Justin Griffith is a twenty-eight year old active duty soldier, a sergeant at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He is also a new dad. Griffith likes what he does. He describes the military as a place that has structure, discipline, and opportunities. From his point of view, he has a full life, and a good one. And yet it was Griffith, as much anyone, who blew open the U.S. Army’s Spiritual Fitness program this winter. Why? Why make waves in a job you love among people you respect? Why risk the pariah status that is so often the lot of whistleblowers? Griffith agreed to let me ask him those questions.
Tarico: I’m impressed that you got permission to talk publically about the Spiritual Fitness Program.
Griffith: Well, I need to say that I am speaking as Sgt. Justin Griffith. I am not representing the army in any official way. I’m free to talk about my opinions and experiences related to the mandatory soldier fitness tracker, how “Spiritual Fitness” testing and training is being used to put religious conversion pressure on soldiers like me–but not as an expert or in an official capacity. I’ve recently been told that my unit’s public affairs department received a ‘disengage order’ regarding their support. So I’m now only permitted to speak to the media off-duty, all I’ve ever done anyway. I was told that the order came from the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness people, and that’s kind of scary.
Tarico: So who is Sgt. Justin Griffith?
Griffith: I’m a soldier and a husband, and the dad of a baby girl. I’m 28. I’ve been in the military for four years. I love the military. The military changed my life. It’s given me opportunities to grow as a human being. I’m also an atheist—one of those atheists in foxholes. My day to day experience as an atheist in the army is positive. Overwhelmingly. I’ve got nothing but the utmost support from my colleagues, nothing but respect. Before I spoke out about Rock the Fort and the Spiritual Fitness Program 99.9% of my interactions with my colleagues had nothing to do with atheism or were positive. Everyone who is an “out” atheist gets a few horror stories, and I’ve got them, but the vast majority of people are respectful or distant if they are not. I love the army– I love my wife– I love my unit– I love my wife—I love all of them.
Tarico: That all sounds rather positive, in fact better than what most people could say about their lives and their work. Why didn’t you just leave well enough alone?
Griffith: I was talking about the day-to-day, face-to-face perspective. The big stuff that’s coming down from the top, that’s different. There are existing rules in place that are being violated systematically. For instance, soldiers are very vulnerable when they come out of basic training, and evangelistic organizations take advantage of that to target them. Look at the picture of the five hundred soldiers being converted by the Billy Graham people. It’s 200 here, 150 there on stage in uniform. It’s epidemic, and I find it outrageous. The amount of money being spent by American citizens to support Evangelical proselytizing activities is substantial. The smokescreen about spiritual fitness having nothing to do with proselytizing is just that–smoke.
Tarico: What was your first encounter with the Spiritual Fitness program?
Griffith: Every soldier at every rank at every base, whether deployed or not is required to fill out the “Global Assessment Tool” which is part of the Soldier Fitness Tracker, which is the test and training combined. The first time I took it I was deployed downrange in Kuwait, late in 2009. I was disgusted by what I saw—both the questions and the results that straight up implied that I am unfit as a soldier. But I was deployed, and I didn’t have time to react. I figured, someone will fix this. I didn’t expect to ever see it again. A year later, in December 2010, I got a message. “You’re deficient; You haven’t taken your annual Soldier Fitness Test.” So I opened it again and couldn’t believe it was still the same. I thought, “How is this still allowed?! How is it that no one has called them out on it?”
Tarico: What did it say?
Griffith: The questions are things like:
- “I am a spiritual person.” Answer 1 to 5, from not like me to very like me.
- “My life has a lasting meaning.” What does that mean? Hell yea, my life has meaning, but “lasting meaning”?? To me that’s like Albert Einstein. His life has lasting meaning. But what about Albert’s mother? Does anybody remember her name? But then I thought, statistically speaking it is possible, so I answered 2/5.
