It was just one line in an email announcement at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, about a one-day course that would help those attending learn how to “stretch your creativity,” manage their money properly and “strengthen your faith” with “four powerful tools.”
That last line was a red flag that the course offering was an officially-sanctioned promotion of religion, in conflict with Air Force regulations, as well as the First Amendment. Fifty-two clients have reached out to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to file a complaint on their behalf, after an attempt to file a complaint independently went nowhere. That class may be just the tip of a very large iceberg, with other potentially suspect courses offered at bases across the U.S., and even overseas, according to research MRFF provided to Playboy.
The use of taxpayer funds only makes things glaringly worse. But the announcement itself seemed to constitute a violation of Air Force policy AFI 1-1, which states that “Leaders at all levels…must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief, or absence of belief.”
The importance of AFI 1-1 was explained by retired Lieutenant General Richard C. Harding, the former Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Air Force. “The Constitution's [First Amendment] Establishment Clause says that government should not establish one religion over another, so 1-1 is an elaboration of that constitution prohibition," Harding tells Playboy.
The Constitution also provides for the free exercise of religion, Harding notes. “1-1 is an attempt to establish where the line is between the freedom to exercise your own religious beliefs as a military supervisor, not just as an ordinary citizen, and the prohibition against the government establishing a religion…If you negatively impact good order and discipline, then you've crossed the line.”
It took two weeks for the Air Force to give Playboy an explanation that the email’s words were “poorly chosen” while denying any religious course content. But even if true, it was still a potential criminal violation, reflecting a pervasive fundamentalist culture that erodes the cohesion that’s essential to the military’s mission.
“We had clients at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base that were outraged about this,” MRFF founder and executive director Mikey Weinstein tells Playboy. Twenty-two of them were Christians, while the rest represented a wide range of faiths, plus atheists, agnostics and humanists. “It's a damned travesty that you have a body of people in uniform, sworn to an oath to the Constitution, that can't understand, or maybe even ignore, the principle of church-state separation,” says an MRFF Wright-Patterson client, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It's a damned travesty that you have a body of people in uniform, sworn to an oath to the Constitution, that can't understand, or maybe even ignore, the principle of church-state separation.
“They felt this is an obvious example of fundamentalist Christian supremacy and dominance, and exceptionalism,” Weinstein explains. “Imagine being a religious minority in an institution, like the Air Force, that's supposed to value diversity,” the client says. “Now imagine the Christian majority essentially saying, 'We outnumber you, so we don't care what you think. We'll do what we want. Take another course then.' Is that inclusion? My ass.”
Speaking out in such situations is difficult. “If you speak up for your religious liberty, you'll get beat down like whack-a-mole, or maybe even have your career ruined for doing what you think is right,” the client warns. The military wasn’t always like this. “I remember talking with my father, years ago about it. He served in the Army, and we were comparing notes,” the client says. “I wanted to know, ‘Hey Dad, back in the day, how politicized were the troops, how religified, if that's a word, were the troops?’ And they weren't. That was just something you kept to yourself, and it seems over the last two to three decades, at least, that there's been a slow march to people becoming more politicized within the department, more religified, again, if that's a word.”
This transformation didn’t just happen organically. MRFF has a video describing in their own words how Christian ministers view targeted early recruitment in the military as part of their global missionary plans—plans that can directly undermine military peacekeeping missions by fueling religious hostility.
“This is Army Ranger school,” one military minister says. “It puts the Rangers student in the absolute worst possible conditions, most of them will go a couple of days with no food. Some of them have gone as long as three days without any sleep whatsoever. My goal has been to meet them when they're at their absolute worst, when they're coldest, and the most tired, and the most hungry that they're going to be. Because the more difficult the conditions, the more receptive the average person will be to matters of spiritual faith. Many of them are just confronted with the gospel for the first time with no distractions.”
Imagine being a religious minority in an institution, like the Air Force, that's supposed to value diversity. Now imagine the Christian majority essentially saying, 'We outnumber you, so we don't care what you think. We'll do what we want.'
"There has for a long time been a coordinated effort by fundamentalist Christian clergy to infiltrate the chaplaincy ranks with the aim to evangelize and convert, rather than serving the spiritual needs of the service members themselves," says Richard Katskee, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "When we at Americans United investigated the chaplaincy at the Air Force Academy in early 2005, we found that the chaplaincy there was dominated by fundamentalist Christians, who were squeezing out mainline Protestant (e.g., Lutheran) chaplains," he recounts.
