Faith Fibs: Religious Right Falsely Claims Army Chaplain Was Punished Simply For Sharing His Beliefs

Those who serve in the U.S. military do, indeed, fight to protect our freedoms – and their own. But that doesn’t include the freedom to proselytize at a mandatory training event on an army base.

Another day, another phony outrage from the Religious Right. This time, the Family Research Council (FRC) and the American Family Association (AFA) are claiming that a U.S. Army chaplain was punished for simply sharing his faith at an official event. But as usual, these fundamentalists aren’t telling the whole story.    

Last month, Chaplain Joseph Lawhorn, a captain and the official chaplain of the 5th Ranger Training Battalion, conducted a session on suicide prevention at Fort Benning in Georgia. Attendance at the event was mandatory, giving Lawhorn a large, captive audience.

FRC Executive Vice President William G. “Jerry” Boykin, a retired army general, claimed that Lawhorn “gave a presentation describing resources – both spiritual and secular – that were available for handling such grave mental health situations…” but "[a]s a result of the chaplain’s discussion of his faith, he was called into his brigade commander’s office on Thanksgiving Day.”

Boykin is the kind of person who tends to get himself in trouble whenever he speaks. Earlier this year, he received a harsh reprimand from the Pentagon for revealing classified information in his 2008 book Never Surrender: A Soldier’s Journey to the Crossroads of Faith and Freedom. He also tends to say some pretty nasty things about Islam.    

Now it seems Boykin has stepped in it once again since Lawhorn did a lot more than just have a “discussion of his faith.”

According to the Army Times, Lawhorn engaged in full-on Christian proselytizing, handing out pamphlets that prescribed biblical treatments for depression. Such actions at a mandatory meeting are a major First Amendment issue, and Lawhorn’s superiors rightly took this matter seriously and acted swiftly.

In Lawhorn’s official letter of reprimand from Col. David Fivecoat, who oversees Lawhorn’s unit, the chaplain was “perceived to advocate Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions. [He] provided a two-sided handout that listed Army resources on one side and a biblical approach to handling depression on the other side. This made it impossible for those in attendance to receive the resource information without also receiving the biblical information.”

But Fivecoat didn’t stop there. He went on to say that Lawhorn had failed to do his duty because he is responsible for the needs of soldiers of all faiths.

“As the battalion chaplain, you are entrusted to care for the emotional wellbeing of all soldiers in the battalion,” Fivecoat wrote. “You, above all others, must be cognizant of the various beliefs held by diverse soldiers. During mandatory training briefings, it is imperative you are careful to avoid any perception you are advocating one system of beliefs over another.”

Despite the strong words, this reprimand is fairly minor. The Times said the letter will be on Lawhorn’s record for a maximum of three years. Another officer clarified that this is not a true punishment.

“A local letter of concern is not punishment,” said Maj. Gen Scott Miller, commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, in a statement. “Rather, it is an administrative counseling tool, with no long-term consequences. By design, letters of concerns are temporary, local administrative actions that are removed from a Soldier's personnel file upon transfer to another assignment.”  

Miller added that the letter was appropriate because a chaplain’s “role is not to provide religious instruction during non-religious mandatory training classes. Chaplains may appropriately share their personal experiences, but any religious information given by a Chaplain to a military formation should be limited to an orientation of what religious services and facilities are available and how to contact Chaplains of specific faiths.”

But you wouldn’t know that from the Religious Right’s reaction. Lawhorn’s defenders claim this is just another example of Christian “persecution” in the armed forces.

“Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines put their lives on the line every day to protect our liberties, including our religious freedoms,” AFA President Tim Wildmon said in a statement. “It’s beyond understanding that anyone would seek to deny these very same soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines the religious liberty they fight and die for.”

Those who serve in the U.S. military do, indeed, fight to protect our freedoms – and their own. But that doesn’t include the freedom to proselytize at a mandatory training event on an army base. Lawhorn was wrong to force anyone who wanted information on secular mental health resources to also receive biblical propaganda.

Unfortunately, outright lies or exaggerations are far too common when it comes to Religious Right claims of Christian “persecution” in the U.S. military. That’s why Americans United recently released a report debunking an FRC report that lists a decade’s worth of supposed “anti-faith” incidents in the military. It’s a valuable resource for anyone who wants the truth behind Religious Right stories, and it shows that fundamentalists have absolutely no problem fibbing for their cause.