Anyone familiar with my writing knows that I primarily do two things — I work for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and I debunk the myths and lies about American history used by Christian nationalist writers, politicians, and media personalities. While these are two separate things that I do, they sometimes overlap. Every year around the 4th of July and other patriotic holidays a slew of articles appear in military newspapers proclaiming America a Christian nation and using the same historical lies I debunk in my other work; Christian nationalist speakers like David Barton appear on military bases; politicians seeking to pass theocratic legislation use a completely inaccurate history of the military chaplaincy to assert that the U.S. military has always been Christian. In fact, it was a David Barton essay about the “myth” of separation of church and state in the high school JROTC core curriculum American history textbook, and the article I wrote about that back in 2007, that led to me working for MRFF in the first place.
In spite of these overlaps, I’ve been kind of silent up until now on the subject of the rampant use of historical revisionism in the military, squirreling away the many, many examples of it that I’ve collected in a folder on my computer, with plans to eventually write something about it. There’s something I recently became aware of, however, that I can’t just put away in a folder. It’s just too crazy.
There’s a program in the military called the International Military Student Officer (IMSO) program. This program is run by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and exists in all branches of the military. But, while this program is run by the military, the Secretary of State is responsible for its “continuous supervision and general direction.”
The IMSO program includes military training (particularly the training of foreign military personnel on equipment acquired by their countries from the United States) as well as instruction in such things as foreign policy, civil affairs, and security. Another of its core missions is to “Promote better understanding of the United States, its people, political system, institutions, democratic values, and way of life.” To fulfill this mission, the program also includes intensive instruction on American government and culture — and you just ain’t gonna believe some of the stuff being taught!
Foreign military students are taught that America is a Christian nation, and that liberals, starting with the liberal justices appointed by F.D.R., have subverted America’s so-called judeo-christian heritage, and how the “courts struggle with … accommodation of atheists demanding religion be kept out of public life.”
These are the last three paragraphs of a lengthy essay on American religion in the “American Family Life and Community Life: Religious Institutions” section of the IMSO training:
“Just as importantly, the church has a still-important role to play in the formulation of national values, ethics, and morals. Beginning with the liberal court of Franklin Roosevelt, the supreme court has divested American law from our religious cultural heritage. The justices have more pronouncedly than ever based their interpretations of law on the written verbiage of the us Constitution and increasingly less on the intentions of the founding fathers. The bible has become less and less an authority for the adjudication of complex legal issues.
“This trend has led to the complete disestablishment of church and state. American secondary schools, which were originally intended to provide religious education, have evolved to produce responsible citizens. The ethics and morals of citizenship, however, must be taught in a complete void of American religious heritage. Since the 1960’s, American law has forbade organized prayer in public schools. As late as 1992, such common and traditional rites as non-denominational benedictions at graduations have been banned. Issues arise over the portrayal of christmas nativity scenes at or on public land. And even such long-standing verbiage on us coins — in God we trust — has come under attack.
“Still, the values parents pass on to their children are, for the most part, those of our traditional, judeo-christian heritage. Without the benefit of public education, parents must rely on Sunday schools or their own tutoring to impart moral values. With this disestablishment of the church to the community level and with the shear vast diversity of the various sects and churches in this nation, one must wonder how we, as Americans, can claim any moral standards whatsoever. The answer lies in a greater ecumenical movement in to bring the majority of religions, sects, and denominations together on our basic values. For this reason, issues which are not given a second thought in nations possessing a religious homogeneity or majority, become major causes in the United States. The right to have abortions and civil rights for homosexuals are cases which immediately come to mind. Until reconciliation of traditional values occurs among the majority of churches, the debates will remain long and heated.”
What comes before these three paragraphs is a several thousand word essay about the history of American religion. Much of this essay is factual, but as I was reading it, I couldn’t help thinking that, while it wasn’t actually wrong, it seemed a bit disjointed and incomplete. Well, a little bit of poking around looking for the source of the essay explained that. Much of it is plagiarized from a book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life by Robert Neelly Bellah, but it is selectively plagiarized, omitting parts that would conflict with the above three-paragraph conclusion, which is not from the book.
