'Kill Or Convert', Brought To You By the Pentagon
Actor Stephen Baldwin, the youngest member of the famous Baldwin brothers, is no longer playing Pauly Shore's sidekick in comedy masterpieces like Biodome. He has a much more serious calling these days.
Baldwin became a right-wing, born-again Christian after the 9/11 attacks, and now is the star of Operation Straight Up (OSU), an evangelical entertainment troupe that actively proselytizes among active-duty members of the US military. As an official arm of the Defense Department's America Supports You program, OSU plans to mail copies of the controversial apocalyptic video game, Left Behind: Eternal Forces to soldiers serving in Iraq. OSU is also scheduled to embark on a "Military Crusade in Iraq" in the near future.
"We feel the forces of heaven have encouraged us to perform multiple crusades that will sweep through this war torn region," OSU declares on its website about its planned trip to Iraq. "We'll hold the only religious crusade of its size in the dangerous land of Iraq."
The Defense Department's Chaplain's Office, which oversees OSU's activities, has not responded to calls seeking comment.
"The constitution has been assaulted and brutalized," Mikey Weinstein, former Reagan Administration White House counsel, ex-Air Force judge advocate (JAG), and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told me. "Thanks to the influence of extreme Christian fundamentalism, the wall separating church and state is nothing but smoke and debris. And OSU is the IED that exploded the wall separating church and state in the Pentagon and throughout our military." Weinstein continued: "The fact that they would even consider taking their crusade to a Muslim country shows the threat to our national security and to the constitution and everyone that loves it."
On the surface, OSU appears as a traditional entertainment troupe that brings cheer to American troops around the globe. Founded by champion kickboxer Jonathan Spinks, OSU performs comedy, acrobatic stunts and strongman displays. Its roster of entertainers includes a former WNBA star, the Flying Wallendas, a ventriloquist, and former boxing champ Evander Holyfield. "We make no bones about the fact that we are speaking directly to the soldiers of the greatest fighting force of in the world," OSU proclaims. "No 'mamsie pamsie' stuff here!"
But behind OSU's anodyne promises of wholesome fun for military families, the organization promotes an apocalyptic brand of evangelical Christianity to active duty US soldiers serving in Muslim-dominated regions of the Middle East. Displayed prominently on the "What We Believe" section of OSU's website is a passage from the Book of Revelations (Revelation 19:20; 20:10-15) that has become the bedrock of the Christian right's End Times theology: "The devil and his angels, the beast and the false prophet, and whosoever is not found written in the Book of Life, shall be consigned to everlasting punishment in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death."
With the endorsement of the Defense Department, OSU is mailing "Freedom Packages" to soldiers serving in Iraq. These are not your grandfather's care packages, however. Besides pairs of white socks and boxes of baby wipes (included at the apparent suggestion of Iran-Contra felon Oliver North, according to OSU) OSU's care packages contain the controversial Left Behind: Eternal Forces video game. The game is inspired by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' bestselling pulp fiction series about a blood-soaked Battle of Armageddon pitting born-again Christians against anybody who does not adhere to their particular theology. In LaHaye's and Jenkins' books, the non-believers are ultimately condemned to "everlasting punishment" while the evangelicals are "raptured" up to heaven.
The Left Behind videogame is a real-time strategy game that makes players commanders of a virtual evangelical army in a post-apocalyptic landscape that looks strikingly like New York City after 9/11. With tanks, helicopters and a fearsome arsenal of automatic weapons at their disposal, Left Behind players wage a violent war against United Nations-like peacekeepers who, according to LaHaye's interpretation of Revelation, represent the armies of the Antichrist. Each time a Left Behind player kills a UN soldier, their virtual character exclaims, "Praise the Lord!" To win the game, players must kill or convert all the non-believers left behind after the rapture. They also have the option of reversing roles and commanding the forces of the Antichrist. (Video preview here).
Producers of the Left Behind videogame were faced with a storm of controversy after Christian blogger Jonathan Hutson exposed its eliminationist overtones in a series of posts on the website Talk2Action. Statements by the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference on American Islamic Relations, the Christian Alliance for Progress, and others condemned the game and demanded that Walmart pull it from its shelves. Even Marvin Olasky, the evangelical publisher, intellectual author of "compassionate conservatism," and a force behind the George W. Bush Administration's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives," denounced the Left Behind videogame. In a blog post on the website of his World Magazine, Olasky described the game's content as akin to "the way homicidal Muslims think." As a result of the fallout, Left Behind Games fired its senior VP and released three board members.
This controversy has not deterred OSU from encouraging US troops to play virtual rounds of kill or convert after a hard day of house-to-house searches and counterinsurgency warfare against Iraqi insurgents. What's more, OSU's "Freedom Packages" include a copy of evangelical pastor Jonathan McDowell's More Than A Carpenter -- a book advertised as "one of the most powerful evangelism tools worldwide" -- that is double-published in Arabic. Considering that only a handful of American troops speak Arabic, the book is ostensibly intended for proselytizing efforts among Iraqi civilians.
OSU has cultivated support from the Department of Defense for years. After a private October, 2005 meeting between OSU's Spinks and Defense Department officials, OSU was invited to perform inside the Pentagon. This week, Pentagon employees and active duty service members are expected to enjoy a breakfast with Spinks and Baldwin, followed by an OSU performance in which they will receive "spiritual encouragement via a Biblical message." The events will be held respectively in the Pentagon Executive Dining Room and the Pentagon Auditorium.
Spreading the Gospel to US troops is only one of many crusades Baldwin has waged in the name of the Lord. During 2006, Baldwin frequently stationed himself on the sidewalk outside a pornographic video store in New York. There, he photographed the license plates of people entering the store and threatened to publish an ad in a Nyack paper publicizing the names of those who patronized the store. "In my position, I just don't think I'm supposed to keep my faith to myself," Baldwin told a group of Texas Southern Baptists in 2004. "I'm just doing what the Lord's telling me to do."
Soon after his appearance at the Pentagon, Baldwin ships out to Iraq for OSU's "Military Crusade." With its cadre of celebrity entertainers pushing End Times theology, and the overt support of the Defense Department, OSU is hoping to transform Bush's surge into a battle of biblical proportions.
They just can't keep their faith to themselves.
Max Blumenthal is a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at the Nation Institute based in New York City. His work has appeared in The Nation, Salon, The American Prospect and the Washington Monthly. He is a research fellow for Media Matters for America. Click here to read his blog.
© 2007 The Nation