote about last year's event, I want to focus on another aspect of Ms. Dobson's annual Capitol Hill Jesus jamboree.
In her opening remarks, Ms. Dobson, who took over as chairperson of the National Day of Prayer Task Force in 1991, recalled the difficulties that she and her husband, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, experienced when they moved their organization to Colorado Springs that same year. She also recalled what a bad year 1991 was for America in general, explaining to her audience how the lord delivered America from the First Gulf War:
"And then a more distressing thing happened. We were in a war. Saddam Hussein had invaded the tiny country of Kuwait and used poison gas on the people. America went to war in what was called Operation Desert Storm. Our president at that time was George Herbert Walker Bush, and he called for a national day of prayer. 500,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen went to war, and we went to our knees to pray. On [sic] that same year, on May 2, we came to the National Day of Prayer in Washington, D.C. asking for a victory on the battlefields of Iraq, and the lord graciously answered those prayers. The allies lost only nine planes during the conflict and most of our soldiers and airmen came home safely. We must never, never forget what the lord did for us during that time of uncertainty."
Really? It was the prayers at Ms. Dobson's May 2, 1991 National Day of Prayer event that caused the lord to deliver an American victory? By May 2, 1991 the war was already over! The cessation of hostilities had been declared on February 28, and the cease fire terms officially accepted on April 6 -- nearly a month before Ms. Dobson claims that the lord graciously answered the prayers prayed at her May 2 event.
And isn't it interesting how Ms. Dobson pointed out that the allies lost only nine planes in the conflict but neglects to mention the nearly 150 American service members killed in combat? But I suppose pointing out those 150 combat deaths wouldn't make the lord sound quite so gracious, would it?
And, of course, Ms. Dobson had to make George Herbert Walker Bush's reason for going to war sound purely humanitarian, claiming that it was because Saddam Hussein used poison gas on the people of Kuwait. No, Ms. Dobson, Saddam Hussein did not use poison gas on the people of Kuwait. That was not George Herbert Walker Bush's reason for going to war. The First Gulf War was all about oil, pure and simple.
While Ms. Dobson's story about the lord delivering us from the First Gulf War is clearly a work of fiction, there is something else that happened during that conflict that is very relevant to the subject of the religious freedom of our service members, and, even more importantly, the national security threat created by events such as Ms. Dobson's annual Washington, D.C. fundiefest being broadcast around the world.
So, like Ms. Dobson, let's all flash back a quarter of a century to the time of the First Gulf War.
In 1990, when U.S. troops were deployed for Operation Desert Shield to defend against an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia in the build-up to Operation Desert Storm, al Qaeda was still in its infancy, having just been founded by Osama bin Laden and Muhammad Atef about a year earlier. This was several years before al Qaeda, in conjunction with a Yemeni extremist group, would attempt to carry out its first terrorist attack on Americans (the 1992 Yemen hotel bombings, the failed objective of which was to kill U.S. Marines).
The Saudi government had rejected Osama bin Laden's offer of military aid from his network of fighters in favor of the U.S. led coalition, and 500,000 American troops were deployed to Saudi Arabia. Although fundamentalist Muslims did vehemently oppose the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, viewing this "infidel" presence as a defiling of the land of two of their religion's most holy sites -- Mecca and Medina -- nobody at that time was aware of the threat that the then-fledgling al Qaeda would become, let alone the future threat of an even more barbarous Islamic extremist group like ISIS.
It was in this 1990 climate of there being some religious tension -- but nothing even close to the known threat from Islamic extremists that we face today -- that the late Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and the Pentagon took actions that would have Ms. Dobson, Fox News, and the rest of the there's-a-war-on Christians-in-the-military crowd going ballistic.