"Colorado Springs—the home of the Air Force Academy—is also the home to lots and lots of religious right organizations. The understanding of people at the Academy to whom I spoke at length in 2005 is that it isn’t a surprise that all those organizations [are] located right around the Academy...The cadets are young, separated from their families, and put through rigorous training in often harsh conditions, so they are considered good targets for evangelizing."
This predatory, exploitative recruitment approach is closer to the mindset of ISIS and al-Qaeda recruiters than it is to the supportive Father Mulcahy of M*A*S*H.
"The traditional notion of military chaplains was the Father Mulcahy model: an ecumenical religious and spiritual resource, and a counselor also to nonbelievers and the nonobservant," Katskee says. "Chaplains are supposed to be a resource for counseling (even for nonbelievers) and for helping you overcome barriers to practicing your own faith. They aren’t supposed to press their faith on you. That’s not their job. But it is what we’ve seen more and more over the past few decades," he notes.
"Exploiting the office to proselytize and evangelize—to build a cadre of future military, political, and corporate leaders who will use their offices to share your faith—is definitely a different ballgame.”
The course in question, “Today Matters,” was presented as a "hands on and inspiring guide" by John Maxwell, whose non-profit foundation website, clearly identifies him with the “7 Mountains”/New Apostolic Reformation branch of Christian Dominionism. The homepage has the boldfaced message, “We develop and inspire leaders in all 7 streams of influence for transformational impact,” as well as a list of all seven “mountains”—"Government, Business, Arts, Education, Church, Media, Family." On the for-profit side, Maxwell has written a string of books and created numerous trainings in the field of leadership, which both overtly and covertly serve to spread this religious influence.
Central to this religious ideology is the idea of the "extended Church," believers scattered in the workplace Monday through Saturday, “who will be most effective in transforming society,” as one description of NAR founder Peter Wagner's work explains. “Workplace apostles are called to take dominion in business, government, arts and entertainment, media, family and education." Thus, traditional secular-religious distinctions well-established in American law, undergirding the Constitution, are recognized only superficially by 7 Mountains/NAR leaders. As its influence spreads through the military, it erodes the very foundations of constitutional protection.
MRFF researcher Chris Rodda discovered numerous examples of Maxwell’s military involvement dating back more than a decade. As far back as 2004 a U.S. Navy “Enlisted Professional Reading List" included two of Maxwell’s books The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork. He appears to have at least three different channels of influence into the military: via books on recommended reading lists, via courses based on his books like “Today Matters,” and via openly religious programs put on through the chaplaincy service.
The cadets are young, separated from their families, and put through rigorous training in often harsh conditions, so they are considered good targets for evangelizing.
The initial response to that email stated that "The teachings/courses of John Maxwell author, speaker, and pastor has been a part of the CAA [Carrier Assistance Advisor] curriculum which is offered at every professional development center which also serve diverse organizations." This only deepened the concern over widespread violations of AFI 1-1 as well as the First Amendment.
“We have what looks like an Air Force-wide program, and we believe it to be DoD wide,” MRFF’s client says. “The Air Force is using appropriated funds, taxpayer dollars, to pay for this unconstitutional breach.”
In fact, we know that outside the military, “Today Matters” conferences have been held around the world—from Europe to as far away as Cambodia. All of them are sponsored by Maxwell’s organization EQUIP, which claims to have "established six million leaders in 196 countries and seen hundreds of thousands of lives changed through the gospel of Jesus Christ" through its "Million Leader Mandate" campaign.
But 15 days after Playboy first asked, the Air Force explained it was all a big misunderstanding. “In retrospect, the statement you cite in the invitation was poorly chosen because it could be misinterpreted,” a statement forwarded by Marie Vanover, director of public affairs at Wright-Patterson acknowledged. The statement goes on to claim, “It was not intended to imply belief in a deity, but rather to be understood more generically as an expression of sincerely held beliefs, to include conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs.”
So, did the military actually take the “Today Matters” conference content and cleanse it of religious content? Or did it create its own material directly from the book? Playboy specifically asked if the Air Force was aware of the problematic source material and if it took any steps to ensure the course complied with its directives. Neither question was directly answered.
“These are bullshit excuses,” Weinstein says. “It's absurd, it's insulting, and most importantly, it violates the military criminal code. Air Force Instruction 1-1 makes it very clear on the first page, it states that ‘This instruction is directive, not advisory in nature.’ That's military talk to mean if you don't follow this, you violate the law.”
“When you violate the law consistently, as the Air Force (88th Air Base Wing) is doing here, and if you don't have consequences for that, when a law on the books is complied with more in its breach than its performance, it is a million times worse than if you never even had the law.”
MRFF will be filling a formal complaint with the DOD Inspector General’s office in early November.