- “I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all humanity and all the world.” To me that means me and my six billion closest friends are hanging out playing Nintendo.
- “The job I am doing in the military has lasting meaning.” 2/5. Not likely, but I guess it’s possible. Look: On a long enough time line no-one’s life has lasting meaning. The universe will end in – call it the big crunch, heat death, proton decay, call it whatever you want. If you think of time as the trillionth to the trillionth power . . . in a real way the question itself is meaningless, unless you believe in eternal life, or the afterlife, or other such theological ideas.
- “I believe there is a purpose for my life.” I can’t even count how many purposes I have for my life. I answered that a 5/5.
Tarico: In other words this isn’t about you being adrift, without purpose or focus.
Griffith: I would like to defend the Comprehensive Fitness testing in one sense: It is a noble cause. They are trying to track and prevent suicide and PTSD; they just need to fix the implementation. There are four parts: Spiritual, Social, Family, and Emotional. Three of them are grounded in reality. But they need to remove the spirituality piece,The results of this test are a huge slap in the face to someone like me—a committed soldier who is nonreligious. When I clicked submit, it said things like “At times it hard for you to make sense of what is going on.” and “Improving your spiritual fitness should be a goal.” It suggested that I speak with a counselor. I dialed the number –it was emergency mental health counselor. They also have online remedial training about spiritual fitness, which is also mandatory.
This is wrong on so many levels. The Spiritual Fitness Test is lining the coffers at the chaplaincy and the religious support office nationwide because when soldiers like me are sent for remediation then there’s a demand for their services. To make matters worse, they freely admit that the test results are used for human resource decisions. Would that be allowed in a private sector job? You can’t defend it because you can’t define it. It’s empty vacuous crap. Not to mention that it’s unconstitutional to even ask. That’s why I decided to get the word out.
Tarico: Spokespersons for the Army say that “spiritual” means in good spirits; it means spirited. They use getting a haircut as an example of a “spiritual ritual.” That all sounds like it could apply to anyone.
Griffith: Look closer. A lot of the imagery in the training materials is explicitly Christian. They’ve now removed the part about the Christian flag folding ceremony that included references to the trinity and Jesus Christ and women playing a supporting role to men. In reality, the twelve folds traditionally have no symbolism at all. The point is geometric a way to handle and store the flag respectfully. Someone in the Air Force in the 80s made it up this Evangelical interpretation. It has been banned from Air Force documents before, but there it was in the Spiritual Fitness training materials. What a smoking gun!
Honestly, if you want to leave what’s not religious in the Spiritual Fitness Training, you are left trying to convince yourself that spirituality is on par with getting a haircut, because that is a ritual. If that is the case, I don’t understand how I failed because I get my haircut every two weeks.
Tarico: Spokespersons for the Army also are saying that the testing and training aren’t mandatory.
Griffith: It most certainly is mandatory, and they even have a disclaimer about how you will be punished by an Article 15 of the Universal Code of Military Justice, if you do not comply.
This is similar to a serious misdemeanor in the civilian court system. But here’s the irony. If they take out the spiritual part it definitely should be mandatory. If someone fails the emotional aspect of this test – if one of my soldiers failed the emotional part I would want to know. I would try to engage and comfort them, possibly alert their family. It definitely should be mandatory without religion.
These tests were based on a test developed at the University of Pennsylvania, by the same person who crafted the CIA’s torture policy. Strangely that version of the test is great. The Army butchered the U Penn test. The original is available at UPenn.edu. You can take it yourself. It asks the same questions, ten each in twenty four different subject areas, but what it provides is a ranking comparing you to yourself. All it said was the order of the twenty-four personal qualities. It tells you your top five. Mine were: creative problem solving, bravery. . . Positive things. I learned that I needed to work on forgiveness, which was far down on my list. Of course religion wasn’t one of my strengths –and that’s just fine. I think it would do soldiers good to take that version of the test. And it’s free so we didn’t have to spend how many multimedia dollars they spent creating this soldier fitness tragedy.
