Onward Christian Soldiers: Theocracy and the U.S. Military

This one scares the bejeezus out of me.

A lot of atheist blogs have had this story. For some time now, actually, But the New York Times has finally covered the story, which seems like a good excuse for me to talk about it.

The Times headline sums it up pretty darned well:

Soldier Sues Army, Saying His Atheism Led to Threats

And here’s a few pertinent quotes before I get into my analysis:

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.


Perhaps the most high-profile incident involved seven officers, including four generals, who appeared, in uniform and in violation of military regulations, in a 2006 fund-raising video for the Christian Embassy, an evangelical Bible study group.


Specialist Hall began a chapter of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers at Camp Speicher, near Tikrit, to support others like him.

At the July meeting, Major Welborn told the soldiers they had disgraced those who had died for the Constitution, Specialist Hall said. When he finished, Major Welborn said, according to the statement: “I love you guys; I just want the best for you. One day you will see the truth and know what I mean.”


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.”

Okay. Do we have the picture now, everybody? Read the whole story if you don’t. And this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this story: plenty of atheist blogs have been carrying it for a while, along with many others like it. (More info — not just on this case, but on an appalling number of similar ones — at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.)

And here’s why this scares the daylights out of me. More than just about any instance of creeping theocracy in our country. More, even, than creationism and other forms of religious fundamentalism being taught in our public, taxpayer-funded schools.

This is the Army.

This is the branch of our government with the big rifles.

And increasingly, they seem to be placing their allegiance to their religion over their allegiance to the country and the Constitution.

There’s a story that Ed Brayton (who’s been covering this story a lot) had over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. The whole story is excellent, but here’s the truly terrifying part:

One individual, posting under the name “Hidog,” suggested Hall put on an orange vest and carry a sign “Bong hits 4 Allah” through the streets of Iraq, “because apparently, your Bill of Rights trump your CO’s (commanding officer’s) orders.”

As Ed pointed out, “Well yes, the bill of rights does trump the orders of a commanding officer when those orders violate the bill of rights.”

And it scares the merciful crap out of me to think that the Army is increasingly full of people — not just mooks with no power, but officers — who don’t understand that. It terrifies me to think of an Army populated by both officers and enlisted men whose hearts — and guns — belong, not to the citizens of this country who employ them, but to Jesus.

And it terrifies me to realize these are not isolated incidents. There’s so much more to this story that I haven’t gotten into, that I don’t have time to get into without this turning into an unreadably long screed. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is the dominant culture of the current United States Army.

With support from the Pentagon.

Because that, people, means that we really are living in a theocracy. Right now. The armed enforcers of our Federal government are the defenders, not of our country, not of our Constitution, but of their God and their faith.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

Okay. Perhaps I’m being a little panicky, a little overdramatic. The good news is that we’re not overtly a theocracy. Yet. When caught in these shenanigans, the perpetrators still have to shimmy and sidestep, deny that it happened or hastily issue regulations to halt the more grotesquely blatant examples of it. And if the Supreme Court hasn’t become completely craven, hopefully they’ll be spanking the Pentagon long and hard over this. (Military fetishists, take note.)

And the good news is that the story finally got out of the atheist blogosphere and into the New York Times. (CNN has the story, too.)

But this is not a few isolated incidents. This is not a few bad apples. This is, as Mikey Weinsein of the MRFF called it, “the intentional dismantling of the Constitutionally mandated wall separating church and state by some of the highest ranking officials in the Bush Administration and the U.S. military.”

The intentional dismantling of the wall separating church and state. By the armed enforcers of the Federal government. By the branch of the Federal government that has the big rifles.

What is that but theocracy?

(P.S. I’m not even going to get into the fact that these are the people who are enforcing our foreign policy overseas, in parts of the world that are primarily and quite passionately not Christian. Except to say: Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. What a colossally, appallingly, mind-twistingly bad idea that is.)

This has been all over the atheosphere; but Susie Bright is the one who sent it to me. So thanks, Susie.

