So, have you heard the one about how the military is preparing to court-martial anyone who dares to say “God bless you” if someone sneezes?
OK, I’m being facetious. The stories being told about the Armed Forces by the Religious Right aren’t that strange – yet. But they are getting there.
A few weeks ago, a firestorm erupted after word got out that Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, had met with Pentagon officials to discuss some of the concerns raised by his clients (the vast majority of whom are Christian, by the way) over heavy-handed proselytizing.
The Pentagon has reportedly prepared a document that addresses this issue. Nothing official has been released yet, but Religious Right groups promptly began spreading wild tales about how anyone who dared to share his or her faith was going to be unceremoniously tossed out of the military.
That is not what this has ever been about. Weinstein’s group is concerned about aggressive proselytizing operating down the chain of command, in other words, improper forms of coercion (something that is already illegal in the military). An invitation to a religious service is one thing. Constant, repeated efforts by superior officers to coerce subordinates to adopt a specific spiritual outlook is quite another.
The Family Research Council has been popping off about this issue with a series of increasingly hysterical emails. To hear the FRC tell it, you’d think every Christian is about to be tossed out of the Armed Forces.
In one FRC message, retired Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, who now works for the FRC, blared, “If this policy goes forward, Christians within the military who speak of their faith could be prosecuted as enemies of the state. This has the potential to destroy military recruiting across the services as Americans realize that their faith will be suppressed by joining the military. Our brave troops deserve better. If chaplains and other personnel are censored from offering the full solace of the Gospel, there is no religious freedom in the military.”
Once again, the problem is not “offering the full solace of the Gospel.” It’s offering it repeatedly to those who have made it clear that they don’t want it.
The FRC is also trying to raise money over the issue through an “American Hero Defense Fund.” Referring to military personnel, the FRC asks, “If their rights are stripped away, how long will it be until all of us will be forced to keep silent about our faith in the public square?”
The FRC’s distortions are legion. Frankly, I was having a hard time keeping up with them. Thankfully, Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, has pulled them all together into one document and debunked them.
Torpy points out that many of the alleged attacks on Christianity by military officials are really just attempts to enforce the separation of church and state or end special privileges that fundamentalists have taken for granted for too long.
In one case, Air Force Academy officials were told to stop touting an evangelical Christian program sponsored by Franklin Graham. As Torpy notes, it was never appropriate for the chain of command to endorse this evangelical program. It was turned over to chaplains for voluntary promotion.
In another, the FRC complained after Boykin was disinvited from speaking at West Point. The FRC claimed that this happened because Boykin is a Christian. In fact, officials pulled the invitation after learning of Boykin’s history of employing intemperate, anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Torpy has done a real public service in pulling all of these FRC falsehoods together and shooting them down. There’s a story to be told about the proper role of religion in the military. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s quite different than the one the FRC wants you to hear.