Guest post by Lawrence Wilkerson (Colonel, U.S. Army – retired), Member of the Advisory Board of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell
Recently, watching HBO’s “Televangelists: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on a YouTube replay, I was immediately struck by the significant similarities between America’s fundamentalist Christians and the image we are given of Iran’s fundamentalist practitioners of Islam. The “image”, mind you.
Normally I discount that image, i.e., descriptions of Iran’s theocratic leadership as megalomaniacal or prone to irrational decisions and actions. They are, I believe, as almost all world leaders are, highly prone to rational decision-making and actions. “Rational” might take in both decisions and actions inimical from time to time to the interests of other states – particularly Israel – but that makes them highly rational and thus discernible and predictable.
With Mike Pence’s recent tour as U.S. vice president and Mike Pompeo as U.S. secretary of state exemplifying American fundamentalist Christians in high political office, I realized that while I could come to such conclusions of rationality with regard to Tehran, I could not do so with regard to U.S. fundamentalist Christians. They are indeed irrational, prone to very bad decisions, and thus dangerous.
Moreover, in my role as an advisor to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), whose mission is to combat the pernicious influence of fundamentalist Christians within the ranks of the U.S. military, I’ve seen time and time again and in several different ways how thoroughly dangerous this influence is. The presence of fundamentalist Christians at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6th of this year, many of whom are former military members, is glaring proof. Likewise, the refusal to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by more than a third of the U.S. military. The excuse that the vaccination program is voluntary is ridiculous. What was “voluntary” was joining the military; what is not voluntary is endangering that military’s readiness by refusing vaccination.
And there is so much more. For example, a Marine who sent me an email telling me I was correct when on public television I described today’s infantry rifle squad as having Jews and Muslims in its ranks, as well as atheists, agnostics, and others, but I was also instructed to rest assured that when this Marine – the one writing to me – got to a combat zone and entered some heated action, one of his first kills would be these fellow non-Christian Marines.
Or the scores upon scores of other emails that arrive at MRFF computers daily with such invective in their contents that others unaware of such traffic, when shown it, are utterly appalled. Or, on the other hand, the copious emails from solid Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women, asking MRFF to help them cope, fight, and defeat some of these fundamentalist Christians who, often with their commanders’ blessing and even help, are making the lives of these other service members pure hell. MRFF has over 73,000 such military clients presently.
But when it comes to high political office and making such decisions as moving the capital of Israel to Jerusalem, refusing to use accurate language – “occupied territory” – when describing the West Bank, or accepting and promoting fundamentalist Christian-inspired reporting about China’s “genocide” among its Uighur community — perhaps reprehensible treatment in many cases, but not genocide by any official definition – then we are dealing with a different brand of fundamentalist religious influence. Like the January 6th attempt to reverse the 2020 presidential election results, a very dangerous brand – the kind U.S. leaders often attribute to Tehran’s “zealots”.
In a genuine religious sense, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, addressing fellow members of the U.S. Congress, described the invidious influence of these fundamentalists in her midst when she described their weaponizing of Christianity in furtherance of their bigotry – precisely what Southern “Christian” leaders did with slavery just prior to our Civil War. She went on to describe a version of Christianity that she, a practicing Christian, did not and could not recognize as a part of Jesus Christ’s teachings. The Congresswoman is right, as any true Christian knows.
America has had “Great Awakenings” before, periods of religious revival that intoxicate a sizable portion of the country. One such period culminated in, among other outcomes, Prohibition. That attempt in 1920 to legislate human morality was an abysmal failure until done away with in 1933, and among other detrimental effects, led to the nationalization of organized crime. One wonders what the ultimate outcome of the present revival will be, but it’s almost a dead certainty it will not be a positive one. The election to the presidency of Donald J. Trump in 2016, and the subsequent undemocratic attempt to keep him in power after he lost the 2020 election, are harbingers along the way.
