Army Maneuvers: Military Officials Should Leave Proselytizing To Civilians

It’s not the job of any arm of the government to help houses of worship increase their ranks.

Last week, Americans United urged Army officials to cancel an evangelistic event at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Unfortunately, we found out about this rather late. The complaint came in on Thursday, and “Rock The Fort” was scheduled for Saturday. AU’s Legal Department swung into gear with a strong letter to military officials, but it was not enough; they refused to cancel the event.

Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick, commander of Fort Bragg, insisted that the evangelical Christian concert was legal because no one was forced to attend.

Helmick misses the point. In its letter, AU asserted that the military has no business sponsoring a rally that is clearly designed to convert people to evangelical Christianity – or any other religion, for that matter. A base chaplain pitched the “Rock the Fort” to some local churches as a vehicle for helping them win new members. It’s not the job of any arm of the government to help houses of worship increase their ranks.

I tried to make these points on the Fox News Channel Saturday morning. It was a brief segment, and the hosts weren’t exactly in sympathy. You can see it here.

I have to wonder how the progressive or moderate churches in the area (not to mention the Roman Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, etc.) felt about this Army-sponsored effort to funnel people into evangelical Protestant churches. Worse yet, the event was open to the surrounding community. So the U.S. Army was aiding and abetting efforts by conservative Christian churches to engage in what some pastors call “sheep stealing” – raiding someone else’s congregation for members.

(Just to be clear: Churches have the right to reach out to anyone to spread their religious messages – but the government is not allowed to help them do it.)

And, as I pointed out on Fox, had this been a Muslim-themed event with imams preaching and rock bands singing the praises of Allah to convert soldiers and members of the community to Islam with the aid and support of the U.S. Army, we would not be having this discussion. Tilt your head and you can almost hear the deafening roar from the Islamaphobia chorus that would have shouted the event down in record time.

It’s also disturbing that this event was sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, whose CEO is Franklin Graham, bombastic son of the namesake evangelist. Franklin Graham is a highly controversial figure who has attacked Islam and other religions in negative and rude terms. (Here’s Graham on Hinduism: “No elephant with 100 arms can do anything for me. None of their 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can have some big ‘Kumbaya’ service and all hold hands and it’s all going to get better in this world. It’s not going to get better.”)

Why is the Army working hand in glove with someone this intolerant? What sort of message does that send to the Muslims overseas (and those of other faith perspectives) whose hearts and minds we are trying to reach?

This battle is not over. AU’s protest generated quite a lot of media attention. We and our allies intend to keep up the heat. The Graham Association boasts that it frequently sponsors evangelistic rallies on military bases. Americans United will be watching. We’d like to know what a federal court would say about this Army-sponsored evangelism.

My guess is it wouldn’t survive constitutional scrutiny.

P.S. Here are two quick updates on other stories AU has been following:

* AU advised the Texas State Board of Education not to pass an intolerant resolution attacking Islam. Naturally, the fundamentalist-dominated board embarrassed the state and passed the resolution anyway, on a 7-6 vote. (Brian Spears, president of AU’s Austin Chapter, addressed the board in opposition to the resolution.)

* The Alliance Defense Fund’s “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” took place yesterday. The ADF, a mega-bucks outfit founded and funded by TV preachers, claims that 100 churches took part by illegally endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. At least one pastor who had bragged about participating backed out. AU is trying to find out what the others churches did. If we obtain solid evidence of law-breaking, we will report it to the IRS.