Onward Christian Soldiers: Theocracy and the U.S. Military
The Bolingbrook Babbler:  The unbelievable truth is now at freethoughtblogs.com/babbler

15 thoughts on “Onward Christian Soldiers: Theocracy and the U.S. Military

  1. 1

    That is scary. I’ll be honest, I had encountered the story, but not really given thought to the large scale ramifications. I think I’m very used to living in a country where military coup is unheard of.
    Now, frighteningly, I’m contemplating the possibility – and it’s not as far fetched as I would like. I would still be surprised if there was a coup or the like anytime soon, but in the long term….
    Maybe _The Handmaid’s Tale_ had it right.

  2. 2

    This is scary. From a Brit perspective it has an Alice in Wonderland quality. We have a vast array of symbolic crosses, plus chaplains, prayers etc in our armed forces,and nobody thinks anything of it. Anglican chaplains were introduced by the Duke of Wellington to curb the spread of Methodism, not because the Iron Duke gave a toss about god. Much the same view prevails today – yes, give the religious someone to talk to, and have a Christmas dinner, and so on. But if anyone suggested British soldiers had to pray to get promoted it would be a weapons-grade scandal.
    I think you’re right to be worried. And as an Americophile, it worries me. Despite all the recent evidence to the contrary, I’ve always thought the US can be a force for good in the world. But now, I wonder if the other UK leftists (and some conservatives) I’ve been arguing with all these years might have been right after all.

  3. Nan

    It’s not just the Army. There was a huge stink a few years ago about the Air Force academy and the evangelizing going on there.
    BTW, remember the Pat Tillman case? One of the high ranking officials involved in trying to cover up the fact Tillman died from friendly fire in Afghanistan issued a statement saying, in effect, that the Tillman family was only upset because they were atheists and without the hope of an afterlife where they’d see him again took the loss of their son harder than normal people would. I can’t remember the exact phrasing but it was incredibly disrespectful to the Tillmans.

  4. 4

    I’ve been following this story through the blogosphere. It’s about time someone in the mainstream media started saying, “America, we have problem.”
    I don’t think we live in a theocracy at this point. As you noted, the most egregious offenders are being held accountable for crossing lines. Nevertheless, I share your alarm, because a thoroughly Christianist military controls the means for forcing its will upon the rest of us: weapons – lots of big, scary, nasty weapons. There are a lot of military people who, ironically, are defending our freedom to believe (or not), while being denied the right to exercise that same freedom themselves. That’s one of many tragedies bound up in this ugly situation.

  5. 5

    Reminds me of the Russian army going on a parade with the Orthodox Church in the streets of Moscow from just the last year or two — the picture of the soldier in uniform holding the Orthodox cross sent a shiver down my spine.

  6. 6

    You only left out one thing: Blackwater. The US military is becoming George Bush’s private army, but it would still be hard to turn it against domestic citizens. For that, he has his good Fundamentalist Christian buddy Eric Prince and his mercenary corps, currently training in Baghdad and New Orleans,and hiring ex-members of Pinochet’s Chilean death squads, among others. They contract with the DHS, avoiding the US military chain of command altogether.

  7. 7

    Don’t know what went wrong but here you have the whole thing.
    Well said madame. And I can tell you this has been going on for a long, long time. I was an AF Cadet in 1955 and we were FORCED to go to Christian services every Sunday with two exceptions. one base where I was stationed had no Catholic Chaplain so my one roommate was exempted. At the next place there was no Rabbi so another one of my roommates got off. Me, atheist that I was and am, had no recourse. March over to the chapel for an hours BS every Sunday.
    In fact, when I joined up you HAD to put down what religious denomination you belonged to. No excuse. So I became a Methodist. This because I couldn’t spell Presbyterian. I had never been in either church but I thought Presbyterian sounded cool. But not when you couldn’t spell it. lol

  8. 9

    Although obviously certifiable, this can’t be the same Wellborn. When Hall had his meeting in Iraq last July, this loony was in bible school in Kansas. And he seems not to be a Major, just a student wannabe in the reserves.

