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Military Proselytizing by the Gideons – and how we stopped it.

Gideons International is an evangelical Christian organization whose mission iis to distribute Bibles in order to “lead people to faith in Christ” (Gideons International). Since 1941, the Gideons have been providing copies of their Bible to members of the U.S. Armed Forces. While atheists and humanists remained marginalized, the Gideon presence grew into an unofficial but influential arm of the U.S. military. For decades, the Gideons have unabashedly proselytized at Military Entrance and Processing Stations (MEPS) where young men and women are first introduced to the military. After a long history of service in silence, atheists and humanists have begun to challenge the practice. As a physician examining new recruits in order to determine their fitness for service, I have had years of firsthand experience in many levels of the MEPS organization. This article draws on that experience and describes how the U.S. military has been forced to take the first steps towards neutrality respecting both secular and religious belief systems.

The United States military is a formidable force. It has a budget of greater than a half trillion dollars a year, a nuclear arsenal of over 5,000 weapons and, as of 2010, had over 1.4 million active duty members located in 148 countries around the globe (Alexander, 2012, Sheridan & Lynch, 2010, PolitiFact, 2011, Pentagon Report, 2010). Though rational thought is always important, it seems particularly paramount for such a powerful organization where decisions can have potentially lethal impact. In spite of this, magical thinking is rife in the U.S. Armed Forces and has insinuated itself in all branches of the military.

In 2005, Air Force Lt. General John Rosa Jr. admitted that the campus at the prestigious Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was “so permeated with evangelical proselytizing” that it would take years to rid the institution of religious intolerance. He reported that cadets had been “unfairly pressured to adopt Christian beliefs and practices” and that evangelizing offenders included members of the faculty, the staff, and the student body (The New York Times, 2005).

In 2008, nine midshipmen asked the American Civil Liberties Union to petition the U.S. Naval Academy to put an end to daily prayer at the mandatory weekday lunch. Academy spokesman, Cmdr. Ed Austin, replied, “The academy does not intend to change its practice of offering midshipmen an opportunity for prayer or devotional thought during noon meal announcements” (Banerjee, 2008).

In 2008, Army cadets at West Point complained that religion; especially evangelical Christianity “was a constant at the academy” (Banerjee, 2008). They also reported that mandatory events included Bible reading and prayers. The then-commandant of cadets, Lt. General Robert L. Caslen, told the cadets that he respected them because they were “all God’s children.” He referred to the West Point field manual of leadership that described the spiritual formation of cadets and said, “That is the leadership development model for West Point and that recognizes there is a supreme being.” He continued, “The values of one’s faith play an important role in moral development, and they undergird the development of ideas like duty, honor, country.” This was the same Lt. General Caslen who appeared in uniform in a 2006 fund-raising video for the Christian Embassy, an evangelical Bible study group.

In 2008, members of the U.S. Marines were accused of Christian proselytizing in Iraq. Reportedly, they handed out coins inscribed with Bible verses to Iraqi citizens (Associated Press, 2008). In 2010, ABC News reported that Trijicon, a Michigan-based gun sight manufacturer that has a $660 million contract to provide up to 800,000 sights to the Marine Corps, inscribed biblical quotations on the equipment (Rhee, Bradley, & Ross, 2010). Maj. John Redfield, spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, said that he did not understand why this was problematic since U.S. money is printed and coined with religious inscriptions (Rhee & Schone, 2010). I have personally observed that new enlistees into the U.S. Marine Corps will sometimes have tattoos that say, “Kill’em all and let God sort’em out.” This is an unofficial Marine Corps motto that may have its origin in 2 Timothy 2:19 which says in part, “The lord knoweth them that are his” ("Military quotes”). This tattoo is generally acceptable for new Marine Corps enlistees, but ironically, a tattoo of a naked woman is often considered unacceptable in content (U.S. Marine Corps MEPS liaison officer, personal communication, May 10, 2012). Bizarrely, a new enlistee is sometimes required to tattoo underwear or a bathing suit onto the naked woman tattoo before being allowed to go to basic training camp.