For example, a number of statements in the book talking about religion being disestablished in America in the historical timeframe of when this disestablishment actually took place are omitted. Obviously these historically factual statements would conflict with the IMSO version’s conclusion — that it was the “trend” begun by F.D.R.’s liberal court that “led to the complete disestablishment of church and state.”
In addition to the omissions and addition of the three-paragraph conclusion above, other changes are made to what Robert Neelly Bellah actually wrote, such as the insertion of a few other paragraphs that do not appear in the book. For example, this passage from the book also appears in the IMSO essay:
“By the nineteenth century, religious bodies had to compete in a consumers market and grew or declined in terms of changing patterns of individual religious taste. But religious individualism in the United States could not be contained within the churches, however diverse they were. We have noted the presence of individuals who found their own way in religion even in the eighteenth century. Thomas Jefferson said, “i am a sect myself,” and Thomas Paine, “my mind is my church.”
What immediately follows this passage in the book is:
“Many of the most influential figures in nineteenth-century American culture could find a home in none of the existing religious bodies, though they were attracted to the religious teachings of several traditions. One thinks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.
The book then continues with some other examples of individuals who have embraced various religious and spiritual practices, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
But in the IMSO version, a very different conclusion is drawn about religious individualism — it leads to radicalism and tragedy. What follows the Jefferson and Paine quotes is this paragraph, inserted in the IMSO essay in place of the book’s examples of figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.
“It is this tradition that has lead to radical religious individualism in the United States, and to personal interpretation of the scriptures. In such a climate, it is easy to understand how inspired religious leaders can formulate new religious sects and, with a new ‘message,’ attract followers looking for a congregation with similar radical views. This combination has led to the founding of scores of new religions and, sadly in some cases, radical and militant sects have lead to the disasters of Jonestown, Guyana and Waco, Texas.”
The religion section of the IMSO training isn’t the only place that incredible distortions of America can be found. One of the craziest is actually found in the section titled “Political Processes,” where foreign military students learn all about our country’s political parties. I think this paragraph shows just how distorted a view of America these foreign students are being taught:
“Parties try to attract every portion of the political spectrum — all shades of opinions and attitudes. They transcend class and group boundaries. Liberals and conservatives are found in both the democratic and the republican parties. Both seek the votes of working people and businessmen, of members of all faiths, and of citizens of all minority groups. Both subscribe to the same basic principles of American democracy and have the same general values and goals. They differ in the emphasis they place upon them and in the means by which they would achieve them. Beyond that, they are nonideological in nature. Their major concern is to win elections and not to refashion american society according to some doctrine or image.”
Really? America’s political parties are “nonideological in nature?” Better make sure none of those foreign military students happen to turn on a TV and catch one of those Republican primary debates! Just refer to your instructions and get them watching “Television religious programs (mainstream, fundamentalist),” as the religion section suggests.
The military is well aware of the influence it can exert on the foreign students in the IMSO program, and that it is what these students are taught that will be taken back with them to their home countries as a “true” picture of America. This is emphasized repeatedly in the information for the American military sponsors of the foreign students. The Air Force’s IMSO handbook, for example, says: “To the visiting student entering training, you are the one individual who has the opportunity to influence the international student’s perceptions and attitudes about America, its government, its people, and our military,” and, “For many visiting students, the glimpses of American society you provide them will be their greatest source of information about the U.S.”
Do the American IMSO sponsors have much of a choice about the information they impart to the foreign students? Well, not really. According to IMSO instructions, the DoD’s eleven topic script is to be adhered to.
“DoD’s eleven topics are not simply ‘nice things’ to have IMS know about America. They are topics with democratic ideals that a skillful IMSO can weave into any discussion with students, whether that discussion takes place in billeting, on a bus, or on an open playing field. No opportunity should be overlooked to introduce the student to these American ideals and principles.”
Yep, a “skillful IMSO” will have no problem getting foreign military students to take a very distorted view of American religion and politics back to their home countries if they do things right!