Tarico: But the Army’s version of this Spiritual Fitness focus goes beyond just the test and training.
Griffith: Yes, it gets worse. At Fort Hood they are building a thirty million dollar Spiritual Fitness Center. Thirty million in tax dollars. In my opinion it’s a mega church being built for a chaplain on the public dime.
Rock the Fort was a big evangelistic rally that went from base to base using a complicated combination of appropriated and non-appropriated government controlled funds. It was billed as a spiritual fitness event, but it was explicitly Evangelical, meaning it was a membership drive. By the time it got to Fort Bragg, Americans United, the ACLU, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation were sending letters and trying to get court injunctions to have the event cancelled.
Tarico: I understand that the command defended it, and it went forward.
Griffith: The commander, Lieutenant General Helmick, stated that he wasn’t going to cancel the event (which happened September 25, 2010) because the same level of support would be offered to any other group, regardless of their spiritual orientation. The Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, said the same thing. So we decided to take him up on that offer with an event called Rock Beyond Belief. I certainly respect any officer in my command. I would like to say that they are lucky that it’s us and not some radical Muslim group or Scientologists, or some crazy death cult. The stated goal of Rock the Fort was to convert as many soldiers, wives and civilians as possible to their form of belief. We don’t want to do that. Sure, we could solicit de-conversions or perform de-baptisms with hairdryers and that would be the counterpart of Rock the Fort. We could get on a P.A. system and claim four thousand people have been de-baptized. But that’s not what we’re about. We’re looking for tolerance and respect for atheists and humanists – the most maligned fifteen percent of American society.
Tarico: So what is Rock Beyond Belief, as you visualize it?
Griffith: It will be a secular festival of speakers and music promoting awareness and tolerance for soldiers that lack belief. We’re nontheists, non religious. It’s a festival for the rest of us. It’s open to soldiers, family members, children, and also civilians from the surrounding area. We’ve got world class speakers lined up. Richard Dawkins will be our biggest draw. Roy Zimmerman, Jeffrey Lewis, and evolution/science rapper Baba Brinkman will be joined by many others in the music department.
It’s also a test case. We don’t think any event including ours should be funded by the US taxpayers, promoting proselytism for any sectarian group. It seems like they either have to adjust the policy—Rock the Fort can’t happen again—or they have to allow us and anyone who asks. To keep it fair, they have to give them $100K to play with, because that’s what they did for Rock the Fort. What if we have a different religion every day? Pastafarians or whatever. Permanent Woodstock.
Tarico: It seemed like a sure thing, but now Rock Beyond Belief is in question.
Griffith: A lot of things changed in the last two weeks. There is a road block, and the Rock Beyond Belief event is not going to happen as planned in April. We received last-minute crippling restrictions from the Garrison Commander. He nixed all of the money from non-appropriated sources that the evangelical Christians were able to tap, so we were unable to afford to pay for the hotel bill for our 19 guests for starters. The other event got over $100,000 in funding, to include appropriated and non-appropriated government-controlled funds. He specifically banned us from paying for things that the other group did pay for.
Also, he forced a ‘warning label’ on our event. Contrary to the ringing endorsements, official Fort Bragg phone numbers STILL listed, and all the news releases coming from Public Affairs, and the Religious Support Office, and IMCOM… we were being forced to put a danger/warning label on all of the flyers, posters, and advertisements (advertisements that we now can’t afford). Also, this might not surprise you, but the Rock the Fort concert was officially endorsed as a spiritual fitness event. Yeah.