Religious indoctrination of military personnel is highly worrisome, to say nothing of unconstitutional. Confounding patriotism with religiosity could result in a military that is not obligated to comply with the secular laws of our government and is out of civilian control. It is also vitally important to eschew the notion of a religious war when our young men and women are stationed in hostile areas in the Middle East with largely Islamic populations, and when two thirds of U.S. military chaplains are evangelical Christians (Rose III, 2010). George W. Bush famously got into trouble when he referred to the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a “crusade” (Ford, 2001). Evangelical proselytizing and indoctrination does not occur only after entering the military, but starts much earlier in the process. This is precisely why I have been personally affected and concerned by the aggressive propagandizing by evangelical Christians and directed at young people with whom I come into contact daily as part of my profession.

There are 64 MEPS in the U.S. and one in Puerto Rico. The MEPS are induction centers where those who desire to enter the military (applicants) come to be tested for vocational aptitude, to have security and background checks, to choose jobs in the military, and to have physical examinations to ensure fitness for entry into the U.S. Armed Forces. All members of the U.S. military must process through a MEPS before they raise their right hands and take the oath, and there is remarkable consistency in processing methods among all 65 MEPS.

I first became aware of the Gideons’ presence when I was the Chief Medical Officer at the Denver, Colorado MEPS in the 1990s. The Denver MEPS was located in a federal building where security was tight. All entrants were required to pass through a magnetometer. Every morning after clearing security and entering the MEPS, the applicants were instructed to line up next to the medical station. They were first greeted not by medical staff at the MEPS, but by members of Gideons International. Two or more members of this evangelical Christian group would pass out special editions of the Bible that contained the New Testament along with selected Psalms and Proverbs. As the Bibles were distributed to each individual applicant, the Gideon representative would say, “Here is your military Bible” although they had no right to make such a claim. The deception was reinforced by the fact that the bibles were covered with military camouflage print and had American flags printed on the inside covers.

The Gideons were the only non-MEPS personnel present at any time during the entire processing day. While checking through security, the Gideon representatives were given special privileges. They did not wait in line with the applicants. They either went to the head of the line with their rather large boxes of Bibles, or were rarely allowed to circumvent the magnetometer altogether and proceed directly to the elevators. At only one point were the Gideons prevented from entering the Denver MEPS. This occurred during the trial of the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. The trial’s venue was the federal courthouse across the street from the MEPS. While being briefed by a federal marshal about special security measures to be followed during the trial, I questioned the advisability of Gideon presence during this time. The representatives were not always the same recognizable people and they carried large boxes. The marshal agreed that this could indeed constitute an increased security risk, and the Gideons were prevented from coming into the Denver MEPS during the time of the trial. Despite the acknowledged security risk, Gideon representatives were allowed to return to their usual activities following the trial’s completion. While at the Denver MEPS, I had the opportunity to travel to several other MEPS throughout the country. I noticed that the Gideons were present at all of the MEPS I visited, and that all had similar though not identical procedures when greeting applicants and distributing their Bibles. There is no question but that the Gideons, alone among civilians, were granted privileged access to young recruits at the MEPS.

In 2003, I came to the Louisville, Kentucky MEPS. The Gideons were also at this MEPS and also received preferential treatment. I saw no other non-federal entity at the Louisville MEPS, and members of Gideons International enjoyed essentially unfettered access to the federal building where we were located.