  9. 10

    Like Grumpy Old Man, I was in the service, but 30 years later. Things were better than what he described. When filling out the forms, I checked the “none” box on the religion question, and that’s exactly what my dog tags were stamped with.
    My own twist was that I *USED* religion like a dog. On weekends when things were slow, the option was to do some crap cleaning work or go to church. Where do you think I went? Church, baby! I sat in the back, half-listening to their claptrap and dozed — heck of a lot better than buffing the barracks’ floors, I’ll tell you that.
    I figured that if the price for 1:30 (15 minutes to walk there and back + 1 hour ‘service’) of non-work time was to listen to some moron drone on about how water turns to wine, then that was adequate payment.
    The ***REAL*** joke will be if these idiots get their wish and we become a true theocracy. Why? Because there is ALWAYS some cretin who believes that HE (or SHE) is MORE a TRUE believer, and the current rules are not STRINGENT ENOUGH. So the rules will be tightened up.
    Then these chumps who thought that everything would be all Golden and Light once our country Found The Way will suddenly be faced with the monster of Greed and Control, which is all that religion is.
    Look to Iraq and Iran for perfect examples. Fully 1/2 of their population cannot work, get an education or even be seen in public without being covered up. WTF is that? That is state-run religion for you.

  10. cl

    I think Jesus refused any form of earthly, secular, religio-political kingship for a reason, and to me the scenario you describe is reminiscent of Niemoller. Does this mean at least some of those paranoids comparing the current oligarchy to the Third Reich all along might not be that far off?

  11. 13

    I was a soldier back in the Reagan-Bush I years and my dog tags read NO REL PREF. The only thing I got was a dirty look from the non-com typing up the tags. However I know this is no longer the case. My step-brother is serving in Afghanistan, and while I love him, he and I really disagree on many things. For one I didn’t attend his wedding, because I don’t agree with his narrow minded view of religion. (That and there was no liquor at the reception. No booze at a wedding is like no sex at a honeymoon.)

  12. 14

    OK, I served in the US Army for over 20 years. I can tell all of you that this kind of thing is abberrational behavior. I am a Deist, I am not shy in my critique of Christianity, and I was NEVER, EVER discriminated against because of it.
    Now, something tells me that the Specialist in question had an axe to grind. If you are a “activist”, then you don’t belong in the military. The US military is subordinate to its political masters. It’s neither a place for activism nor a place for individualism. It’s a team sport.
    If the story as told was true, you can bet the major paid for it. That won’t be publicized of course – that’s not how the game is played. This kid was in Iraq, a fiercely Muslim country. When I was in Saudi Arabia all religious services had to be conducted extremely discreetly, nothing open for Saudis to witness. Prostelyzation was strictly forbidden. There is a fair chance that this kid was told to knock of any talk of atheism while in country because of the feelings it might stir up among the locals. An angle I can see the press not wanting to advertise.
    Soldiers have the right to practice whatever faith they wish. They don’t have the right to disrupt unit integrity or make issues out of things they don’t like. Even if they are on solid legal ground. Units function as teams and if the team doesn’t function well it can mean people getting killed. The Army is not a place for “making a stand” on social issues. Period. Our political leaders decide what the left and right limits are, and soldiers are expected to trust and obey their leaders in the execution of those limits. IF a leader is exceeding his or her authority, there are ways to address that (uysing the chain of command or expressing said concern the Inspector General).
    The Army is fiercely loyal to the constitution and the US government and has an excellent track record of not taking sides in internal political disputes. Strange how the people posting here were so quick to give it a negative judgement based on a few insignificant cases with very superficial exposure of facts. This is what those in the statistics buisiness call “small sample size”. Look at the size of the armed forces, look at it’s behavior vis-a-vis the US political system, and it quickly gives lie to the statement:
    “And here’s why this scares the daylights out of me. More than just about any instance of creeping theocracy in our country. More, even, than creationism and other forms of religious fundamentalism being taught in our public, taxpayer-funded schools.
    With_god_on_our_sideThis is the Army.
    This is the branch of our government with the big rifles.
    And increasingly, they seem to be placing their allegiance to their religion over their allegiance to the country and the Constitution.”
    If you are afraid that the US Army is a threat to your freedoms, you have truly lost the plot. The US Army is the guarantor of those freedoms. Here we have someone who hasn’t spent a minute in uniform telling us all where the military seems to be placing it’s allegiance based upon a few media stories and a less than thorough telling of the facts. I mean, this goes under the header “things that make you say ‘what the fuck?'”

  13. KG

    I think Jesus refused any form of earthly, secular, religio-political kingship for a reason – cl

    Srsly? You think “earthly, secular, religio-political kingship” was on offer to an itinerant preacher of undistinguished family from a provincial backwater of a minor province ruled by a client king, but garrisoned by the most formidable army within thousands of miles?

Comments are closed.