We were also forced into a much tinier venue the size of a small grade-school gymnasium, not nearly big enough to hold Richard Dawkins (if he was by himself!) They are actually saying ‘we only expect a couple hundred people would show up for Richard Dawkins’. I’m embarrassed for them. They probably think that people might believe them. They are saying that to reporters! I asked to see the ‘media analysis’ they keep referring to. At first they said ‘I don’t have it on paper.’ Which begged the question, ‘Can you send it to me on e-mail?’ Shockingly, the same member of the Colonel’s staff replied ‘it doesn’t exist digitally either.’ That is insane. Additionally, a ‘minimum audience projection’ was never a condition of having a similar level of support, regardless of how demonstrably wrong they are about such projections. This is not only discriminatory, it’s yet another clear cut example of Fort Bragg not being ‘willing and able to offer equal treatment’
Tarico: What are your officers and peers saying about all of this?
Griffith: My commanders have been encouraging, respectful, but hesitant to say, “Hey I’m on your side.” They can’t really endorse what I’m doing, but they have enabled me to speak to people like yourself. My colleagues and peers– I’d say there’s nothing but excitement about Rock Beyond Belief, but they are a little cautious.
Tarico: What is the next step?
Griffith: It’s really too early to tell. There is a high chance of this making it to federal court. We are not holding our breath for April 2nd to work out. We’ve come so far, and done so many great things. Whatever the future holds, I know one thing is certain: We won’t be backing down or simply going away. We have a real momentum going, and it’s about time.
Tarico: Has it all been worth it?
Griffith: Emphatically YES. Before I told the story of the Spiritual Fitness Testing. I had a network from trying to get speakers and musicians to Rock Beyond Belief. I basically sent out a mass letter saying I need help getting this out. Within an hour or two my server exploded, and I was no longer able to have a website for about two days till I switched over to a server that could handle it. At the same time the Examiner picked up the story and got 1.5 million hits.
People now have their eyes on “Spiritual Fitness,” the vacuous smoke screen for religion in the military. The Army has removed the flag folding ceremony and has changed some of the other language to make the training materials look more neutral. For example, they replace the word spiritual with spirit. In fact, the intro to the assessment says, “The spiritual dimension questions on the GAT pertain to the domain of the Human Spirit; they are not religious in nature. But then they still have a picture of people praying. When they removed the flag folding ceremony, I thought one down and ninety-nine to go.
I learned that it is possible to make a difference. It is possible to stand up for what is right, and not have to suffer punishment. That people will like you if you are a good person, and if what you are saying is right and true, people will support you. I learned that there are hundreds of ‘SGT Griffith’s’ on every base willing to speak out now, that my example is comfortingly typical. My inbox is flooded with overwhelmingly positive letters. Those messages keep our local movement going, and are extremely touching to read.
Tarico: So, you plan to keep going.
Griffith: Look – A soldier wrote a letter to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. He and twenty-five buddies forced to go see the chaplain because of their low test scores. The whole program is ripe and ready for abuse. Two hundred twenty six co-clients, including battle worn soldier signed on to have the MRFF represent them. They sent a cease and desist letter asking that the Army stop using the Spiritual Fitness test and training. The letter expired January 25, and they have not fulfilled MRFF’s request.
Heroes, battle heroes are having their lives torn. That is why I keep at it. I keep that letter from that soldier –I keep his words in my pockets.
I swore to defend the constitution. I’m an atheist, and I don’t swear to many things. But I’ll swear an oath to defend the constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I don’t consider these people enemies of the U.S. or intentional enemies of the constitution but neither are they scholars of it. That document, our Constitution, defines freedom as we Americans know it.
If you know you are right, you can stand on that.
Maybe they can replace the Spirituality section with a Rationality section, and offer remedial training in critical thinking for those who score poorly.
That suits me. :) I guess some might question the extent to which a military hierarchy wants soldiers thinking critically.
I thought all of that had blown over. Guess I should have guessed how deep that ‘just follow orders’ way of thinking really is. The Sgt has a voice and I support him! Surely they want dedicated men and women who can think critically and spot better leaders within the ranks. One can hope anyway.
Yes, Justin Griffiths is the kind of person I want in charge: high integrity, respectful, able to give credit where it is due but equally clear about where change is needed.
