Editor’s note: The former New York Times Mideast Bureau chief warns that the radical Christian right is coming dangerously close to its goal of co-opting the country’s military and law enforcement.
The drive by the Christian right to take control of military chaplaincies, which now sees radical Christians holding roughly 50 percent of chaplaincy appointments in the armed services and service academies, is part of a much larger effort to politicize the military and law enforcement. This effort signals the final and perhaps most deadly stage in the long campaign by the radical Christian right to dismantle America’s open society and build a theocratic state. A successful politicization of the military would signal the end of our democracy.
During the past two years I traveled across the country to research and write the book “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” I repeatedly listened to radical preachers attack as corrupt and godless most American institutions, from federal agencies that provide housing and social welfare to public schools and the media. But there were two institutions that never came under attack—the military and law enforcement. While these preachers had no interest in communicating with local leaders of other faiths, or those in the community who did not subscribe to their call for a radical Christian state, they assiduously courted and flattered the military and police. They held special services and appreciation days for all four branches of the armed services and for various law enforcement agencies. They encouraged their young men and women to enlist or to join the police or state troopers. They sought out sympathetic military and police officials to attend church events where these officials were lauded and feted for their Christian probity and patriotism. They painted the war in Iraq not as an occupation but as an apocalyptic battle by Christians against Islam, a religion they regularly branded as “satanic.” All this befits a movement whose final aesthetic is violence. It also befits a movement that, in the end, would need the military and police forces to seize power in American society.
One of the arguments used to assuage our fears that the mass movement being built by the Christian right is fascist at its core is that it has not yet created a Praetorian Guard, referring to the paramilitary force that defied legal constraints, made violence part of the political discourse and eventually plunged ancient Rome into tyranny and despotism. A paramilitary force that operates outside the law, one that sows fear among potential opponents and is capable of physically silencing those branded by their leaders as traitors, is a vital instrument in the hands of despotic movements. Communist and fascist movements during the last century each built paramilitary forces that operated beyond the reach of the law.
And yet we may be further down this road than we care to admit. Erik Prince, the secretive, mega-millionaire, right-wing Christian founder of Blackwater, the private security firm that has built a formidable mercenary force in Iraq, champions his company as a patriotic extension of the U.S. military. His employees, in an act as cynical as it is deceitful, take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution. These mercenary units in Iraq, including Blackwater, contain some 20,000 fighters. They unleash indiscriminate and wanton violence against unarmed Iraqis, have no accountability and are beyond the reach of legitimate authority. The appearance of these paramilitary fighters, heavily armed and wearing their trademark black uniforms, patrolling the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, gave us a grim taste of the future. It was a stark reminder that the tyranny we impose on others we will one day impose on ourselves.
“Contracting out security to groups like Blackwater undermines our constitutional democracy,” said Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Their actions may not be subject to constitutional limitations that apply to both federal and state officials and employees—including First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights to be free from illegal searches and seizures. Unlike police officers they are not trained in protecting constitutional rights and unlike police officers or the military they have no system of accountability whether within their organization or outside it. These kind of paramilitary groups bring to mind Nazi Party brownshirts, functioning as an extrajudicial enforcement mechanism that can and does operate outside the law. The use of these paramilitary groups is an extremely dangerous threat to our rights."
The politicization of the military, the fostering of the belief that violence must be used to further a peculiar ideology rather than defend a democracy, was on display recently when Air Force and Army generals and colonels, filmed in uniform at the Pentagon, appeared in a promotional video distributed by the Christian Embassy, a radical Washington-based organization dedicated to building a “Christian America.”
The video, first written about by Jeff Sharlet in the December issue of Harper’s Magazine and filmed shortly after 9/11, has led the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to raise a legal protest against the Christian Embassy’s proselytizing within the Department of Defense. The video was hastily pulled from the Christian Embassy website and was removed from YouTube a few days ago under threats of copyright enforcement.
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Dan Cooper, an undersecretary of veterans affairs, says in the video that his weekly prayer sessions are “more important than doing the job.” Maj. Gen. Jack Catton says that his being an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a “wonderful opportunity” to evangelize men and women setting defense policy. “My first priority is my faith,” he says. “I think it’s a huge impact.... You have many men and women who are seeking God’s counsel and wisdom as they advise the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs] and the secretary of defense.”
Col. Ralph Benson, a Pentagon chaplain, says in the video: “Christian Embassy is a blessing to the Washington area, a blessing to our capital; it’s a blessing to our country. They are interceding on behalf of people all over the United States, talking to ambassadors, talking to people in the Congress, in the Senate, talking to people in the Pentagon, and being able to share the message of Jesus Christ in a very, very important time in our world is winning a worldwide war on terrorism. What more do we need than Christian people leading us and guiding us, so, they’re needed in this hour.”
The group has burrowed deep inside the Pentagon. It hosts weekly Bible sessions with senior officers, by its own count some 40 generals, and weekly prayer breakfasts each Wednesday from 7 to 7:50 a.m. in the executive dining room as well as numerous outreach events to, in the words of the organization, “share and sharpen one another in their quest to bridge the gap between faith and work.”
If the United States falls into a period of instability caused by another catastrophic terrorist attack, an economic meltdown or a series of environmental disasters, these paramilitary forces, protected and assisted by fellow ideologues in the police and military, could swiftly abolish what is left of our eroding democracy. War, with the huge profits it hands to businesses and right-wing interests that often help bankroll the Christian right, could become a permanent condition. And the thugs with automatic weapons, black uniforms and wraparound sunglasses who appeared on street corners in Baghdad and New Orleans could appear on streets across the U.S. Such a presence could paralyze us with fear, leaving us unable to question or protest the closed system and secrecy of an emergent totalitarian state and unable to voice dissent.
“The Bush administration has already come close to painting our current wars as wars against Islam—many in the Christian right apparently have this belief,” Ratner said. “If these wars, bad enough as imperial wars, are fought as religious wars, we are facing a very dark age that could go on for a hundred years and that will be very bloody.”