One of the reasons for the present awakening is a sense by many involved in the revival that America is lost, i.e., the country is increasingly becoming unreligious or even anti-religious. Census data and other evidence demonstrate this reality. While an enormous number of U.S. citizens identify as Evangelical – about 100 million, of which a portion are fundamentalists – the remainder, or some 230 million, do not so identify and of that total many wish little or nothing to do with religion, formalized or otherwise. Just as the browning of America disturbs many traditional white Americans, so this turn away from religion disturbs Evangelicals, particularly the fundamentalists among them. Some even resort to the so-called end times prophecy, according to which the human race is coming to an abrupt God-pronounced end, as a way of extending the middle finger to these millions of non-religious Americans. It was widely rumored that Mike Pence was such a “believer” in this end times philosophy. If true, one can only stand in awe of anyone other than a person of similar mind voting for the man. Someone whose belief in the future is limited to “The Rapture”, the name many fundamentalists give to the end times, serving in high political office beggars the imagination.
How do we get through this present awakening with minimal damage?
The U.S. military affords an example of the challenge. The current method of populating the military is volunteerism. Not many Americans want to volunteer for the military; many, many more cannot. With fully one-third of American youth too obese to be accepted and another one-third incapable of passing the entrance examination, the pool is dramatically limited to start with. Among those who can qualify and who want to volunteer, a high percentage are fundamentalist Christians. In they go, no questions asked. And there are sufficient military officers – including many chaplains – who are willing to join ranks with them and at a minimum proselytize mercilessly other men and women in the ranks and/or undertake other more dangerous activities such as convincing as many of their military colleagues as possible that their allegiance is not to the U.S. Constitution but to Jesus Christ. Insiders call this “building armies for Jesus” or “making soldiers for Christ”. Placards at the USAF Academy installed in the football team’s locker room have read: “We Are Team Jesus” and “We Are First and Last Christians”.
The obvious solution to this problem is a return to conscription, but not unfair conscription as in the past. Instead, a fair, lottery-based draft of both men and women. The first two quartiles of young Americans (in terms of wealth and education) are markedly absent from the military ranks; conscription would correct this unethical situation and also put more non-religious fundamentalists in the Services.
If only there were such easily-implemented solutions to the other problematic aspects of so many fundamentalists in our country’s midst. The money wasted every year in donations to mega-churches and other Awakening-related activities — many generated by the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” (see almost any of Joel Osteen’s sermons and for the opposite see the Netflix movie “American Gospel: Christ Alone“) now fashionable amongst fundamentalists — would be recouped for better purposes than giving the preposterously wealthy megachurch leaders another Gulfstream Executive Jet or two.
But perhaps nowhere are the Christian fundamentalists so potentially dangerous as in their counterintuitive alliance with the Zionist right-wing in Israel. A leader among fundamentalist Christian groups in this regard is Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United For Israel. Illustrating the almost nonsensical aspect of this alliance, investigative journalist Max Blumenthal stuck a microphone in front of one CUFI adherent at a July, 2007 CUFI Conference and asked him if he knew that, according to the end times gospel, Christ would descend to earth with a flaming sword and slay all the non-believers. The man acknowledged that he did know. Then Max asked him what would happen to the Jews. The man puzzled over that for a second or two and then replied: “The Jews will accept Christ as a nation….” At that same conference, Mr. Blumenthal also interviews former Texas Republican Congressman Tom DeLay who tells Max: “We [the U.S.] have to be connected to Israel to enjoy the second coming of Christ…” You can’t make this stuff up.
The November 2020 presidential elections are recorded as having produced the largest number of votes in U.S. history: 81,283,098 for Biden and 74,222,958 for Trump. Many of these millions who voted for Trump are Christian fundamentalists. Most likely, they will vote for him or someone like him again in 2024. Therein, perhaps, lies their gravest danger to the country, for the fascist state they crave in order to bring about the end times will serve the other clear majority of Americans ill indeed.