Army Chaplain David P. Hillis was excited about the event that was coming to Fort Bragg Sept. 25.
In a June 2 letter to clergy in the area of the sprawling military base near Fayetteville, N.C., Hillis noted that the facility would be hosting a “free concert and Christian message to all of Fort Bragg and the surrounding community.”
Titled “Rock the Fort,” the event, sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), would include music and a special children’s program and would, Hillis vowed, be “evangelistic in nature” and “conclude with a clear Gospel message.”
The Web site of the BGEA quoted another Fort Bragg chaplain, Antonio McElroy, who said, “I think we are trailblazing here in many ways. I don’t think there has been an outside concert of this magnitude with an organization like BGEA and our chaplains partnering with local churches to come together for one purpose – and that is to glorify God and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The Graham site also told partnering churches, “The Rock the Fort outreach is designed to channel new believers into your church, so you can encourage them to further spiritual growth. The future of the church lies in reaching and discipling the next generation.”
Attorneys at Americans United had a hard time sharing the chaplains’ enthusiasm. To them, the more pressing issue seemed to be why the U.S. Army was helping the Graham Association and local churches win new converts.
AU was alerted to the matter by North Carolina church-state separation activist Todd Stiefel, who said he was especially bothered by the event’s emphasis on evangelizing children.
“‘Rock The Fort’ is leveraging the financial and human resources of the U.S. Army and the BGEA to convert the children of minority faith families to evangelical Christianity,” Stiefel, a member of Americans United’s National Advisory Council, told Church & State. “Their attempts to turn the U.S. Army into ‘God’s Army’ are un-American, illegal and a propaganda windfall for the Taliban and al Qaeda.”
With information about the event in hand, AU attorneys swung into action. On Sept. 23, they faxed a letter to John McHugh, Secretary of the Army, and Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick, commanding general of Fort Bragg, pointing out that Army sponsorship of an evangelistic rally is a clear violation of church-state separation.
AU attorneys noted that Army involvement in the event went beyond traditional chaplain duties
“‘Rock the Fort’ is not an event designed to minister to the needs of soldiers unable to otherwise access religious services; rather, it is an event designed to proselytize soldiers and community members into the worship of Jesus Christ,” observed AU in a letter to military officials. “The Army has, thus, overstepped this constitutional line by sponsoring this event.”
Helmick and other base officials dodged AU’s complaint. In a statement issued to the media, Helmick asserted that the event was legal because no soldiers were required to attend.
AU said Helmick was missing the point. No branch of the government, AU asserted, should be in the business of helping certain types of churches win new converts or sponsoring events that have the aim of persuading people to adopt specific religious beliefs.
Americans United also expressed alarm that the Army was working so closely with the Graham ministry. Although the organization still carries the name of its founder, evangelist Billy Graham, its current chief executive officer is his son, Franklin Graham.
Franklin Graham is a controversial figure who has repeatedly made disparaging comments about non-Christian religions.
Graham has called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” Last year he told CNN, “True Islam cannot be practiced in this country. You can’t beat your wife. You cannot murder your children if you think they’ve committed adultery or something like that, which they do practice in these other countries.”
Graham has also said, “We certainly love the Muslim people. But that is not the faith of this country. And that is not the religion that built this nation. The people of the Christian faith and the Jewish faith are the ones who built America, and it is not Islam.”
He also took a potshot at Hinduism, telling USA Today, “No elephant with 100 arms can do anything for me. None of their 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can have some big ‘Kumbaya’ service and all hold hands and it’s all going to get better in this world. It’s not going to get better.”
Graham’s rhetoric is so intemperate that earlier this year, the Army disinvited him from speaking at a Pentagon prayer breakfast. In light of this history, AU said it makes no sense for officials at Fort Bragg to continue working with the BGEA.
Yet Fort Bragg isn’t the only one. The Graham Web site contains stories about “Rock the Fort” events at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., and Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. A report about the rally at Fort Wood stated, “By the end of the afternoon, more than 200 people made decisions for Christ; 123 accepted Him as their Savior for the first time.”
At Fort Jackson, Will Graham, grandson of Billy Graham and oldest son of Franklin Graham, led the revival. The BGEA Web site reported that more than 500 soldiers converted to the Grahams’ version of Christianity.
It’s not surprising that so many soldiers latch on to Graham’s message. Fort Wood, an isolated outpost in the Ozark Mountains, is a training center for new recruits. Many of them are still teenagers and after training are shipped directly to Afghanistan.
The stress level is undoubtedly high, and fundamentalism, with its pat answers and black-and-white view of the world, probably appeals to some. The question is, should the government be promoting a particular strain of right-wing Christianity to impressionable young people?
At Fort Bragg, the event was planned in coordination with local conservative churches with military precision. An e-mail circulated by the Graham Association sought pastors to help with spiritual counseling, behind-the-scenes work and tabling informational booths.
Participating churches were promised a big payoff.
“This ministry will help Christians work with their relationships to find friends and relatives who need Christ, pray for them, and invite them to the Rock the Fort event where they will hear the message of salvation,” read a BGEA message posted online. “This also provides an on-going relational approach for evangelism in your church beyond Rock the Fort.”
The “Rock the Fort” events highlight an underlying problem with religion in the military, says Americans United. Some chaplains continue to step outside the bounds of their authority and, instead of simply facilitating worship for a variety of believers, are proselytizing for their particular faith.
