Soldier, Dad, Whistleblower: Atheist in a Foxhole Takes on Evangelistic Military Hierarchy
Sgt. Justin Griffith. (Photo: Away Point)
Justin Griffith is a twenty-eight year old active duty soldier, a sergeant at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He is also a new dad. Griffith likes what he does. He describes the military as a place that has structure, discipline, and opportunities. From his point of view, he has a full life, and a good one. And yet it was Griffith, as much anyone, who blew open the U.S. Army’s Spiritual Fitness program this winter. Why? Why make waves in a job you love among people you respect? Why risk the pariah status that is so often the lot of whistleblowers? Griffith agreed to let me ask him those questions.
Tarico: I’m impressed that you got permission to talk publically about the Spiritual Fitness Program.
Griffith: Well, I need to say that I am speaking as Sgt. Justin Griffith. I am not representing the army in any official way. I’m free to talk about my opinions and experiences related to the mandatory soldier fitness tracker, how “Spiritual Fitness” testing and training is being used to put religious conversion pressure on soldiers like me–but not as an expert or in an official capacity. I’ve recently been told that my unit’s public affairs department received a ‘disengage order’ regarding their support. So I’m now only permitted to speak to the media off-duty, all I’ve ever done anyway. I was told that the order came from the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness people, and that’s kind of scary.
Tarico: So who is Sgt. Justin Griffith?
Griffith: I’m a soldier and a husband, and the dad of a baby girl. I’m 28. I’ve been in the military for four years. I love the military. The military changed my life. It’s given me opportunities to grow as a human being. I’m also an atheist—one of those atheists in foxholes. My day to day experience as an atheist in the army is positive. Overwhelmingly. I’ve got nothing but the utmost support from my colleagues, nothing but respect. Before I spoke out about Rock the Fort and the Spiritual Fitness Program 99.9% of my interactions with my colleagues had nothing to do with atheism or were positive. Everyone who is an “out” atheist gets a few horror stories, and I’ve got them, but the vast majority of people are respectful or distant if they are not. I love the army– I love my wife– I love my unit– I love my wife—I love all of them.
Tarico: That all sounds rather positive, in fact better than what most people could say about their lives and their work. Why didn’t you just leave well enough alone?
Griffith: I was talking about the day-to-day, face-to-face perspective. The big stuff that’s coming down from the top, that’s different. There are existing rules in place that are being violated systematically. For instance, soldiers are very vulnerable when they come out of basic training, and evangelistic organizations take advantage of that to target them. Look at the picture of the five hundred soldiers being converted by the Billy Graham people. It’s 200 here, 150 there on stage in uniform. It’s epidemic, and I find it outrageous. The amount of money being spent by American citizens to support Evangelical proselytizing activities is substantial. The smokescreen about spiritual fitness having nothing to do with proselytizing is just that–smoke.
Tarico: What was your first encounter with the Spiritual Fitness program?
Griffith: Every soldier at every rank at every base, whether deployed or not is required to fill out the “Global Assessment Tool” which is part of the Soldier Fitness Tracker, which is the test and training combined. The first time I took it I was deployed downrange in Kuwait, late in 2009. I was disgusted by what I saw—both the questions and the results that straight up implied that I am unfit as a soldier. But I was deployed, and I didn’t have time to react. I figured, someone will fix this. I didn’t expect to ever see it again. A year later, in December 2010, I got a message. “You’re deficient; You haven’t taken your annual Soldier Fitness Test.” So I opened it again and couldn’t believe it was still the same. I thought, “How is this still allowed?! How is it that no one has called them out on it?”
Tarico: What did it say?
Griffith: The questions are things like:
- “I am a spiritual person.” Answer 1 to 5, from not like me to very like me.
- “My life has a lasting meaning.” What does that mean? Hell yea, my life has meaning, but “lasting meaning”?? To me that’s like Albert Einstein. His life has lasting meaning. But what about Albert’s mother? Does anybody remember her name? But then I thought, statistically speaking it is possible, so I answered 2/5.
- “I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all humanity and all the world.” To me that means me and my six billion closest friends are hanging out playing Nintendo.
- “The job I am doing in the military has lasting meaning.” 2/5. Not likely, but I guess it’s possible. Look: On a long enough time line no-one’s life has lasting meaning. The universe will end in – call it the big crunch, heat death, proton decay, call it whatever you want. If you think of time as the trillionth to the trillionth power . . . in a real way the question itself is meaningless, unless you believe in eternal life, or the afterlife, or other such theological ideas.
- “I believe there is a purpose for my life.” I can’t even count how many purposes I have for my life. I answered that a 5/5.
Tarico: In other words this isn’t about you being adrift, without purpose or focus.
Griffith: I would like to defend the Comprehensive Fitness testing in one sense: It is a noble cause. They are trying to track and prevent suicide and PTSD; they just need to fix the implementation. There are four parts: Spiritual, Social, Family, and Emotional. Three of them are grounded in reality. But they need to remove the spirituality piece,The results of this test are a huge slap in the face to someone like me—a committed soldier who is nonreligious. When I clicked submit, it said things like “At times it hard for you to make sense of what is going on.” and “Improving your spiritual fitness should be a goal.” It suggested that I speak with a counselor. I dialed the number –it was emergency mental health counselor. They also have online remedial training about spiritual fitness, which is also mandatory.
