Sunday, April 27, 2008

Theocracy on the March

Via Instaputz and LGM, I came across an article in the NYT describing religious discrimination in the US armed forces. The piece starts by describing a particular incident:

When Specialist Jeremy Hall held a meeting last July for atheists and freethinkers at Camp Speicher in Iraq, he was excited, he said, to see an officer attending.

But minutes into the talk, the officer, Maj. Freddy J. Welborn, began to berate Specialist Hall and another soldier about atheism, Specialist Hall wrote in a sworn statement. “People like you are not holding up the Constitution and are going against what the founding fathers, who were Christians, wanted for America!” Major Welborn said, according to the statement.

Major Welborn told the soldiers he might bar them from re-enlistment and bring charges against them, according to the statement.

Last month, Specialist Hall and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group, filed suit in federal court in Kansas, alleging that Specialist Hall’s right to be free from state endorsement of religion under the First Amendment had been violated and that he had faced retaliation for his views. In November, he was sent home early from Iraq because of threats from fellow soldiers.


... Timothy Feary, the other soldier at the meeting, said in an e-mail message: “Jeremy is telling the truth. I was there and witnessed everything.”

The article tries to get at the larger problem. The official word offers statistics to imply the problem is not widespread:

There are 1.36 million active duty service members, according to the Pentagon, and since 2005, it has received 50 formal complaints of religious discrimination, [Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen] Lainez said.

On the other hand:

... Mikey Weinstein, a retired Air Force judge advocate general and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said the official statistics masked the great number of those who do not report violations for fear of retribution. Since the Air Force Academy scandal began in 2004, Mr. Weinstein said, he has been contacted by more than 5,500 service members and, occasionally, military families about incidents of religious discrimination. He said 96 percent of the complainants were Christians, and the majority of those were Protestants.

Complaints include prayers “in Jesus’ name” at mandatory functions, which violates military regulations, and officers proselytizing subordinates to be “born again.” After getting the complainants’ unit and command information, Mr. Weinstein said, he calls his contacts in the military to try to correct the situation.

“Religion is inextricably intertwined with their jobs,” Mr. Weinstein said. “You’re promoted by who you pray with.”

Two things to note about Weinstein's report: First, it's hardly surprising that most soldiers are reluctant to make complaints through official channels, especially in a combat zone, especially if they perceive most of their superior officers to be part of the problem.

Second, it's amazing how many of the complaints were sent in by soldiers self-identifying as Christians. This suggests the messages provoking the complaints must be particularly noxious.

Oh, and by the way? Maj. Welborn, the officer accused at the start of the article with threatening persecution, refused to be interviewed for the article, beyond saying:

I’d love to tell my side of the story because it’s such a false story.

I'm pretty sure how my fellow godless heathens will interpret that line. Probably just as well for him that he stopped there.


Unknown said...

Freddy's myspace

There you can see his side of the story...

bjkeefe said...

Thanks for the link, but I don't see anything that refers to the incident in question. All I see are what look like passages quoted from the Bible and what look like music videos that I had no interest in sitting through.

If that is what you meant by his side of the story, I would say it adds additional reason to believe Spc. Hall. I am unable to think of a reason why such a low-ranking soldier would make up such charges about someone so much higher above him in the first place, and the look of that MySpace page shows someone interested in proselytizing to the exclusion of just about everything else.

In any event, I'm not as much interested in the particular case as I am in the larger story. Even if Maj. Welborn didn't do everything of which he is accused in this single instance, the growing dominance of Christianism in the armed forces worries me.