The problem is not new. Americans United reported on tensions between mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic chaplains and an aggressive flock of evangelicals during the first Gulf War.
Five years ago, Americans United investigated reports of religious bias and favoritism toward evangelicals at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. (See “Kingdom of Heaven?,” June 2005 Church & State.) AU’s report sparked an official investigation of the climate at the facility.
The situation at the Academy remains problematic. In August, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, head of the Academy, refused to release full results of an annual survey of cadets and staff. Instead, Gould purported to summarize the results for the media and said he was pleased with the progress the Academy is making.
Inevitably, the survey results were leaked. They showed a less rosy picture. About 40 percent of the 4,595 cadets at the Academy responded, and 141 reported being subjected to unwanted religious proselytism – with a higher figure for non-Christian cadets.
Mikey Weinstein formed the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) in 2006 to deal with these types of problems. Today, the group receives a steady stream of e-mail, phone calls and letters from active and retired military personnel outlining inappropriate forms of proselytizing or government promotion of conservative forms of Christianity – sometimes more than 100 per week.
One recent anguished e-mail came from a senior at the Academy who wouldn’t even give his or her gender for fear of being identified. The cadet talked about being the informal leader of a group of about 100 others at the institution who pretend to be conservative Christians so that aggressive proselytizers will leave them alone.
“Mr. Weinstein, USAFA is literally overrun with Christian conservative fanatics,” wrote the cadet. “And the leadership here either knows this or is ridiculously blind to it. If any of us gave even the slightest indication that we weren’t one of their number, our lives would be even more miserable than they already are due to the fact that we are all living lies here.”
The cadet talked about subtle ways instructors and staff retaliate against those who don’t toe the religious line.
Asserted the cadet, “It is so much of the total culture here that to object even slightly immediately brands you as suspect. And if you are suspect, then you are in trouble... We all need help from ‘the system’ in an infinite number of ways but we will never get that help if we do not appear to be extreme conservative evangelistic Christians in every way.”
Commenting on the cadet’s e-mail, Darryl Wimberley, a former professor at the Academy, wrote, “The Academy has a problem and it revolves around officers and cadets who define themselves as Christian. Of course, we’re speaking of a certain view of Christianity. That should be obvious. Not every Christian cadet at USAFA engages in the kind of behavior you’ll read about. But many do. And many officers condone it or encourage it by silent consent.”
Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate and former Air Force attorney, told Church & State that the problem in the military is pervasive.
“It just never stops,” he said. “We’re getting between 400 and 600 messages a month, and it seems to be accelerating.”
Recently, Weinstein said, more and more messages are coming in from Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and other Christians who disagree with heavy-handed forms of Protestant fundamentalist evangelism.
Many service members who come to the organization, Weinstein said, are afraid to use regular military channels, seeing them as saturated with fundamentalist Christians who will not be sympathetic.
“The issue here is that the military is really the state,” Weinstein said. “It’s everywhere. If you’re even being gently evangelized by a superior officer, telling them to get out of your face is not an option.”
Weinstein is especially irked that Franklin Graham’s group is working so closely with military bases. He pointed out that protests from MRFF over Graham’s bigoted and intolerant statements about Islam led the Pentagon to cancel his appearance at the prayer breakfast and finds it ironic that the controversial preacher is welcomed elsewhere by the military.
“We stopped Graham at the Pentagon – but it’s OK for his group to come on to the actual combat base itself?” he said.
Like MRFF, Americans United believes it’s important to keep the spotlight on this issue. The AU protest over the Fort Bragg event generated a flurry of media reports – from CNN to The New York Times – and AU hopes the publicity will force military officials to think twice before cosponsoring evangelistic events in the future.
Not surprisingly, reaction to the AU offensive was mixed. Gordon James Klingenschmitt, a former Navy chaplain and Religious Right back bencher, asserted, “Barry Lynn wants all of the soldiers to be atheists – so I’m very disappointed in him.”
A more thoughtful response came from Steve Bouser, editor of the Southern Pines, N.C. Pilot. Identifying himself as “both an active church member and a three-year veteran of the U.S. Army,” Bouser sided with Americans United.
“There is, indeed, supposed to be such a thing as separation of church and state in this great nation of ours, no matter what the Christian Right would try to get you to believe to the contrary,” Bouser wrote. “Read what the Founding Fathers said on the subject. And this past weekend’s event at Bragg, while no doubt well-intentioned and inspirational to its participants, trampled all over that time-honored concept.”
Earlier this year, Lynn contributed an essay to a book titled Attitudes Aren’t Free: Thinking Deeply about Diversity in the US Armed Forces. The tome, published by Air University Press at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, contains a range of opinions on topics such as religion, gays in the military and racial diversity.
In his essay, titled “Religion In The Military: Finding The Proper Balance,” Lynn recommended, among other things, that the military end all direct support for evangelistic rallies or events designed to persuade service personnel to adopt certain religious beliefs.
“No branch of the government, including the military, should sponsor an evangelistic event,” Lynn wrote. “This includes rallies featuring proselytizing preachers, ‘Christian rock’ bands, revivals, seminars that are in reality covers for evangelism and similar events.”
Continued Lynn, “It is not the job of the military to coerce service personnel to adopt new religious beliefs, discard the ones they have or affiliate with a religious body. The military is required to accommodate the religious needs of its soldiers. This is a far cry from promoting religion.”