A Saturday barbecue encouraging Christian “spiritual fitness” has put leaders at Fort Gordon, Georgia, in the sights of an activist group.
Army advanced individual training (AIT) students at Fort Gordon say “they were marched from their barracks to a base chapel” on Oct. 14 “for a mandatory Christian proselytizing event” Army Times reports.
As many as 500 soldiers attended the three-and-a-half hour weekend event, but complaints quickly surfaced after more than 40 soldiers and civilians at Fort Gordon reportedly contacted the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s president and founder, Mikey Weinstein, according to Army Times.
In an open letter to the base commander, Maj. Gen. John Morrison Jr., published the evening of the event, Weinstein wrote that the soldiers who contacted him said they were pressured to attend the Saturday religious event. Christian rock music was played, while “enthusiastic” Army chaplains prayed over the attendees and invited soldiers to accept Jesus Christ, according to Weinstein.
While God-rock ballads, prayer, and yes, even the words “do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” are par for the course at church outings, the concerns raised by MRFF center around Fort Gordon students who were purportedly pressured to participate in a religious event. If true, this could be seen as a violation of service members’ constitutional religious freedoms and their rights under military law.
“Our young soldiers were told you will muster up and you will come to attention in formation in front of your barracks at 1000 hours … and you better not be caught hiding the barracks,” Weinstein told Fox 54, a local Augusta news affiliate.
In response to Weinstein’s letter, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, which oversees Fort Gordon, provided Task & Purpose a statement stressing that the bi-annual event, which has occurred for the last 10 years, was not mandatory.
“The event you inquired about was the Spiritual Fitness Barbeque, which is part of a voluntary program helping to develop soldier resiliency,” the statement reads. “The instructions were clear that this was strictly a voluntary event, and that soldiers are not required to attend.”
The statement goes on to say that the brigade commander who was in attendance “saw soldiers coming and going freely with no complaints” and that the command will “look further into the incident to ensure there was no miscommunication about the voluntary nature of this event.”
Though Weinstein has claimed the trainees were instructed to attend, and the Army maintains that the barbecue is a longstanding voluntary affair, the truth — as is often the case in the military — may be somewhere in between.
In the case of AIT and similar training commands for other services, troops are in a student status and outranked by virtually everyone on post, so it’s possible that a “voluntary” weekend event could be misconstrued to mean: It would behoove you to be there. This guidance is often referred to as being “voluntold” and typically translates as: You can volunteer to do this, or spend the day cleaning the quad.
If you were at the Oct. 14 Spiritual Fitness Barbecue at Fort Gordon, Georgia and can bring some much-needed fact-checking to this affair, let us know what your experience was in the comments, or by emailing: [email protected]