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I’m curious of the name of that UP test. What is the name of it, please?
Also it is so comforting to hear such respectful examination of the “Spiritual Fitness” policy. Such courage and deplomacy I should have!
Hi John –
I got this from Chris Rhodda at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation:
All of the UPenn tests can be found here:
The main test that the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness test is based on is the one called the “VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire,” but some of the others also appear to have been borrowed from for certain parts of the Army’s test.
Thanks for publishing this and putting this story out there. I saw it on Truthout. I hope it prompts more people to ask some hard questions. Why is our military incorporating religious indoctrination into the system? Who decides that? Who benefits? We can be sure that the answers will show that the “spiritual fitness” of their soldiers is the last thing they really care about.
Yes – thanks for the information on this subject. I’ve been hearing about it on various podcasts, websites, and FFRF. I’m thrilled that there’s a “whistleblower” on the side of reason.
You’re welcome. I figure that the least the rest of us can do is to help get his message out.
Great article, as usual, Valerie, about a subject that certainly needs more exposure. I enjoyed your posts on the Ex-Christian site (unfortunately now blocked in the country where i live) and was pleasantly surprised to see your name pop up on this article. Keep up the good work.
Thanks! I cross-post all of my articles here; it’s my way of creating an archive. So anything that I submit to exChristian can be found at Awaypoint as well.
Before I post this question, I want to clarify that I am in fact an atheist. I have a question that I do not think anyone else but an atheistic pyschologist could answer. It regards a bizzare dream I had, to which I cannot pretend didn’t exist.
A little while ago, I finally converted from agnostic to atheist. However, I had a very strange dream shortly after my conversion. In it, I picked up a crucifix, and challenged God to make me a Christian (keep inmind, I did not know that I was dreaming, and so honestly believed nothing would happen). Than, I felt this amzing feeling no different than what Appologists usually refer to as the “born again” experience. It was so bizzare. Than, I was plunged into this al consuming white light. All I could feel was immense pleasure. Than I woke up. Al throughout the dream, I was telling myself “it’s just a dream”- But it felt unbelievably real.
I am wondering if you know what this was. Was this some form of lucid dreaming. Has anything like this ever happend. I should mention that, while an agnostic- I had this irrational fear of becoming a christian and going to hell for not chosing the “right” doctorine.
If you know of anyone that can help me, or what this was, I’d owe you my sanity! Not that I consider the miraculous to be impossible- but I can’t allow myself to change my mind unless I hear what both sides have to say.
Thank you so much for your time- you have no idea what this means to me.
Hello Andy –
Alas, I’m not enough of an expert on this that I’m going to get any credit for your sanity, which fortunately sounds largely intact. :) My impression is that any experience the human mind is capable of constructing during waking hours it is also capable of constructing in a dream state or hallucination. I think you now know why so many Evangelicals and Hare Krishnas and others fiercely defend their born again experiences. (For a glimpse broad range of these experiences, I recommend the book “Snapping” by Conway and Conway. )
In my life I have had one dream with the vivid intensity you describe, so much so that I placed a call from rural Indonesia to the United States to find out if the events in the dream had actually happened. In the dream my adult sister’s dog had run into the street, she became hysterical, my adult brother ran into the street to save the dog and was killed. Unlike all other dreams in my fifty years, I can picture the precise images to this day. It turned out the events had not happened–else I might be a believer in paranormal perception to this day. However, my father had died in a climbing accident the month before (while I was out of the country). In hindsight, i suspect that the dream had something to do with his death, possibly made more acute by pregnancy hormones or the fact that my sleep cycle had been disrupted earlier during that night.
Some thoughts related to your dream.
1. Supernatural explanations are certainly possible. However, I believe that there are natural explanations that suffice to make sense of what you experienced.
