Reports of the Death of Religious Liberty in the Military Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

religious freedom in the US militaryAround the first of May, news reports, led by Breitbart, breathlessly reported that the Obama Administration confirms that Christians and could face UCMJ action for talking with their buddies about Christ.

The headline was inflammatory and off-base. Yes, I have been immensely critical of the military and homeland defense bureaucracies for their bizarre focus  on Christians and veterans – a focus that seems even more off base when you realize that every man-hour spent on monitoring these groups was a man-hour that could not be invested monitoring Tamerlan Tsarnaev, even after the Russian and possibly Saudi intelligence services independently figured out and notified us that he was bad news.

But in reality, the Obama Administration confirmation only reaffirms that longstanding policies on the inappropriate use of government facilities, computers and one’s own rank and/or job title to advance personal religious views are still in force – under the very same First Amendment.

If there was any doubt, the DoD clarified that position on May 2nd. “Service members can share their faith (evangelize), but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs (proselytization),” said LTCDR Nathan Christensen, acting as a spokesperson for the Department of Defense.


Looked at more broadly, military prohibitions against certain forms of proselytizing are required under the Establishment Clause, which prevents the government from establishing an official state religion. Anyone who wears the uniform is an agent of the U.S. government, and any religious pronouncements made in uniform or while acting in an official capacity of any kind is a potential violation.

There are existing rules that prohibit just that – and they are very similar to the rules that prevent using your position as a supervisor to pressure someone into a business or sexual relationship they would otherwise not have considered.

There is no prohibition against the private exercise of religion, nor expression of religious views in the capacity of a private citizen. Talk you your buddies about Jesus all you want (or until they tell you to shut up!). But if it’s wrong for you to push your Amway business on them, or hit them up for a loan, or pressure them to go to bed with you because it creates a conflict of interest, it’s probably wrong for you to lean on them about Jesus as well.

Furthermore, if you’ve got your rank on while you’re doing it, our you rely on your rank to put troops in a position where they have to listen to your preaching, you are probably running afoul of the Establishment Clause to the Constitution, and almost definitely running afoul of rules against such abuse of authority that long predate the Obama Administration.

The military wrestles with the legal aspects of proselytizing within the ranks on a regular basis – and there is, indeed, a long-established legal foundation of statutes and precedents upon which to build a policy. For example, the first chapter in this issue of the Air Force Law Review from 2007 is devoted to balancing the individual right to freedom of expression with the restrictions of the Establishment Clause, and also with the longstanding tradition of prayer and other solemnities at formal unit functions.

Collision Course

The religious liberties of chaplains are on a collision course with official policy, however. As more and more same sex couples become part of the military family, chaplains from Catholic, conservative or orthodox Jewish, Muslim or mainline Protestant traditions will increasingly have to come to terms with how to minister to these groups and serve their spiritual and sacramental needs while still remaining true to the tenets of their faith.

In the civilian world, it’s not a big problem: Same sex couples who wanted to be part of a community of worship but whose marriages are not recognized by the major religious traditions were free to join the reformed, Episcopalian or Unitarian-Universalist congregations down the road. They may not have the same options out at Camp Swampy, Mississippi. And Chaplains will still need to deal with and minister to servicemembers trying to navigate the pain of grief, loss, infidelity or other marital issues in same-sex households, whether they regard the same sex relationship as an abomination or not.

The military will have to balance the doctrinal freedom of Chaplains with their responsibility to see that the chaplain is an equal-opportunity minister. 

Opponents of Freedom of Expression 

While existing practice is balanced and workable and has served us admirably for generations, there are those who still want to tear the whole thing out by the roots. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, headed by Michael L. ‘Mikey’ Weinstein, an atheist and an attorney (he styles himself a “civil rights activist). 

Weinstein has been making the rounds of talk shows and publications, preaching against religious expression any which way he can, and using language to describe Christians that is itself most reminiscent of Himmler’s anti-Semitic demonization in Der Steurmer.

Case in point:

Today, we face incredibly well-funded gangs of fundamentalist Christian monsters who terrorize their fellow Americans by forcing their weaponized and twisted version of Christianity upon their helpless subordinates in our nation’s armed forces…”

Queasy with the bright and promising lights of the cultural realities of the present day, those evil, fundamentalist Christian creatures and their spiritual heirs have taken refuge behind flimsy, well-worn, gauze-like euphemistic facades such as “family values” and “religious liberty.” These bandits coagulate their stenchful substances in organizations such as the American Family Association (AFA), the ultra-fundamentalist Family Research Council (FRC), and the Chaplains Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL). The basis of their ruinous unity is the bane of human existence and progress: horrific hatred and blinding bigotry.

Weinstein then goes on to accuse these groups of “rhetorically charged propaganda” and the “crudest sort of name-calling.”

We also reported on Weinstein here, after Weinstein appeared on a Huffington Post broadcast warning of a “fascistic tsunami” of jack-booted Jesus freaks hoping to weaponize their faith to… well, I’ll let Mikey explain it:

We deal with a fascistic tsunami of fundamentalist Christian exceptionalism and supremacy… It’s our way or the highway… It’s nuclear war. It’s using our weapons of mass destruction as an accelerant, a lubricant to bring a fundamentalist Christian version of a weaponized Jesus back here. They are promised, I kid you not, literally promised a 200 mile river, four and a half feet deep, filled with nothing but the human blood, their version of Jesus’s slaughter at the Battle of Armageddon, and they thirst for that…

Dominion Christianity. We’re fighting the Christian version of the Taliban. Not Christianity…Most of our members and supporters are Protestant and Roman Catholic. We’re dealing with a virulent version of this that wants bring about the end of the earth and use nuclear weapons because that’s what their version of the Bible says must be done. 

Weinstein is, quite obviously, a delusional, bigoted, obsessed whack-job every bit as unbalanced as anyone in the Westboro Baptist Church. 

So what does the current Department of Defense do? Well, obviously, the DoD thought it was appropriate to give this guy the ears of several generals so he can “advise them” on military policy regarding religious expression. Bizarrely, former Ambassador Joe Wilson – of Yellowcake in Nigeria fame, was in on that meeting, too.

According to reporting from the Washington Post, Weinstein was invited to meet with several general officers to discuss further regulation of religious expression. The meeting took place several days after Weinstein’s inane column appeared on Huffington Post.

So while nothing has changed in terms of policy at this point, it’s still alarming that unbalanced nutcases like Weinstein and the long-discredited Ambassador Joe Wilson (the Senate intelligence committee found that all of Wilson’s claims about his Niger trip were false) are still getting the red carpet treatment under the new Secretary of Defense. 


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