The recent phony flap regarding claims that expressing one’s faith could lead to a court-martial for military personnel has done some good: We now see how pervasive proselytizing is in the U.S. Armed Forces.
As part of the annual National Day of Prayer observance last week, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. William D. Lee announced on Capitol Hill that he will defy any attempts to limit his evangelizing of military personnel who serve under him.
“As one general so aptly put it, ‘they expect us to check our religion at the door – don't bring that here,’” Lee said. “Leaders like myself are feeling the constraints of rules and regulations and guidance issued by lawyers that put us into a tighter and tighter box regarding our constitutional rights to express our religious faith.”
Lee went on to detail a recent occasion when he met a service member who had tried to commit suicide. He said he gave the young man a Bible even though military regulations state that he should not.
“The lawyers tell me that if I do that, I'm crossing the line,” he said. “I’m so glad I've crossed that line so many times.”
He added that he has a “right under the Constitution to tell a young man that there is hope.” He suggested that you can’t be a leader without a moral compass such as that found in “the Holy Scriptures and the Judeo-Christian system of values.” Waving a Bible, he also said he reserves the right to tell service personnel “in here is the answer.”
These misguided views sound like insubordination and dereliction of duty, and it clearly violates the constitutional rights of the personnel who serve under him. What if the potentially suicidal young man he gave the Bible to is Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan or Hindu – or a non-believer in any religion? What right does the admiral have to impose his personal faith on a troubled American serviceman?
Lee could easily have given the young man moral and personal support. He could have put an arm around him and told him he is important, appreciated and a valuable member of the Coast Guard team. And then the admiral could have referred him to proper medical and other military support services, without using the occasion as opportunity to proselytize. And, yes, he could have referred the man to a chaplain, if the man expressed a desire to meet with one.
Lee is a high-ranking military officer, entrusted with the leadership of men and women from dozens of faiths and some who follow no faith at all. He is not an evangelist tasked with converting those under him to his personal faith. It’s not “the lawyers” that forbid his coercive proselytizing; it’s the Constitution and simple human decency.
Lee is not alone, however, in believing that religion trumps rules.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, who is now executive vice president of the Family Research Council (FRC), has said he isn’t satisfied by the Pentagon’s comments on punishment (or lack thereof) for proselytizing.
WorldNetDaily, a right-wing publication, reported last week that Boykin outrageously claimed the military is openly hostile to Christianity, and that President Obama would like to see “the vestiges of Christianity” removed from the military.
Tony Perkins, head of the FRC, backed up both Boykin and Lee. He insisted that Christians in the military are truly under attack.
What Lee and his allies don’t understand is that there is a big difference between simply expressing your faith and forcing that faith on others down the chain of command. Nobody has suggested that soldiers don’t have the right to pray, read the scriptures, attend worship services or otherwise practice their religion in a way that doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s rights.
But as soon as officers start handing out Bibles or proselytizing those who serve under them or making Christianity some kind prerequisite for promotion, a line has been crossed and such activity should not be tolerated. Preventing proselytizing in the military isn’t attacking religion, it’s defending the Constitution.
Lee’s insistence in imposing his faith on subordinates is exactly what activists like Americans United and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation have been complaining about for years. They show not only how high up proselytizing goes, but also the attitude of defiance that comes with the issue.
We have a long, long way to go before the U.S. military becomes a place that is welcoming to all service members regardless of their views about religion. If true progress is to be made, however, maybe Lee should have another talk with those “pesky” lawyers who want him to obey the law.