In his autobiography, It Doesn't Take a Hero, Gen. Schwarzkopf recounted his run in with Franklin Graham's organization, Samaritan's Purse -- an incident that made it clear that the Saudis' fears of American Christians evangelizing in their land were not unfounded. While some of the Saudis' fears, as the general explained, had resulted from Iraqi propaganda about American troops disrespecting Islamic shrines, the attempt by Samaritan's Purse to get U.S. troops to distribute tens of thousands of Arabic language New Testaments to Saudi Muslims was real. Explaining the situation, Gen. Schwarzkopf wrote:
"The Saudi concern about religious pollution seemed overblown to me but understandable, and on a few occasions I agreed they really did have a gripe. There was a fundamentalist Christian group in North Carolina called Samaritan's Purse that had the bright idea of sending unsolicited copies of the New Testament in Arabic to our troops. A little note with each book read: 'Enclosed is a copy of the New Testament in the Arab language. You may want to get a Saudi friend to help you to read it.' One day Khalid* handed me a copy. 'What is this all about?' he asked mildly. This time he didn't need to protest -- he knew how dismayed I'd be."
*Lt. Gen. Khalid Bin Sultan al-Saud, commander of Saudi Arabia's air defense forces, appointed by King Fahd as Gen. Schwarzkopf's counterpart.
As the New York Times reported in December 1990, following this Franklin Graham incident the Pentagon issued guidelines prohibiting American troops from discussing religion with the Saudis or taking Bibles outside of U.S. military compounds, and instructed them to wear religious symbols like crosses or Stars of David inside their uniforms rather than outside where they would be visible.
To keep the practicing of non-Islamic religions as discreet as possible, some company commanders made the decision not to allow any crosses or other non-Islamic religious symbols to be displayed even at worship services, and while this led to a few complaints, the majority of the troops willingly complied, understanding that these decisions were being made for their own security and not to infringe on their right or ability to practice their religion. As one Christian soldier quoted in the New York Times article put it, "I think the religious services here are super. We need that spiritual growth, that spiritual comfort, and I don't need a cross in the room to allow me to worship God."
Gen. Schwarzkopf even asked the chaplains in populated areas to remove their religious insignia from their uniforms, noting in his recounting of the speech he made to the chaplains that he told them: "...if you're worth a damn as chaplains, your troops already know who you are. You don't need insignia." Schwarzkopf received an unexpectedly positive reaction from the chaplains to this policy, writing:
"I'd expected protests, particularly on the issue of taking off the insignia, but to my surprise the chaplains readily agreed, and even went a step further: they started calling themselves 'morale officers.'"
Also restricted by the Pentagon in 1990 was news coverage of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia engaging in non-Islamic worship services, for fear that television broadcasts of these services could be used as a propaganda tool. As a Defense Department official quoted in the New York Times article put it:
"Can't you see Saddam getting videotape of a Hanukkah service or of soldiers singing 'Silent Night' and running it on TV over and over again, and arguing that the Islamic holy places are being defiled? It would be garbage, of course. But it would also be dangerous for everyone."
So, in 1990, when nothing remotely as dangerous as an al Qaeda or an ISIS was even on the radar, the Pentagon recognized the danger that nothing more than a simple video of American troops engaging in non-Islamic religious services in a Muslim country or singing a Christmas carol could pose.
Now, let's fast forward back to present day.
Mikey Weinstein, the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), is frequently criticized by those of the fundamentalist and dominionist Christian ilk for his statements calling our military's very overt publicizing of Christian events and worship services a "national security threat." These fundamentalist and dominionist Christians -- not just people like Ms. Dobson and media outlets like Fox News, but also including members of Congress -- say that Weinstein is blowing things out of proportion, and claim that MRFF (96% of whose over 41,000 clients are Christians, but not the "right kind" of Christians) is an atheist organization whose true mission is to take away the freedom of Christians in our military to practice their religion. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1990, the Pentagon was so concerned about the broadcasting of U.S. military personnel engaging in non-Islamic religious events and activities that it restricted the media from broadcasting such events and activities.
Yesterday, Shirley Dobson's four-hour long fundamentalist Christian National Day of Prayer event -- complete with all its regulation-violating military bells and whistles -- was broadcast around the world by God TV and on the internet, handing our Islamic extremist enemies four hours of propaganda gold. Yes, this is a national security threat!
So, let me close by asking who we want to listen to when it comes to balancing the free exercise of religion in the military with the security of our troops and our country -- Shirley Dobson and her merry band of prayer warriors or Gen. Schwarzkopf? We at MRFF are going to go with Gen. Schwarzkopf.