2. Dreams often incorporate emotional themes related to whatever we are processing in our waking lives. We have a tendency to create both what we yearn for and what we fear, because our minds are occupied with both.
3. Cognitive scientists tell us that dreams are actually disjointed images and feelings, but because our brains are made to process information in the form of narrative, temporal sequence, and cause-effect relationships, we process them as stories in which we apply our expectations about time and causality to make sense of the images, emotions and/or sensations.
4. The white light may simply be an image or concept that is stored in the same neural network of associations as your concepts of gods, the crucifix, and so forth. However, white light also seems to be associated, at least during near death experiences with anoxia, which might also be associated with a migraine-type process of vascular dilation and constriction. Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval mystic, wrote and drew the details of her mystical experiences so precisely that we now can identify them clearly with this type of migraine. Unfortunately, I’m now outside of my expertise in the sense that I know little about the patterns and processes of this type of aura in the absence of headaches.
5. Again outside of my expertise, it seems from what i’ve heard that the partial awakenings thought to be responsible for alien abduction, angelic visitations and such also have an incredible, persuasive intensity to them. You might look in that direction.
6. Your experience sounds super cool, even if it has thrown you into some wretched turmoil.
I hope this is helpful.
I find this very interesting, and I wonder how his quest is going…its very different from my experience in the Navy, where I was extremely lucky to be at commands that actually followed EO policy. While I was not an atheist, I was (openly) Pagan, and the difficulties from the command structure in getting lay leaders, discussion groups, etc was minimal. I have heard a number of stories concerning sponsored evangelism in both the Army and the Air Force, and as a vet, a tax payer, and a religious minority, I have to agree that it troubles me.
When hearing of “a secular festival of speakers and music promoting awareness and tolerance for soldiers that lack belief. ” I thought I would respect and attend something like that. People should be tolerant and not demonize people for their beliefs.
And then, in that same paragraph, was the words: “Richard Dawkins will be our biggest draw. ”
Richard Dawkins? At a festival to promote tolerance? He can be one very intolerant bigot! Or should only believers be tolerant?
(I predict a response of we-can-be-intolerant-because-they-are. Sure you can, but don’t pretend you want greater tolerance if you actually support intolerance from your side.)
I think the quote from “Men In Black” is applicable here: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”
In that same light, I am tolerant of individuals (as is Dawkins) but have zero tolerance for group-think centered around superstition and, in some cases, outright dangerous actions.
A recent survey of U.K. Muslim students revealed that over 40% would “kill for their faith”, and almost 40% desired to live under Sharia law. In another somewhat related story, some European teachers are having issues with students “praying to Mecca” during lectures. Let’s say I decided to sacrifice a goat to my desert God Ba’al during a university lecture. Or, if I brought my slave to class if I was an “old-school Jew” and refused to trash Yahweh’s perfect law just because of modern ethics (see Leviticus 25 for details on slavery and the treatment of slaves, while bearing in mind that God can no more change his moral preferences than Lady Gaga can carry a tune without a team of dancers behind her… and even then that’s highly debatable : )
Do you think it would go over well? These are but two examples of “tolerance” gone mad—if you blindly accept this as nothing more than a person’s right to believe whatever superstition with which they happen to be the most comfortable.
You say you have no tolerance for “group think centred around superstition.”
That kind of intolerance is only the group-think of your group, based on the superstition that believers are dangerous.
(I got no problem admitting that Islam is dangerous. But then, equating other religions to Islam is also “group think based on superstition.” In fact, the vast difference between your Jewish and Islam examples prove how your intolerance of religion is just based on the superstition prevalent in anti-religious groups.)
Justin, I never thought I’d say this to an atheist but … Way to go! You have my full support!
Logic Bless America!