This is wrong on so many levels. The Spiritual Fitness Test is lining the coffers at the chaplaincy and the religious support office nationwide because when soldiers like me are sent for remediation then there’s a demand for their services. To make matters worse, they freely admit that the test results are used for human resource decisions. Would that be allowed in a private sector job? You can’t defend it because you can’t define it. It’s empty vacuous crap. Not to mention that it’s unconstitutional to even ask. That’s why I decided to get the word out.
Tarico: Spokespersons for the Army say that “spiritual” means in good spirits; it means spirited. They use getting a haircut as an example of a “spiritual ritual.” That all sounds like it could apply to anyone.
Griffith: Look closer. A lot of the imagery in the training materials is explicitly Christian. They’ve now removed the part about the Christian flag folding ceremony that included references to the trinity and Jesus Christ and women playing a supporting role to men. In reality, the twelve folds traditionally have no symbolism at all. The point is geometric a way to handle and store the flag respectfully. Someone in the Air Force in the 80s made it up this Evangelical interpretation. It has been banned from Air Force documents before, but there it was in the Spiritual Fitness training materials. What a smoking gun!
Honestly, if you want to leave what’s not religious in the Spiritual Fitness Training, you are left trying to convince yourself that spirituality is on par with getting a haircut, because that is a ritual. If that is the case, I don’t understand how I failed because I get my haircut every two weeks.
Tarico: Spokespersons for the Army also are saying that the testing and training aren’t mandatory.
Griffith: It most certainly is mandatory, and they even have a disclaimer about how you will be punished by an Article 15 of the Universal Code of Military Justice, if you do not comply.
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This is similar to a serious misdemeanor in the civilian court system. But here’s the irony. If they take out the spiritual part it definitely should be mandatory. If someone fails the emotional aspect of this test – if one of my soldiers failed the emotional part I would want to know. I would try to engage and comfort them, possibly alert their family. It definitely should be mandatory without religion.
These tests were based on a test developed at the University of Pennsylvania, by the same person who crafted the CIA’s torture policy. Strangely that version of the test is great. The Army butchered the U Penn test. The original is available at UPenn.edu. You can take it yourself. It asks the same questions, ten each in twenty four different subject areas, but what it provides is a ranking comparing you to yourself. All it said was the order of the twenty-four personal qualities. It tells you your top five. Mine were: creative problem solving, bravery. . . Positive things. I learned that I needed to work on forgiveness, which was far down on my list. Of course religion wasn’t one of my strengths –and that’s just fine. I think it would do soldiers good to take that version of the test. And it’s free so we didn’t have to spend how many multimedia dollars they spent creating this soldier fitness tragedy.
Tarico: But the Army’s version of this Spiritual Fitness focus goes beyond just the test and training.
Griffith: Yes, it gets worse. At Fort Hood they are building a thirty million dollar Spiritual Fitness Center. Thirty million in tax dollars. In my opinion it’s a mega church being built for a chaplain on the public dime.
Rock the Fort was a big evangelistic rally that went from base to base using a complicated combination of appropriated and non-appropriated government controlled funds. It was billed as a spiritual fitness event, but it was explicitly Evangelical, meaning it was a membership drive. By the time it got to Fort Bragg, Americans United, the ACLU, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation were sending letters and trying to get court injunctions to have the event cancelled.
Tarico: I understand that the command defended it, and it went forward.
Griffith: The commander, Lieutenant General Helmick, stated that he wasn’t going to cancel the event (which happened September 25, 2010) because the same level of support would be offered to any other group, regardless of their spiritual orientation. The Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, said the same thing. So we decided to take him up on that offer with an event called Rock Beyond Belief. I certainly respect any officer in my command. I would like to say that they are lucky that it’s us and not some radical Muslim group or Scientologists, or some crazy death cult. The stated goal of Rock the Fort was to convert as many soldiers, wives and civilians as possible to their form of belief. We don’t want to do that. Sure, we could solicit de-conversions or perform de-baptisms with hairdryers and that would be the counterpart of Rock the Fort. We could get on a P.A. system and claim four thousand people have been de-baptized. But that’s not what we’re about. We’re looking for tolerance and respect for atheists and humanists – the most maligned fifteen percent of American society.
Tarico: So what is Rock Beyond Belief, as you visualize it?
Griffith: It will be a secular festival of speakers and music promoting awareness and tolerance for soldiers that lack belief. We’re nontheists, non religious. It’s a festival for the rest of us. It’s open to soldiers, family members, children, and also civilians from the surrounding area. We’ve got world class speakers lined up. Richard Dawkins will be our biggest draw. Roy Zimmerman, Jeffrey Lewis, and evolution/science rapper Baba Brinkman will be joined by many others in the music department.
