Religious Right forces have been in a tizzy lately over a rumor that if U.S. military personnel express their Christian faith, it could lead to disciplinary action. But as usual, it seems fundamentalist charges of persecution are greatly exaggerated.
In recent weeks, the Religious Right cried wolf in response to reports that the Pentagon was considering a policy change that could go so far as to court-martial the faithful simply for sharing their faith.
As tends to happen, this rumor lead to some pretty heated rhetoric from the usual suspects.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins expressed outrage that the Obama administration is involved in an “anti-Christian offensive.” His colleague, FRC Executive Vice President Lt. Gen. (Ret.) William “Jerry” Boykin, added, “If this policy goes forward, Christians within the military who speak of their faith could now be prosecuted as enemies of the state.”
Jay Sekulow, head of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, made similar remarks.
“There are ominous signs the U.S. military is turning its back on religious freedom,” he warned, adding that Pentagon officials are considering “new policies that may roll back religious liberty – especially for Christians.”
CitizenLink, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, also expressed alarm about supposed anti-Christian discrimination and rehashed Perkins’ comments.
There’s just one teeny problem with these claims of persecution: they’re not true.
So what started this nasty rumor? It seems Fox News is partly to blame. Warren Throckmorton, a professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, said Fox commentator Todd Starnes took a quote from Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen out of context and fueled the controversy.
On April 30, Starnes wrote: “The Pentagon confirmed to Fox News that Christian evangelism is against regulations.”
That statement was followed by this: “‘Religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense,’ LCDR Nate Christensen said in a written statement. He declined to say if any chaplains or service members had been prosecuted for such an offense. ‘Court martials and non-judicial punishments are decided on a case-by-case basis and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome in specific cases,’ he said.”
But as Throckmorton pointed out, that wasn’t even close to Christensen’s entire statement.
The military spokesperson also told Fox News: “The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions and respects (and supports by its policy) the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs. The Department does not endorse any one religion or religious organization, and provides free access of religion for all members of the military services.”
Christensen continued, “Court martials and non-judicial punishment are decided on case-by-case basis and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome in specific cases. However, religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense.”
That’s some pretty important detail, but I can see why Starnes ignored it – “Pentagon Values Rights of Military Service Members” doesn’t make for much of an inflammatory headline.
It is rather rare that Christians are actually discriminated against in the United States, a nice perk that comes from being in the majority. Maybe that’s why the Religious Right leaders have to resort to exaggerations and outright falsehoods to drum up sympathy and rally their grassroots troops.
Sorry Tony Perkins, et al., but we’re not buying it on this one. The military may be looking to curb aggressive and inappropriate proselytizing, and rightfully so. But at this moment, there is no evidence to suggest that simply expressing one’s religious beliefs would lead to any sort of punishment.