Donald Trump’s election has led to such a steep rise in fundamentalist Christian evangelizing and religious bigotry in the U.S. armed forces that the matter is reaching the level of a “national security threat,” according to information shared exclusively with Newsweek by an organization that represents and advocates for secular and minority religious views in the military.
The number of complaints from servicemen and -women in the Army, Air Force, Marines and other service branches to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has doubled in number since November 2016, according to lawyer Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, a former Air Force officer who founded the organization.
“With the advent of Trump as the commander in chief of our armed forces, MRFF has experienced a massive influx of new military and civilian personnel complaints of religion-based prejudice and bigotry, most of them coming from non-fundamentalist Christians being persecuted by their military superiors for not being ‘Christian enough,’” Weinstein tells Newsweek.
He says noncommissioned officers at one Air Force base reported that their superiors told them Trump would make it USAF policy that in order for “disbelieving Jews” to be allowed into the USAF or deemed fit for promotions, they would have to show via objectively established behavior that they were at least honestly “considering the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
At another base, the wife of a combat-decorated Muslim U.S. Naval officer, who was wearing a Muslim headscarf, was surrounded in the commissary and spit upon and cursed as not being a “true American and being a spy and a terrorist.” She was with her children at the time.
In both situations, the targets complained to the MRFF because they feared retaliation if they went through their chain of command. The MRFF then lodged formal complaints with the service branches, and the incidents were addressed, Weinstein says.
The military recently backtracked on an edict requiring thousands of married couples in a marital program called “Strong Bonds” to participate in Protestant prayer sessions. As of 2014, more than 37,000 Army personnel participated in the Strong Bonds program. On May 19, Brigadier General Christian Rofrano told the MRFF via email that the complaints had been heard. “Presently, the Air National Guard leadership is in the process of rescinding and re-issuing its program guidance,” Rofrano wrote.
Numerous other complaints remain unaddressed. For example, 36 Air Force Global Strike Command personnel complained in March about a plan to include prayer among the activities in its “Year of the Family” program. The AFGSC has approximately 31,000 personnel at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, Louisiana. It is responsible for the nation’s three intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile wings, the Air Force’s bomber force and operational and maintenance support for organizations within the nuclear enterprise.
More than 100 service members also complained in March when Army Major General Julie Bentz, vice director of the multiservice Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization, gave a speech at the 56th Annual Kansas Prayer Breakfast, during which she stated, “But my greatest privilege is standing in front of my king and my God, carrying every member of my organization to his throne and asking for his protection, his mercy, his love on each of them and their families and whatever are their concerns and burdens of the day.”
One of those who objected to her statement was a senior military officer who wrote to the foundation, saying, “As someone who’s served more than 25 years in uniform, including one assignment at the very organization to which she is now assigned as the deputy, I just can’t imagine a much more inappropriate or disconcerting message.”
In February, the American Civil Liberties Union and the MRFF challenged the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego over its annual Christmas crèche, arguing that it must allow Jews and other religions to erect religious symbols on its grounds as well. The staff judge advocate declined to review the complaint, judging it “premature.”
The commingling of radical Christianity and the U.S. war fighter has been under way for some time now. In 2007, the Department of Defense’s inspector general issued a report regarding a cadre of ranking DoD officials and officers who “abused their authority” by promoting a video for “Christian Embassy,” a Washington-based, high-level evangelizing outfit with a website designed to make it look like an arm of the U.S. government.
Fundamentalist views are decidedly in the minority in the general population, but they have adherents in some of the U.S. military’s most powerful positions, especially in and around Washington, D.C., and in Colorado Springs, home of the U.S. Air Force Academy and the nation’s nuclear command center.
The U.S. military has long been seeded with radical Christian fundamentalists—sometimes called Christian Dominionists or Christian Reconstructionists—who believe a “Warrior Jesus” has their backs while they fight against Islam. They believe they are establishing a “Kingdom of God” on earth, starting with the United States, and are predictably anti-LGBT and unfriendly to females among their ranks.
The MRFF was founded in 2005 by Weinstein to counter that spread and advocate for broad religious freedom and freedom from religion within the military. More than 50,000 complaints have been filed with the foundation, the vast majority coming from Protestants offended by being hectored with radical interpretations of their own religion. Since last November, there’s been a spike in anti-Semitism and attacks on minority religious views.
The MRFF estimates that 84 percent of military chaplains are evangelicals, and about a third of them are fundamentalists, defined by the MRFF as Christians who have decided that their evangelizing and proselytizing need not conform to the U.S. Constitution, case law or any DoD directives restricting their behavior.
The Christian right’s willingness to see Trump as a savior for their cause—if not a messianic figure, despite his living as an urban libertine who has had three wives and a history of lewd acts and statements—continues to grow. His selection of an evangelical as vice president, plus the appointment of at least nine evangelicals to his Cabinet, has apparently soothed any concerns the religious right had about his personal life.
Last week, defrocked ex-felon Jim Bakker, no stranger to licentious behavior with women himself, said Trump’s critics were channeling the spirit of the Antichrist. “It seems like there is a hatred among peoples and this is satanic,” said Bakker, who is back to evangelizing on television. “You want to know what the Antichrist spirit looks like? That’s what’s going on in America. These people mocking the president. The words they use. The speech they use. That’s the spirit of Antichrist. That’s the spirit of hatred.”
Weinstein also shared with Newsweek dozens of hate-filled emails directed to him from former and current service members, stating that they pray for his death and eternal life in hell. He says small victories like the one involving the Strong Bonds program last week can’t keep up with the changed tone at the top, and its effect on behavior in the middle and lower ranks among the fundamentalists in the military community.
“The reality of Trump being commander in chief has unleashed a raging battle cry along the lines of ‘There’s a new sheriff in town, and he loves white, male, straight, Christian fundamentalists one hell of a lot more than anyone else,’” Weinstein says. “The fundamentalist/Dominionist bullies have been emboldened by Trump’s own bigotry and that of his henchmen to such a profound degree that MRFF considers the dire situation to be nothing less than a full-fledged national security threat to our country.”