The Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“God Is Not Great” author Christopher Hitchens got a feel for the evangelical climate at the Air Force Academy in May and came away with some troubling questions. In a column headlined “In Defense of Foxhole Atheists,” he asks: “Is there a clique within the United States military that is seeking to use the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as an opportunity to mount a new crusade and to Christianize the ‘heathen’?” Seems like that concern didn’t end with the George W. Bush administration. —KA
The comparison to the Special Forces would seem to suggest that the objects of this hunting and hounding are Afghans rather than Americans. But it’s difficult to be certain, and indeed I am invited to Colorado Springs partly because chaplains there have been known to employ taxpayer dollars to turn the hounds of heaven loose on their own students and fellow citizens. As the Bagram tape goes on, however, it becomes obvious that Afghans are the targets in this case. Stacks of Bibles are on display, in the Dari and Pashto tongues that are the main languages in Afghanistan. A certain Sergeant James Watt, a candidate for a military chaplaincy, is shown giving thanks for the work of his back-home church, which subscribed the dough. “I also want to praise God because my church collected some money to get Bibles for Afghanistan. They came and sent the money out,” he beamingly tells his Bible-study class. In another segment, those present show quite clearly that they understand they are in danger of violating General Order Number One of the U.S. Central Command, which explicitly prohibits “proselytizing of any religion, faith, or practice.” A gathering of chaplains, all of them fed from the public trough, is addressed by Captain Emmit Furner, a military cleric who seems half in love with his own light-footed moral dexterity. “Do we know what it means to proselytize?” he asks his audience. A voice from the audience is heard to say, “It is General Order Number One.” To this Sergeant Watt replies: “You can’t proselytize but you can give gifts. … I bought a carpet and then I gave the guy a Bible after I conducted my business.” So where’s the harm in a man who is paid by the United States government to be a Christian chaplain strolling condescendingly through the souk and handing out religious propaganda as if it were a handful of small change or backsheesh? Probably not much more damaging to the war effort, or insulting to Afghan sensibilities, than the activities of the anonymous torturers who have been found operating elsewhere on the Bagram base. But it is taking the axe to the root of the United States Constitution, never mind General Order Number One. (Neither of these seems to be in force locally: no action against the uniformed missionaries has been taken.)