Ten Things I Learned From the Pentagon's Prayer Team
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Little while ago I received a phone call from Mikey Weinstein, the prime mover behind the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, created in the wake of 2005's revelations of widespread evangelical proselytizing at the Air Force Academy. Weinstein told me that he'd spent Thanksgiving morning reading my December 2006 Harper's feature "Through a Glass Darkly" (online in January), which included a brief discussion of the now infamous Christian Embassy video [ watch here] featuring high-ranking military officers testifying in uniform on behalf of the behind-the-scenes fundamentalist organization, an apparent violation of military regulations. Weinstein has since launched a secular crusade of his own in response to the video, with the backing of a group of generals determined to maintain separation of church and state in the military.
The first public notice of the video came at the end of a longer discussion on the surprising importance of confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson to American fundamentalist historiography:
To put it in political terms, the contradictory legend of Stonewall Jackson -- rebellion and reverence, rage and order -- results in the synthesis of self-destructive patriotism embraced by contemporary fundamentalism. The most striking example is a short video on faith and diplomacy made in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, by Christian Embassy, a behind-the-scenes ministry for government and military elites. It almost seems to endorse deliberate negligence of duty. Dan Cooper, an undersecretary of veterans' affairs, announces that his weekly prayer sessions are "more important than doing the job." Maj. Gen. Jack Catton says that he sees his position as an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a "wonderful opportunity" to evangelize men and women setting defense policy. "My first priority is my faith," he says. "I think it's a huge impact. ... You have many men and women who are seeking God's counsel and wisdom as they advise the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs] and the secretary of defense." Brig. Gen. Bob Caslen puts it in sensual terms: "We're the aroma of Jesus Christ." There's a joyous disregard for democracy in these sentiments, for its demands and its compromises, that in its darkest manifestation becomes the overlooked piety at the heart of the old logic of Vietnam, lately applied to Iraq: In order to save the village, we must destroy it.
Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer and Reagan White House counsel, saw not just some disturbing theology, but a potential violation of military regulations regarding separation of church and state. Moreover, with his son -- a recent graduate of the Air Force Academy -- headed for Iraq, Weinstein saw the video as almost made-to-order Al Qaeda propaganda. After all, how hard would it be to persuade a potential Al Qaeda recruit that the United States is fighting a Christian crusade when U.S. generals and Department of Defense officials say so in so many words? Weinstein's organization is pushing the Pentagon for a full investigation.
In the meantime, I promised Weinstein I'd review my notes from an interview I conducted with Christian Embassy's chief of staff Sam McCullough on Nov. 2, 2005, in the process of researching a profile of Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, the Christian Right's favorite candidate for '08, for Rolling Stone. McCullough and I met in his corner office at 2000 14th Street in Arlington, Virginia, a sterile cul de sac of computer-cut brick and glass down a hill from the Arlington courthouse. Christian Embassy occupies a low suite of offices on the third floor, decorated so generically that it looks like it must be a front -- there are two ferns and some colonial lamps and a tacky painting of the Grand Tetons. McCullough is an ordained minister, but he prefers not to use the title of "reverend" because he believes he can more effectively spread the Gospel if he can "blend in as a layman." He's a tall man with broad shoulders that are slightly sloped. There's a golf hat that says "The Hill" on top of his lamp, his sole concession to frivolity.
By McCullough's own description, he is not an optimistic man. Dour, even, though not mean-spirited. Skeptical by nature, his business is belief; he reconciles his temperament to his work through a style of half-smiles and long silences. A graduate of Columbia Bible College, he is a bit of an exception on staff; many of the counselors (of which there were 22 at the time) are graduates of Campus Crusade's theological training program. He has been working with Christian Embassy for 27 years, since shortly after Christian Embassy, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, moved to Arlington in 1978, a location chosen for its proximity to the ministry's targets. "Pentagon's two minutes in that direction," says McCullough, "the diplomatic community is over here, you can be on the Hill in ten minutes."
Christian Embassy originated in a 1974 collaboration between Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade, and then-Arizona congressman John Conlan. They wanted to persuade evangelicals that it was not only permissible to participate in politics, it was necessary to save the nation from "moral decay" and imminent collapse. Bright is best known for Campus Crusade's pollyanna-ish appeals to Christian college students, but his politics were anything but sunny: Typical of his rhetoric throughout his career were his declarations at a 1962 Arizona governor's prayer breakfast that the United States had between two and ten years before a complete communist take-over, and that the only hope was a complete rejection of secularism, according to the wisdom of II Chronicles, Chapter 6. That's the part where King Solomon decrees that all government business will be conducted in the temple.
If Bright dreamed of a governmental embrace of the Hebrew Bible's theocracy, Conlan wasn't quite as broadminded. When, in 1976, he ran in a primary for a Senate seat against equally conservative congressman Sam Steiger, his campaign recruited clergymen to instruct their congregations to choose Conlan over Steiger -- who was Jewish -- because the state needed "a man with a clear testimony for Jesus Christ representing Arizona and America." (Conlan lost.)
Bright and Conlan, however, thought that tactic good enough to take nationwide, sending mailings to 120,000 clergymen to promote a political action manual by Bright. In 1978, Bright pulled his ideas together into the new organization of Christian Embassy. Even Billy Graham, long an ally of Bright's, thought it was too conservative and refused to endorse it. But Sam McCullough, who now directs Christian Embassy's ministry to congressmen, diplomats, and military officers, guessed correctly that Christian Embassy was the start of a new era of political evangelicalism in Washington. He signed on then, and he's been with Christian Embassy ever since.
