When U.S. military leaders announced that openly gay men and women would be permitted to service in the armed forces, Religious Right leaders went ballistic.
They asserted that the move would destroy military cohesion and leave our fighting force less able to do the job. Of course, that didn’t actually happen. One year after the change, military leaders reported that the new policy was working out fine.
But that doesn’t mean everything is perfect in our armed forces. Problems remain, especially in the area of aggressive proselytism efforts by Christian fundamentalist groups that often align with command structure.
Recently, the Center for Inquiry issued a report titled “For God and Country: Religious Fundamentalism in the U.S. Military” authored by James Parco, Ph.D., a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel with a distinguished career of service to our nation. (Parco is a former instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and served on the National Security Council of the White House during the Clinton Administration, as well as in a diplomatic capacity overseas with the American embassy in Tel Aviv.)
We at Americans United know Dr. Parco well. A few years ago, he asked AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn to author a chapter in a book on religious tolerance in the military, and he also arranged for Lynn to address that topic at a military base in Alabama. Parco is not one to engage in hyperbolic rhetoric or distort the facts. When he speaks, people should listen.
What he has to say is disturbing. Parco’s report lists a series of problems. Here are some of them, taken directly from the report’s Key Findings:
• Institutional support for fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity in the military has spread and entrenched since September 11, 2001, beginning in haste during the Bush administration and remaining unchallenged by the Obama administration.
• Many of the military's civilian overseers, along with many in the military’scommissioned leadership – to include flag officers, speaking on duty and in uniform – have repeatedly couched the American military’s civic and global role, and American military operations themselves, in the language of Christian religious crusades.
• Through explicit leadership messaging, senior officers have created cultures and atmospheres of religious sectarianism in their commands and institutions, including the various service academies, even instructing subordinates to partake in actions for the express purpose of Christian evangelizing and proselytizing.
• Officers who raise concerns about fundamentalist Christian proselytizing, such as Air Force chaplain Captain MeLinda Morton – when not ignored completely – have faced reassignment and other punitive actions.
• Fundamentalist evangelical Christian organizations are given preferential access to numerous military installations, including the Pentagon and the various service academies, and have had their activities sanctioned and even promoted – in uniform and on duty – by religiously aligned military leadership.
• Fundamentalist evangelical Christian organizations have attempted to use the deployed U.S. military as international missionaries, providing units in Afghanistan with Bibles printed in the native Pashto and Dari languages, the distribution of which is in direct violation of standing general orders.
Parco does more than just submit a list of problems. He also includes a series of 12 specific recommendations to fix things. One of my favorites is Parco’s recommendation that the military adopt a new version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” – for religion.
“As a commander, this is the best advice to guide discussions of your own spiritual beliefs or those of your subordinates – stop assuming others think like you, and don’t ask if you suspect they don’t,” Parco writes. “What religious beliefs they may or may not hold do not matter, precisely because the Constitution and human decency says they do not.”
Parco concludes his report with an eloquent plea for tolerance and diversity in the armed forces. He makes the argument that ending the inappropriate influence of Christian fundamentalism in the military isn’t just the necessary thing to do under our Constitution, it’s the right thing to do for moral reasons.
“As the previous pages make clear, there is a serious problem with religious endorsement in the U.S. Armed Forces which needs to be immediately addressed and changed,” Parco writes. “It is up to those with social and political power to demand this action.
“If this problem persists,” he continues, “members of the military will continue to face hostility and indoctrination, and the U.S. government will continue to experience public relations problems in future military missions. If it is addressed, the U.S. military could become a neutral and safe space for members of all religious backgrounds, and none at all, and the image of the America, as seen through its military forces abroad, could change from one of Christianity to one of a diverse people united for liberty and justice for all.”
When Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, began cataloging instances of unwanted proselytism and favoritism toward evangelical Christianity in the military, Religious Right groups tried to argue that he had overstated the case.
Weinstein’s ongoing work, and Parco’s new report, have shut the door on that argument. It simply isn’t tenable any more. There is a problem, and closing our eyes to it won’t make it go away.
Parco’s report is important. It deserves to be read – and acted upon – in the highest echelons of the U.S. military.