I served as a chaplain assistant for 5 years and then went to seminary myself and became, for a short period of time, a chaplain in the Army Reserves. I was endorsed by a far-right military chaplaincy group (Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches). When I served as an enlisted Chaplain Assistant, I was one of those pushy evangelical types. I didn’t think about separation of church and state; though I believed it was good because “God knows” we didn’t want some Pope telling us how to worship God; but as an evangelical, you are walking around with years and years of very conditioned ways of thinking and seeing. Getting people converted is what God wants us to do. And my evangelical mind-set then, as is the mind-set of fundamentalist chaplains is now, is that I am going to obey God and not the rules of man. To not try to convert others in whatever setting I find myself in, is tantamount to not offering a hand to someone hanging on the ledge of a window: it would be moral and spiritual evil. Screw this separation of church and state stuff, people need to “know” how to get their spiritual fire insurance policy operational. . . and “God” has placed me here at this time and place to help those who are blind to have sight.
As a fundamentalist-evangelical, you see life as being composed in strict dualistic terms: there’s Light (us) and there’s Darkness (anyone who isn’t like us); there’s God and the Devil: There are True Christians (us) and then there are False Christians (liberal and mainline Protestants); there are the true believers and then there are all those sincere – though deceived – people. There are no gray areas for evangelicals and there is a lot of New Testament text support for this strict dualistic way of thinking, especially in “Saint” Paul’s letters to churches.
So, this very cultish and aggressive way of marketing one’s religious beliefs is hammered into your skull througout childhood and your teen years as you sit through hundreds of hours of unfounded assertions and affirmations about the faith. As now a humanist, I will say that I had a very thorough brain-washing that lasted until my mid-30s and was only broken due to the education I received at a liberal theological seminary. Had I not gone to a liberal seminary, there is a good chance I would still be in bondage to my fundamentalist belief system.
In looking back over these years as enlisted and then as a chaplain officer, I now realize that the military is set up to cater to the “spiritual” needs primarily of the dominant Christian groups and all the other types of religious groups are not seriously considered. Though, when I was involved with the military (the decade of the 1980’s), my impression was that the upper levels of the chaplaincy was composed of more liberal Catholic and Protestant chaplains who were not into pushing dogma and were very aware of the separation of church and state issues. That started changing in the 80’s when retired Army chaplain Jim Ammerman formed his umbrella charismatic organization The Chaplaincy of Full Gospel CHurches to represent all those thousands of little independent fundamentalist churches who had never been represented in the ranks of the military chaplaincy due to not having any larger denominational connection. Soon, other bible believing groups set up their own umbrella type endorsing agencies based on Ammerman’s model and the military was soon flooded with chaplains who were endorsed by these more extreme uber-evangelical/fundamentalist church culture.
Before I left the Active Duty Army in 1987 to enter seminary, the post Chaplain at Fort Polk at the time (Chaplain (COL) Jim White (Presbyterian Church USA) discouraged me from going with Ammerman’s group by saying that while groups like his do get chaplains initially on active duty, the Mainline chaplains at the top of the chaplain board block these types from getting picked up after 7 years (you either get promoted to Major or you are out of the service). And he was right. Ammerman ended up filing suit against the Navy chaplain board in the 90’s for this lack of promotion of his chaplains.
However, with the 9/11 tragedy, and a new President who won the election with the help of the fanatical evangelical subculture, and the dire need for chaplains, the ranks of the
chaplaincies swelled with all these extreme fundy types who saw the war as a sign of the End Times and the return of Jesus. Suddenly, chaplains who would have been washed out after 7 years on active duty, were being retained and promoted to fill the need of the wars in The Middle East. The result is today that a number of LTC and COL chaplain positions are held by these fanatical evangelical types who see evangelism as their real mission and who don’t mind using their power and influence to help servicemembers to experience their understanding of salvation.
