Apostles of Atheism Redux: CBS, ABC Publicize Plight of Army Atheist

Religion and the military shouldn't mix.  That's the take away message that both CBS and ABC touted when their Sunday morning news programs publicized the plight of an atheist who is suing the Army for religious discrimination.

On April 27th CBS's Sunday Morning and ABC's Good Morning America Sunday each featured the story of Jeremy Hall, an Army specialist who claims he was denied promotion and persecuted because of his atheism.  Both interviewed Hall and Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a co-plaintiff in Hall's lawsuit. 

Weinstein was described as a loyal patriot (by CBS) and a defender of the religiously oppressed (ABC).  Neither network bothered to mention that on the Military Religious Freedom Foundation's Web site American military members are compared directly to Islamic jihadists.  A video runs on the homepage of the site which juxtaposes a suicide bomber holding a rifle and Koran with a group of American soldiers holding rifles and Bibles.

ABC's Good Morning America featured a live interview by anchor Bill Weir of Hall and Weinstein, with no opposing voices.  CBS's Sunday Morning feature, reported by Susan Spencer, at least included an interview with a military chaplain, but he was used primarily as a punching bag.

SPENCER: Jeremy Hall's lawsuit is but the latest skirmish in the ongoing debate about whether the military has, in effect, become 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.

Chaplain DAVID SHURTLEFF: You got to be able to minister to soldiers of all different faith groups and some who don't have faith groups.

SPENCER: What's the hardest part about being a chaplain?

SHURTLEFF: The hardest part?

SPENCER: (Voiceover) Chaplain David Shurtleff at the Army's base in Fort Riley, Kansas, says protecting the rights of those nonbelievers is essential. But he doesn't see any harm in a voluntary prayer.

SHURTLEFF: It's a two-way street. 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.

(Photos of soldiers praying cuts to footage of Mikey Weinstein)

SPENCER: (Voiceover) Try telling that to Mikey Weinstein.

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

Besides Shurtleff, Spencer's story included videotape of a military spokesman acknowledging that some officers had made mistakes and were disciplined for evangelizing their subordinates, as well as an interview with Under Secretary of Defense Bill Carr who said the military needed to be inclusive so that "if a prayer is offered ... (it) would lift the spirits of those that are present."

But Spencer's story was mostly an anti-religion pile-on. She juxtaposed footage of an American soldier in front of his troops with footage of Islamic demonstrators burning flags.  She interviewed the director of Constantine's Sword, a documentary about religious discrimination at the Air Force Academy, and included footage from that film in her story.  She also used footage from a promotional video by a group called Christian Embassy, some of which was shot inside the Pentagon, and a close up on the Web site of a group called Officers' Christian Fellowship.  Mikey Weinstein's quotes provided the context in which that video was shown.

(CLIP from Christian Embassy video)

SPENCER: (Voiceover) This promotional video from a group called Christian Embassy, shot inside the Pentagon and featuring several generals, is evidence, Weinstein says, that Christianity is being forced on soldiers.

(Video of Officers' Christian Fellowship Web site)

SPENCER: (Voiceover) Then there's this Web site of the Officers' Christian Fellowship, which has representatives on nearly all US military bases worldwide.

WEINSTEIN: They're unabashed about it, it's right on their Web site: Goal number one, they want to see, quote, "A spiritually transformed military." Goal number two, "with ambassadors for Christ"--now listen to the prepositional phrase--"in uniform." And parenthetically, that hasn't worked out too well for planet Earth the last 2,000 years.

Spencer did not acknowledge that both Christian Embassy and the Officers' Christian Fellowship are private organizations and are not endorsed by the United States military.   

Spencer's story painted the military as on the verge of being overrun by Bible-thumping ideologues while good - atheist - soldiers, like Hall were being victimized.  She ended her piece with a smug nod to a cliché.

SPENCER: Where does all this leave you, as far as the military goes?

HALL: I have about a year left in the military. I plan to--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. And I hope the military changes. And if it does, I might just come back again.

SPENCER: And whether he wins or loses in court, just for the record:  I gather that the old saying, that there are no atheists in foxholes, may not be true, huh?

HALL: It's not. There are plenty of atheists in foxholes.

(Footage of soldiers on tank)

SPENCER: And, he adds, they can be excellent soldiers.

That same "atheists in foxholes" cliché opened the segment on Good Morning America.  GMA's went with a live interview with Hall and Weinstein.  

Hall spoke of being ridiculed when he tried to organize a meeting of atheist soldiers and being threatened with physical harm after his lawsuit became public.  Weinstein, on the other hand, got a chance to promote his foundation, and did an excellent sales job when asked about the "theme" that he hears from his 7,500 "clients."

WEINSTEIN: Basically it's the pushing of fundamentalist Christianity using the Draconian specter of command influence, basically on helpless subordinates.  And we do have just under 8,000 active duty members of the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, Army, and Air Force, Guard, Reserve, Coast Guardsmen and vets that are facing this from their military superiors, and a vast variety of cases, which is why we filed the lawsuit.

WEIR: But even Christians, you say, are getting this kind of abuse, I guess from more fervent Christians?

WEINSTEIN: Yes, actually it's particularly Christians. Three fourths of the 96% of our nearly 8,000 are Protestants. One fourth are Catholics. They're basically being told ‘you know you're not Christian enough for us and as a result you're going to be burning in the fires of hell.' And it's very hard, when George Orwell stated that "when you face universal deceit, speaking the truth itself is a revolutionary act." It's very hard when the average American doesn't have enough guts to tell someone to shut up in a movie theater to do what Jeremy's doing to the military command.

Weir gave Hall the last word.

WEIR: What was your experience in combat?

HALL: One example I can use, is when I was in Mosul. There was a complex attack on a convoy. My turret took a bullet. When we stopped four miles down the road, after we got out of the kill zone, out of the danger area, an NCO came out, and the first thing I was asked was, ‘Hey, Hall, do you believe in Jesus now?' And  I said, ‘No, I believe in ballistic glass,' and I knocked on the glass. I would like to have known, "hey, are you ok? Or anything like that. My faith, or lack of, always comes into question, even in my duties. 

Both GMA and Sunday Morning portrayed Hall sympathetically and passed Weinstein's anti-religion rhetoric off without scrutiny.  This reflects the media's pattern of promoting atheism, as documented by Culture and Media Institute's recently released special report "Apostles of Atheism."  Interestingly, that report found that both shows also featured atheism on Sundays in 2007 as well. 

On a personal note, I spent 13 years as an Air Force spouse and never once heard grumblings of religion being forced down anyone's throat.  (The Air Force has come under special scrutiny by Weinstein because his son attended the Air Force Academy and as a Jew felt like he was being persecuted.  Weinstein's son is featured in the documentary which was excerpted on Sunday Morning.)  Before I wrote this I called a Colonel I know and asked him whether in his 23 years of experience he ever had anyone under his command or among his peers who experienced religious discrimination or thought there was a problem.  He gave me an emphatic no and added that he believes this is a media-created and -driven "controversy."