WASHINGTON – Nearly a dozen high-ranking military officers and Pentagon officials came under fire Monday for participating in a promotional video for an evangelical Christian organization, renewing an outcry over religious proselytizing within the ranks of the military.
The video was posted on the Web site of the Christian Embassy and shows seven uniformed officers, including four generals, endorsing the group’s evangelical activities in the Pentagon and other government circles. Three civilian Pentagon officials, including former Fort Worth Congressman Pete Geren, now undersecretary of the Army, also are featured in the video.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a watchdog organization headed by retired Air Force lawyer Michael L. Weinstein of Albuquerque, N.M., demanded an investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general to determine if the activities violate policies designed to prohibit military leaders from imposing their religious views on subordinates.
Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the Air Force Academy, brought suit against the Air Force in 2005 saying that senior officers at the academy illegally forced conservative Christian views on cadets. Geren, who was then acting secretary of the Air Force, was named a defendant in the suit.
In a telephone interview, Geren said the 10-minute video was made about three years ago while he was a special assistant for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He is identified in the video as a presidential appointee, which, at that time, Geren said, was incorrect.
Geren, a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, said he became acquainted with the group as a member of Congress. He said he was asked to describe “what the organization has meant to me over the years and they recorded my comments on the tape that’s at issue.”
Representatives of Christian Embassy, affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ, could not be reached for comment. The tape was apparently intended as a promotional tool to explain the group’s evangelical outreach within the Defense Department, Congress and the executive branch. It was not clear whether the videotape was intended for a wide audience or why it only recently surfaced on the organization’s Web site.
In an on-camera interview that Geren said was conducted in a Pentagon hallway, the former lawmaker said: “The Christian Embassy has been there and has been a rock that I can rely on, been an organization that helped me in my walk with Christ, and I’m just thankful for the service they give. It’s a wonderful ministry, a ministry that touches the lives of a lot of folks who have great needs.”
Others included in the video are Army Brigadier Gen. Vince Brooks, Air Force Maj. Gen. Pete Sutton, Army Brig. Gen. Bob Caslen and Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack Catton. It also shows two colonels, a lieutenant colonel and several named and unnamed civilian officials.
A Pentagon spokesman, Marine Corp. Maj. Stewart Upton, said the inspector general’s office had received the complaint and is looking into the allegations. In response to the complaint, Pentagon officials asserted that the Defense Department does not endorse one religion over another and provides free access for all military members.
“It would be inappropriate to speculate as to what actions will be taken at this point,” the Pentagon stated.
Geren declined to discuss the substance of the complaint while the case is pending.
“The recent decision by the organization (Christian Embassy) to put the comments by several people on its Web site has led some to claim that the statements (about) the Christian Embassy activities are inappropriate,” he said. “That’s the substance of the complaint by the MRFF and their complaint is under review.”
Weinstein said any attempt by uniformed officers to force their religious views on subordinates violates the Constitution and clearly stated military policies. “It’s an outrage, it’s a travesty and it’s disgusting.” He said he was “really upset” with Geren’s participation in the video after their earlier legal entanglement in the Air Force Academy case.
Christian Embassy was established in 1975 by Bill Bright, founder and president of Campus Crusade for Christ, to offer spiritual assistance to policy-makers in Washington. On its Web site, the organization invites Pentagon officials to weekly Wednesday morning breakfast meetings that are open “to military and civilians of all ranks and grades.”