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Growing Fundamentalism Grips Israeli, U.S. Militaries

March 22, 2009

Ever since 9/11, analysts of all stripes have created a cottage industry in studying comparative fundamentalism across Islam, Christianity and Judaism. (In 2007, for example, CNN featured Christiane Amanpour's special report on "God's Warriors.") Now with the revelations from Israeli soldiers of atrocities committed during their assault on Gaza, new questions are being raised about the growing power of religious nationalists within the IDF. As it turns out, that expanding role parallels a disturbing rise in the influence of Christian conservatives in the United States military.
On Thursday and Friday, the Israeli paper Haaretz published soldiers' accounts of rules of engagement which they claim resulted in unnecessary carnage among civilians in Gaza. Among the episodes detailed was the routine ransacking of homes and "the killing of an elderly woman by a sharpshooter and the killing of a woman and two children by another sniper." But while one soldier told of instructing his men "not everyone who is in Gaza is Hamas" and that "this war was not a war for the sanctification of the holy name, but rather one to stop the Qassam rockets," he expressed concern over the strident messages being propagated by religious nationalists within the Israeli armed forces:

A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in Gaza, "the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war."

As the New York Times detailed Sunday, the growing clash between secular and religious elements within the Israeli army reflects a transformation in the attitudes and command leadership of the IDF. After four decades of dominance "by kibbutz members who saw themselves as secular, Western and educated," the upper echelons of Israel's military have witnessed the expanding presence of conservative, religious nationalists, many from the hard line settler movement:

"The officer corps of the elite Golani Brigade is now heavily populated by religious right-wing graduates of the preparatory academies," noted Moshe Halbertal, a Jewish philosophy professor who co-wrote the military code of ethics and who is himself religiously observant but politically liberal. "The religious right is trying to have an impact on Israeli society through the army."

Sadly, the same could be said of the United States. In word and deed, evangelicals in recent years have aggressively boosted their visibility and influence within the American military.
An early warning came in 2003 in the guise of Lt. General William Boykin. Boykin, who later became a deputy under secretary of defense, claimed during speeches to prayer groups and breakfasts that militant Islamists sought to destroy America ''because we're a Christian nation.'' General Boykin also explained to evangelical audiences that Muslims worship an ''idol'' and not ''a real God.'' While President Bush expressed his disagreement (noting Boykin "''didn't reflect my opinion" and "it just doesn't reflect what the government thinks"), Boykin remained on the job.
The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has been a hotbed of evangelical activism - and controversy. While cadets in 2004 distributed leaflets at dinner place settings for a screening of "The Passion of the Christ, football coach Fisher DeBerry displayed a sign in the team's locker room proclaiming, "I am a Christian first and last. I am a member of Team Jesus Christ." In May, 2005, Lutheran minister and Captain MeLinda Morton was removed from her post after warning evangelical Christians were trying to "subvert the system" in trying to win converts among cadets at the Academy. A June 2005 study at USAFA described other incidents of religious intolerance, insensitivity and inappropriate proselytizing, and concluded:

"Additionally, some faculty members and coaches consider it their duty to profess their faith and discuss this issue in their classrooms in furtherance of developing cadets' spirituality."

In the wake of the Brady report and complaints from Military Religious Freedom Foundation founder Mike Weinstein (himself a graduate of the Academy), the Air Force in October 2005 moved to withdraw a "code of ethics" document which permitted chaplains to evangelize military personnel who were not affiliated with any faith. ("I will not proselytize from other religious bodies," it read, "but I retain the right to evangelize those who are not affiliated.") Still, even that minor restriction produced an avalanche of opposition from Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition and other groups which protested that the new guidelines abridged "the constitutional right of military chaplains to pray according to their faith."
Undaunted, the push to proselytize in the U.S. military continues. In 2007, an inspector general's report highlighted ethics violations among current and former officers, including two major generals, for appearing in uniform for a promotional and fundraising video for the evangelical group Christian Embassy. As the Washington Post noted, the report "offers a vivid picture of how inappropriately intertwined Christian Embassy had become with Pentagon operations by the time the video, with its extensive scenes inside the Pentagon, was filmed in 2004." Nonetheless, the New York Times reported earlier this year that military personnel were shown videos featuring football's Terry Bradshaw professing his Christian religion as part of an official military production dealing with depression, suicide and "the importance of faith."
The aggressive campaign for military converts is producing a climate of fear and intimdation in the armed forces. Specialist Jeremy Hall sued the Army after a superior officer interrupted his meeting for atheists and free-thinkers by proclaiming, "People like you are not holding up the Constitution and are going against what the founding fathers, who were Christians, wanted for America!" In another case, Army Specialist and Iraq Purple Heart recipient Dustin Chalker filed a lawsuit after being subjected to a mandatory ceremony that began and ended with a Christian prayer. As he put it:

"The Army enforces policies against racism and sexism, but doesn't bat an eye at these kinds of religious discrimination. Why is it acceptable that soldiers are unable to serve this nation without attending state-led religious practices they find offensive and false?"

In different ways, against different foes and for different reasons, Israel and the United States face threats of terrorism from Islamic extremists. Tragically, the very armed forces created to defend the two nations are each increasingly turning to fundamentalisms of their own. And for both their own national security and the hopes of peace, that is a dangerous development, indeed.
UPDATE: On Monday, the AP reported the Israeli military condemned anti-Palestinian t-shirts worn by some soldiers after completing basic trainining. According to the Israeli paper Haaretz, one design features a child in the cross-hairs of a rifle with the slogan, "The smaller they are, the harder it is," Another shows a pregnant woman in the cross-hairs and the words "1 Shot 2 Kills."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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