It’s also a test case. We don’t think any event including ours should be funded by the US taxpayers, promoting proselytism for any sectarian group. It seems like they either have to adjust the policy—Rock the Fort can’t happen again—or they have to allow us and anyone who asks. To keep it fair, they have to give them $100K to play with, because that’s what they did for Rock the Fort. What if we have a different religion every day? Pastafarians or whatever. Permanent Woodstock.
Tarico: It seemed like a sure thing, but now Rock Beyond Belief is in question.
Griffith: A lot of things changed in the last two weeks. There is a road block, and the Rock Beyond Belief event is not going to happen as planned in April. We received last-minute crippling restrictions from the Garrison Commander. He nixed all of the money from non-appropriated sources that the evangelical Christians were able to tap, so we were unable to afford to pay for the hotel bill for our 19 guests for starters. The other event got over $100,000 in funding, to include appropriated and non-appropriated government-controlled funds. He specifically banned us from paying for things that the other group did pay for.
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Also, he forced a ‘warning label’ on our event. Contrary to the ringing endorsements, official Fort Bragg phone numbers STILL listed, and all the news releases coming from Public Affairs, and the Religious Support Office, and IMCOM… we were being forced to put a danger/warning label on all of the flyers, posters, and advertisements (advertisements that we now can’t afford). Also, this might not surprise you, but the Rock the Fort concert was officially endorsed as a spiritual fitness event. Yeah.
We were also forced into a much tinier venue the size of a small grade-school gymnasium, not nearly big enough to hold Richard Dawkins (if he was by himself!) They are actually saying ‘we only expect a couple hundred people would show up for Richard Dawkins’. I’m embarrassed for them. They probably think that people might believe them. They are saying that to reporters! I asked to see the ‘media analysis’ they keep referring to. At first they said ‘I don’t have it on paper.’ Which begged the question, ‘Can you send it to me on e-mail?’ Shockingly, the same member of the Colonel’s staff replied ‘it doesn’t exist digitally either.’ That is insane. Additionally, a ‘minimum audience projection’ was never a condition of having a similar level of support, regardless of how demonstrably wrong they are about such projections. This is not only discriminatory, it’s yet another clear cut example of Fort Bragg not being ‘willing and able to offer equal treatment’
Tarico: What are your officers and peers saying about all of this?
Griffith: My commanders have been encouraging, respectful, but hesitant to say, “Hey I’m on your side.” They can’t really endorse what I’m doing, but they have enabled me to speak to people like yourself. My colleagues and peers– I’d say there’s nothing but excitement about Rock Beyond Belief, but they are a little cautious.
Tarico: What is the next step?
Griffith: It’s really too early to tell. There is a high chance of this making it to federal court. We are not holding our breath for April 2nd to work out. We’ve come so far, and done so many great things. Whatever the future holds, I know one thing is certain: We won’t be backing down or simply going away. We have a real momentum going, and it’s about time.
Tarico: Has it all been worth it?
Griffith: Emphatically YES. Before I told the story of the Spiritual Fitness Testing. I had a network from trying to get speakers and musicians to Rock Beyond Belief. I basically sent out a mass letter saying I need help getting this out. Within an hour or two my server exploded, and I was no longer able to have a website for about two days till I switched over to a server that could handle it. At the same time the Examiner picked up the story and got 1.5 million hits.
People now have their eyes on “Spiritual Fitness,” the vacuous smoke screen for religion in the military. The Army has removed the flag folding ceremony and has changed some of the other language to make the training materials look more neutral. For example, they replace the word spiritual with spirit. In fact, the intro to the assessment says, “The spiritual dimension questions on the GAT pertain to the domain of the Human Spirit; they are not religious in nature. But then they still have a picture of people praying. When they removed the flag folding ceremony, I thought one down and ninety-nine to go.
I learned that it is possible to make a difference. It is possible to stand up for what is right, and not have to suffer punishment. That people will like you if you are a good person, and if what you are saying is right and true, people will support you. I learned that there are hundreds of ‘SGT Griffith’s’ on every base willing to speak out now, that my example is comfortingly typical. My inbox is flooded with overwhelmingly positive letters. Those messages keep our local movement going, and are extremely touching to read.
Tarico: So, you plan to keep going.
Griffith: Look – A soldier wrote a letter to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. He and twenty-five buddies forced to go see the chaplain because of their low test scores. The whole program is ripe and ready for abuse. Two hundred twenty six co-clients, including battle worn soldier signed on to have the MRFF represent them. They sent a cease and desist letter asking that the Army stop using the Spiritual Fitness test and training. The letter expired January 25, and they have not fulfilled MRFF’s request.
Heroes, battle heroes are having their lives torn. That is why I keep at it. I keep that letter from that soldier –I keep his words in my pockets.
I swore to defend the constitution. I’m an atheist, and I don’t swear to many things. But I’ll swear an oath to defend the constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I don’t consider these people enemies of the U.S. or intentional enemies of the constitution but neither are they scholars of it. That document, our Constitution, defines freedom as we Americans know it.
If you know you are right, you can stand on that.