With the wars in the Middle-East, the quality of the chaplains changed for several reasons. First, many of these uber-evangelical chaplains attended unaccredited seminaries for their Master’s degree (which were not real institutions of higher learning but nothing more than glorified bible colleges. . .for example, Jim Ammerman’s successor at the Chaplaincy of FUll Gospel Churches was a CFGC Chaplain Klon who had his masters and “PhD” degrees from a completley unaccredited seminary in Florida (International Seminary, Plymouth, FL). In any other setting, his master’s and “PhD” would be considered a little above diploma mill quality, yet the Dept of Defense accepts these institutions as valid educational enterprises since they are religious by nature.
So, the end result is that you have some very poorly uneducated people becoming comissioned officers as chaplains. No other officer branch would accept degrees from such suspect institutions, but the chaplain corp does! This is a big problem and one reason why fundy types with this kind of limited educational experience can’t wrap their pee-brains around the big concepts of separation of church and state and respect for religious and cultural diversity in the military. And,furthermore, cannot conceptualize that there is anything wrong with using their positions of power and influence now as senior ranking officers to cram their dogma down the throats of all those going-to-burn-in-an-eternal-hell lost military members! In their view, they are showing love and concern to their lost comrades.
Secondly, I was taught and believed during my fundamentalist days that my becoming a military chaplain was the same as becoming a missionary to the lost heathen in unevangelized parts of the world. The only difference was that I got paid much better than other missionaries and Uncle Sam was paying my salary instead of my home church. I was in the military to “win souls for Jesus” and all the other high sounding reasons were of secondary importance. And to prove this, just read the newsletters and writings of these uber-fundamentalist endorsers, they spell it out very clearly how they see their mission in the military. It is not just to offer religious coverage to those of their religious background. It is to “bring in the harvest of souls” for Jesus.
Lastly, a major problem with the chaplain corp is that the chaplains become the default go-to person when the command has a problem that they don’t know what to do about. Problem soldier? Go talk to the chaplain. Someone having a psychiatric meltdown? Go talk to the chaplain. There is this assumption that chaplains have specialized counseling training as a result of their semainry training, and some do. . . but it all depends on where they went to seminary. The seminary I went to our counseling courses were essentailly the same educational experience that someone would have in a graduate program of social work or mental health. Unfortunately, for the fundamentalist chaplain who has attended one of these academically challenged “biblical” seminaries, his or her counseling courses could be strictly “biblical” or “Christian” counseling, where the bible is the main source for how to deal with any and all human problems. Many of these chaplains know about recognizing the signs of demon possession but they don’t know anything about signs of schizophrenia or major depression. Consequentially, many soldiers are sent to see the chaplain for some problem or difficulty, and the soldier thinks they are actually seeing a highly trained, professional person when in reality they may be talking with someone who is a complete ignoramous about problems.
For an example of how the military uses the chaplain to dump their problem situations on, I will tell you a little story about when I did a 45 day reserve chaplain gig at an Army post. Two male soldiers were caught having sex with each other so the commander sent them both to see me. They knew they were going to be discharged for their homosexual “offense”. I didn’t know what to say to them. What did the command want me to do with them?? Couples counseling?? So, I sat with both of them and told them what they already knew about being discharged and then corrected them for their sinful homosexual sin. I look back at this with great regret about how I talked to them. I just dumped on them all the ignorant things I had assumed about homosexuals. I was clueless about how to even talk with them about anything, but here I was the supposed professional they had been sent to. I was a fraud. . . and I now realize that most of my fellow chaplains were also frauds. . . pretending to have insight and understanding that was nothing more than a host of misinformed bigotries we had picked up in church and in our home towns. But this instance is duplicated 100, 000s of times over the years as the chaplain is the catch-all for issues that no one else wants to deal with.
So, congrats to the Sargent who has stood up to the mighty powers that be of his command and pointed out that the king has no clothes on. It takes a lot of guts and courage to do what you have done. Keep it up!
Wow. I just wrote a piece on the evagelical mindset that got thousands of reads, but you have described it even more clearly than I could. I hope you have found places to tell your story to a mixed audience of skeptics and moderate people of faith. It is powerful.
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