On the day when new enlistees are scheduled to travel to their basic training camps they are referred to as shippers. All shippers return to the MEPS, and attend a mandatory meeting in a classroom where they are given lunch tickets, instructions about their travel arrangements, and a variety of other information. Several speakers conduct this briefing. At the Louisville MEPS, all of the speakers were in the military or were federal civilian personnel with one exception - one of the speakers was always a member of Gideons International. Out of interest, I attended a briefing and was surprised that the Gideon representative did not identify himself as someone who was not affiliated with the military or with the MEPS. He distributed Bibles and discussed his religious beliefs. He said that he would like those in the classroom to consider accepting Jesus into their hearts. The fledgling recruits, some of them as young as age 17, had been instructed to sit quietly in the classroom for their mandatory briefing. They followed directions as an entirely captive audience. In all appearances, the Gideon representative was an integral part of the MEPS organization. For all intents and purposes he was a de facto member of the U.S. military. Rarely, a representative from the Gideons was unable to come to the Louisville MEPS. In this case, federal personnel would act as proxies and distribute the Bibles themselves. Christian shippers, shippers who listed their religion as “Other” or “NA”, Jewish shippers (one wearing a tallit katan), Muslim shippers, and shippers with a significant variety of religious beliefs and non beliefs were all required to listen to the Gideon representative’s pitch.

In 2007 I decided to take action. The Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers group scheduled a presentation from a member of the ACLU of Kentucky. I attended the meeting and came armed with my Gideon Bible. I discussed the situation with her and gave her a copy of the “military bible”. I also told her that to the best of my knowledge, this or similar Gideon activity occurred at all 65 MEPS. Following review of the information by attorneys at the Kentucky ACLU, the details were conveyed to Dr. T. Jeremy Gunn, ACLU Director, Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. Dr. Gunn sent a letter to Col. Lon M. Yeary, the Commanding Officer of the entire MEPS organization – U.S. Military Entrance and Processing Command (USMEPCOM) in North Chicago. Dr. Gunn formally requested that Col. Michael Pheneger (ret.), board member of the ACLU Florida, and his representatives be allowed to observe procedures at several randomly selected MEPS (Gunn). Col. Pheneger was granted access and his observation teams were sent to 9 different MEPS including the Louisville MEPS. In a report sent back to USMEPCOM, the ACLU observation teams reported that activities of the Gideons at those MEPS visited could be construed as official government endorsement of religion.

In November of 2008, Col. Mariano C. Campos, Jr., now the Commanding Officer of USMEPCOM, sent a memorandum to all Sector Commanders, all MEPS Commanders, and all Directors and Special Staff Officers. The memorandum clarified the type of access that non-federal entities (NFEs) were permitted to have at the MEPS. NFEs would still be allowed to “when authorized in writing by the MEPS commander, place secular or religious literature for applicant use (including, but not limited to, pamphlets, tracts, and texts) in a location inside the MEPS designated by the MEPS commander” (Campos, Jr., November 6, 2008). However, the memorandum also stipulated that faith-based NFEs and secular NFEs would be treated under the same policies. Most importantly, in my opinion, Col. Campos stated in the memorandum that “NFEs shall not be permitted to post or station a member within the premises of any MEPS, including outdoor areas under the exclusive control of the MEPS, for the purpose of distributing literature.”

In less than two years, a practice that had gone on for several decades came to a nationwide end. Members of Gideons International are no longer permitted to have a physical presence or to personally proselytize in or around the MEPS. This was accomplished without any litigation. Following this policy change (or clarification as per USMEPCOM) the Rev. Barry Lynn who heads the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, agreed that allowing the Gideons access to the MEPS exemplified a problem of “consistent encroachments” on the religious freedom of service members (Baron, 2009). However, he suggested that closing the doors to all groups would be a better idea than having a government-operated facility become “an open forum for everybody to pontificate about whatever they want.” This potpourri of pontification did not occur at the Louisville MEPS. During the ensuing 2 ½ years, no new NFEs requested permission to place secular or religious literature at the MEPS. Meanwhile, the Gideons continued to deliver Bibles, though at a much lower rate since many applicants did not independently choose to take them.

