“Conservative Christians Dominate the US Military”

Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and co-author of Is Christianity Good for the World with Pastor Douglas Wilson, takes on religion in the US military in his latest article in Vanity Fair, for which is he a contributing writer.

The lead-in to the article demonstrates a set of false assumptions which are never substantiated within the article:

It’s no secret that conservative Christians dominate the US military, but when higher-ups start talking about conversion missions, it’s time to worry.

Hitchens never provides evidence that any ideological belief, never mind conservative Christianity, “dominates” the US military.  He also misrepresents events in order to imply that “higher-ups” are “talking about conversion missions.”

For example, he repeats the debunked claim that Chaplain (LtCol) Gary Hensley was encouraging his soldiers to convert Afghans (and demonstrates his ignorance about the Chaplaincy, since Chaplains hold no command authority).  He refers to the al Jazeera video that shows

a borderline-hysterical address by…Hensley, chief of the United States’ military chaplains in Afghanistan. He was telling his evangelical audience, all of them wearing uniforms supplied by the taxpayer, that as followers of Jesus Christ they had a collective responsibility “to be witnesses for him.”

As has been shown here repeatedly, US military members wearing uniforms (“supplied by the taxpayer” may be euphemism or fact) while they participate in religious activities is a demonstration of the lengths to which the US military will go to ensure the religious freedoms of its troops; it is a good thing, regardless of one’s beliefs, not something to be degraded.  (Even Hitchens says Hensley’s audience was “evangelical,” which means Hitchens knows Hensley was preaching to an ideologically receptive congregation.)  Hensley’s sermon is even a point of disagreement among detractors.  The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, for example, voted for it before they voted against it—on one hand saying the sermon was “of course…permissible,” on the other using it as a fundraising prop and calling it a part of the “larger problem.”

Hitchens’ article is littered with inaccuracies and misconceptions.  He describes a “gathering of chaplains, all of them fed from the public trough,” which is actually a Bible study of regular line Soldiers.  (He repeatedly implies, though never directly says, that he takes issue with the Constitutionality of military Chaplains.)  He says the Chaplains prevented him from meeting the cadets on base, though Chaplains do not have the authority to control base access nor restrict cadet interaction.  He expresses disdain that Air Force Academy cadets had to get special permission to meet with him, seemingly implying that they were being restricted because of their ideology.  He failed to comprehend that permission to go off base during the week is something any cadet requires.  He notes

It seemed weird to me that people willing to fight and die for the United States should be treated as if they were children (or do I mean members of a “flock”?).

which is, again, something applicable to the entire cadet wing, not just those of a particular ideology.  (Just ask any cadet how they feel about being treated “as if they were children.”)  Hitchens appears to believe that the military is “dominated” by Christians, essentially in an official and pervasive manner:

It is outrageous that brave and intelligent young officers, seeing such theocratic absurdity rampant among the top brass, could suspect even for a second that their road to promotion was a longer one unless they acquiesced in this use of public resources for the promotion of (a single) religion.

However, in an apparent intellectual contradiction, he seems to imply that the Christianization of the US military is also responsible for an environment of extremism by other religions.  By his logic, coercive Christianization of the US military is simultaneously oppressing and encouraging contrary beliefs. 

Ultimately, except for a few sentences on Hitchens’ meeting with a group of Air Force Academy cadet freethinkers, there is nothing new in the article.  It is largely a repetition of MRFF talking points.  (To his credit, Hitchens is intellectually consistent when he criticizes Army Major Hasan’s Islamic sermonizing during his medical lectures, a step even MRFF creator Michael Weinstein has yet to take.)  Some of the acts that Hitchens lists are legitimately open to criticism, but most are perfectly permissible and are, in fact, protected by the very Constitution that Hitchens says is assaulted by them:

State-subsidized chaplains [are] working to subvert the Constitution, and violating their sacred oath to uphold it.  (emphasis in original)

Nothing in Hitchens’ article supports such a dramatic accusation, nor does anything support the assertion that “conservative Christians dominate the US military.”  (As noted, his inclusion of Hasan actually undermines his argument.)  He is free to believe his own conclusions, of course, but his mere statement of them does not make them correct.

Christopher Hitchens’ implications about surreptitious collusions and networked machinations by Christians in the US military are interesting, but they make his assertions no more credible than any other similarly contrived conspiracy theory.