Following are ten key points from McCullough's description of Christian Embassy, which McCullough said functions "very much" like the Fellowship, or the Family, the self-described "invisible" network of prayer cells for elites in government, military, and business described in my 2003 Harper's article, " Jesus Plus Nothing." The Fellowship produces the annual National Prayer Breakfast (although it tries to keep its involvement quiet); Christian Embassy has no analogous public face.
Christian Embassy is political
Unlike the conservative Family Research Council, which McCullough describes as an explicitly political lobby with which Christian Embassy sometimes coordinates, Christian Embassy focuses on "networking, individual counseling, that kind of thing." McCullough told me that Christian Embassy is apolitical; on the other hand, he also said its ministry has a political impact: "It's more to help the individual grow as a person in their relationship with God, and then their politics is going to be an outcome."
Christian Embassy believes religion should guide politics
Christian Embassy believes that politicians, diplomats, and officers should not consider their personal faith separate from their politics and their official duties. McCullough offers as a role model President Bush: "â€¦ in terms of the way [Bush] talks, the way he believes, he doesn't really say, 'Oh, I'm going to do religious things now, and do other things later.'"
Christian Embassy sees the top brass as its mission field
McCullough on Christian Embassy's Pentagon presence: "At the Pentagon, we have a flag officers group. Your stars, basically, 1-4 stars. We also have a disciple group at the Pentagon. And there's a general Bible study that meets Wednesday morning where 70 to 120 come. Most of our groups that we organize and work with are at the officer level. Flags, a good percentage. We have about 40 that come or are involved with that."
Christian Embassy is closely involved with political and military officials
Those who work with Christian Embassy will typically meet in small groups, under the supervision of a counselor like McCullough, for an hour every week. Counselors typically select a scripture verse for discussion and attempt to draw out its "practical" implications, often through application to current events. Participants can and do call on Christian Embassy counselors for additional advice outside of their cell meetings. These counseling sessions typically take place in the officer's or politician's office. The most committed participants may travel overseas on behalf of Christian Embassy or arrange their official government travel to leave time for evangelizing work. This work may sometimes be "covert," such as evangelizing in countries where it's against the law.
Christian Embassy takes political positions
Participants may call on Christian Embassy for advice on specific issues. What does the Bible say about this? is a common question, according to McCullough. He says Christian Embassy will not give explicit policy advice, but as a counselor, he would tell a member of Congress or a military official that a particular position -- pro-choice politics, or pacifism, for instance -- is "contrary to scripture."
Christian Embassy believes the Iraq war may be biblically sanctioned
On the question of the war in Iraq, McCullough counsels: "We have war all throughout the Bible. Man's history is war. So what's the right thing? Not necessarily [the] war in the Bible. But what are you looking for? Is peace possible?" McCullough answered his own question by laughing.
Christian Embassy is a lobby in all but name
McCullough says Christian Embassy is not a lobbying organization, but describes his work thusly: "I often will go visit a member of Congress and say, 'Hey, there's this going on, could you be involved in that?' â€¦ Or I will recommend to some of these groups that are issue oriented as to who might be interested in helping them. I am aware of where people are. So we do try to connect the dots. Network people." He agrees that Christian Embassy participants use the Christian Embassy network to political advantage but considers this a positive outcome since it gives ambitious political, diplomatic, and military figures an incentive to get more involved with Christian Embassy's evangelical theology.
Christian Embassy is conservative and mostly Republican
McCullough says Christian Embassy is bipartisan, but in addition to President Bush and the Republicans featured in the video, he offered as examples of public figures very involved with Christian Embassy's work three very conservative Republican senators, Sam Brownback of Kansas, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and John Thune of South Dakota; and four Republican representatives, conservatives Robert Alderholt of Alabama and John R. Carter of Texas and moderates Vern Ehlers of Wisconsin and Tim Johnson of Illinois. McCullough could think of only one Democrat, Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, a blue dog Christian conservative with high ratings from the Christian Coalition and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum. He said that McIntyre was living at the time in the Fellowship's special Capitol Hill dorm for congressmen. The video features appearances by former congressman Tom DeLay of Texas and Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, two more religious conservatives.
Christian Embassy is influential
McCullough says there are "about 80 members of Congress that are in our rotation." More than half are "mature," by which he means fully in sync with Christian Embassy's theology. Immature Christians are matched with mature Christians to mentor them in Christian Embassy's beliefs. Christian Embassy is stronger in the House than in the Senate; their goal is to develop a relationship with politicians and officers at the beginning of their Washington careers -- as they did with Brownback -- that will allow them access as some of those politicians and officers grow in influence.
Christian Embassy thinks separation of church and state has gone too far
Christian Embassy's theology, like that of Campus Crusade, might best be characterized as "ecumenical fundamentalism." They're not interested in denominational divides. Rather, they're invested in a critique of culture that sees the United States as in a state of "decay" as a result of inadequate Bible study. They believe the Bible was once part of public life and that it must be restored to its central role in order to achieve "revival." According to McCullough, separation of church and state has gone too far.
Christian Embassy's ambition is international
An elegant booklet that accompanied the DVD McCullough gave me is filled not just with the testimonies of generals and congressmen, but also with those of foreign diplomats declaring Washington a sort of holy city. "The most important thing since coming to Washington from my communist-dominated society is that I that I have discovered God," writes a "European ambassador," thanking Christian Embassy. Fijian ambassador Pita Nacuva, reports the booklet, following his "years of spiritual training in Washington, D.C." with Christian Embassy, reconfigured his country's public schools' "on the model of Jesus Christ," using an American Christian curriculum designed for developing nations, currently exported to around 40 countries.
Jeff Sharlet is a contributing editor to Harper's and the author of a history of elite Christian fundamentalism, forthcoming from HarperCollins.