Fighting For God <i>And</i> Country

military and prayer
military and prayer, evangelical, soldiers, troops,

A new documentary examines religious discrimination in the U.S. military. Should American forces be fighting for God as well as country? Here's Susan Spencer of 48 Hours.

When it comes to the role of religion in the military, a famous saying from World War II seems to sum things up:

"There are no atheists in foxholes."

Immortalized in the 1942 film "Wake Island," the line reinforces the idea that there' s just nothing quite like bombs and bullets to convert a non-believer.

Whoever decided that owes Jeremy Hall an apology.

Army Specialist Hall was a turret gunner who has been deployed to Iraq twice. His Humvee came under fire - a bullet nearly killed him - but he didn't find God, and he wasn't looking…

"I'm an atheist," Hall told Spencer. "I just don't have any belief in supernatural, any forces - deities, luck, fate, destiny - that's about it really. It's very simple."

And he says atheism has cost him. After he refused to join in a prayer, he says he was ostracized and passed over for promotion. He sued the Army for discrimination. Then he was threatened when word got out that he had filed a lawsuit.

"They had found out who I was," Hall said. "And I had about six to eight guys following me around in Qatar. And they were saying stuff like, 'atheist ass pirate,' 'faggot,' 'I'm gonna beat your ass.'"

Things got so bad the Army assigned him a full-time bodyguard.

Hall's lawsuit is the latest skirmish in the debate about whether the military has become, in essence, a Christian organization. This, in a country that has "In God we trust" on its currency, but separation of church and state in its constitution.

"You gotta be able to minister to soldiers of all different faith groups, and some who don't have faith groups," said Chaplain David Shurtleff.

Chaplain Shurtleff is based in Fort Riley, Kansas. He says protecting the rights of those non-believers is essential, but he doesn't see any harm in a voluntary prayer.

"It's a two-way street," he said. "And so, you know, the atheist soldier should be happy that some of his band of brothers were able to have that religious experience, whereas, you know, there was no pressure put on him to participate in it."

Try telling that to Mikey Weinstein.

"It's very hard to argue when we have the evidence, the clear evidence - not just implicitly, but explicitly - that we're turning our American military into government-paid Christian missionaries."

Perhaps no one in America is as angry about Jeremy Hall's situation as he is.

"In the U.S. military today, if you wanna get ahead, well, you're promoted by who you pray with," Weinstein said.

You'd be hard pressed to find a family more dedicated to military service: Weinstein's father was a distinguished graduate from the Naval Academy's class of 1953. He's a graduate of the Air Force Academy, as are both his sons and his daughter-in-law.

But in 2005 his love affair with the military came to an abrupt halt, when his son Casey experienced virulant anti-Semitism at the academy.

As documented in the film "Constantine's Sword," Casey Weinstein said, "I never heard it in high school - if people knew I was Jewish, they never made any point, never got mentioned. But once I got to the academy, I became so aware of it, that I was different."

The Pentagon investigated, and said mistakes were made, admitting to "incidents where some superior officers and some cadets were engaged in inappropriate religious behavior."

Suspecting this was but the tip of the iceberg, Weinstein started the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and got a torrent of calls.

"We just recently went over 7,500 members: active duty members of the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, Army and Air Force, Reserve and Guard, and vets, both officers and enlisted, who have come to us, you know, begging for help."

As evidence that Christianity is being forced on soldiers, there is a promotional video from a group called the Christian Embassy shot inside the Pentagon and featuring several generals.

Then there's the Web site of the Officers Christian Fellowship, which has representatives on nearly all U.S. military bases worldwide.

"They're unabashed about it," Mikey Weinstein said. "Goal number one, they wanna see 'a spiritually transformed United States military.' Goal number two, with ambassadors for Christ - now listen to the prepositional phrase 'in uniform.' Now parenthetically that hasn't worked out too well for planet Earth the last 2,000 years."

The Air Force Academy discrimination case is the subject of a new documentary, "Constantine's Sword," in which the Academy is characterized as putting their "stamp" on conservative Christian ideology.

Oren Jacoby, the film's writer and director, said, "As a filmmaker, I like to find stories about people who have real courage."

"Going back to the Roman Empire, when Constantine first made Christianity the state religion, it's a very dangerous thing when military might and religious fervor come together, because it inflames people. It inflames hatred of the 'other.'"

Critics say being perceived as a Christian army on a crusade is especially dangerous today, lest our country be seen as engaging in a holy war.

Deputy Defense Under-secretary Bill Carr, point man on personnel issues, thinks religious freedom is always a balancing act.

"I don't see it as a major problem," Carr said. "But it is something that requires attention so that it doesn't become a problem.

"I think the important part for the military is to be inclusive," he said. "When it does gather together, if a prayer is offered, that that prayer would not be faith-specific, naming, for example, Jesus Christ or Allah, but instead would lift the spirits of those that are present."

Carr points out that the generals in that Christian Embassy video were told they were out of line. Any evangelizing, he says, is strictly against the rules.

Carr said it is his firm belief that Christianity is not pushed in the military, "except in rare cases.

"Some people don't recognize that they've made an error. That's why we coach each other in the rules of the game, so that we respect each other and respect our traditions."

But that wasn't his experience, said Jeremy Hall, whose discrimination case is winding its way through the Kansas courts.

And where does his experience leave him as far as the military goes?

"I have about a year left in the military," Hall said. "I did plan to make a career out of it. I still love my country. I still love the service. But I don't believe you can continue to work for somebody who's infringed upon your rights.

"I hope the military changes. And if it does, I might just come back in."

And whether he wins or loses in court, just for the record, that old saying "There are no atheists in foxholes" - true?

"It's not," Hall said. "Ii know plenty of atheists in foxholes."

And, he says, they can be excellent soldiers.