In 2011 I contacted Jason Torpy, the President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF). MAAF provides service members with nontheistic services, information, resources and contacts ("Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers”). We discussed placing MAAF pamphlets alongside the Bibles at the Louisville MEPS and agreed that making humanist literature available to new recruits might be a step towards solving the problem of “an almost unbroken history of evangelical Christianity” in the military (J. Torpy, email communication, May 20, 2012). After Mr. Torpy’s diligent attempts to gain access to the Louisville MEPS, the local MEPS Commanding Officer agreed to allow the placement of MAAF’s secular literature. With enthusiastic assistance from Mr. Ed Hensley, Mr. Emmett Fields and Mr. Frank Lovell of the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers group (volunteer MAAF representatives), this is now a successful program in Louisville and has been operational since February. MAAF stands ready to support volunteers in other areas of the country to expand this program to all MEPS stations (Torpy, 2012).

There is still a long way to go in the struggle to minimize the religiosity that is endemic in the U.S. military. Nevertheless, this entire episode demonstrates that concerned individuals acting on a local level can help bring about far-reaching favorable consequences. I remain optimistic that military and civilian members of our Armed Forces will continue to encourage an agenda of reason in the U.S. military.


References
Alexander, D. (2012, May 18). Update 2-U.S. House-backed defense budget sets up clash with Obama. Reuters. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/18/usa-defense-budget-idUSL1E8GI9L420120518

Associated Press. (2008, May 30). Marine in Iraq pulled from duty after allegedly handing out Christian coins. Fox News. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,360424,00.html

Banerjee, N. (2008, June 25). Religion and its role are in dispute at the service academies. The New York Times. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/25/us/25academies.html?pagewanted=1

Baron, K. (2009, January 4). Rules set for religious access at MEPS sites. Stars and Stripes. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://www.stripes.com/news/rules-set-for-religious-access-at-meps-sites-1.86702

Campos, Jr., M. C. (2008, November 6). Memorandum for sector commanders, MEPS commanders, directors and special staff officers [Policy memorandum 11-2, operation of non-federal entity]. Headquarters, United States Military Entrance Processing Command, North Chicago.

Ford, P. (2001, September 19). Europe cringes at Bush 'crusade' against terrorists. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved May 25, 2012, from http://csmonitor.com/2001/0919/p12s2-woeu.html

Gideons International. Retrieved May 20, 2012, from http://www.gideons.org/Splash.aspx

Gunn, T. J. Re: Request for access to MEPS facilities [Letter written August 2, 2007 to Col. Lon M. Yeary].

Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. Retrieved May 20, 2012 from http://militaryatheists.org/

Military quotes. Military-quotes.com. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://www.military-quotes.com/misc%20quotes.htm

Pentagon Report. (2010, September 30). Active duty military personnel strengths by regional area and by country (309A). Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://siadapp.dmdc.osd.mil/personnel/MILITARY/history/hst1009.pdf

PolitiFact. (2011, September 12). Ron Paul says U.S. has military personnel in 130 nations and 900 overseas bases. PolitiFact. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2011/sep/14/ron-paul/ron-paul-says-us-has-military-personnel-130-nation/

Rhee, J., & Schone, M. (2010, January 19). Marine Corps concerned about 'Jesus guns,' will meet with Trijicon. Common Dreams. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2010/01/19-8

Rhee, J., Bradley, T., & Ross, B. (2010, January 18). U.S. military weapons inscribed with secret 'Jesus' Bible codes. ABC News. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/us-military-weapons-inscribed-secret-jesus-bible-codes/story?id=9575794

Rose III, A. H. (2010). Religious discrimination and proselytizing in the U.S. military (Rep.) (S. Friedland, S. Jordan, & T. Van Pelt, Eds.). Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://www.instituteforscienceandhumanvalues.net/pdf/Position%20Paper%20ver4.pdf

Sheridan, M., & Lynch, C. (2010, May 04). Obama administration discloses size of U.S. nuclear arsenal. Washington Post. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/03/AR2010050302089.html

The New York Times. (2005, June 11). Zealots at the Air Force Academy. The New York Times. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10C17F73A5C0C728DDDAF0894DD404482

Torpy, J. (2012, February 23). Humanist literature now available for new enlistees. Atheists in Foxholes News. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://blog.militaryatheists.org/2012/02/humanist-literature-now-available-for-new-enlistees-2/

TAGGED: ACTIVISM, RELIGION


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