The whole controversy about the role of religion in the military is much more complicated than the spat over prayer at mandatory meals (although the ACLU is right and the practice should be ended). The real issue, and it is a real problem, is that right-wing Christian evangelicals, encouraged by the Bush administration and religious conservatives at the top level of the officer corps, have attempted to push their views on non-Christians (and liberal Christians) within the service academies as well and on military bases. Last fall, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org) filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department after a high-level officer disrupted a meeting of atheists and other non-Christian solders on an Army base in Iraq. It is disgusting that the base commander did not immediately discipline an officer who apparently does not believe in the Constitution he is sworn to uphold.
Because soldiers risk their lives in combat–and many derive spiritual comfort from the availability of the clergy–I have no quarrel with the presence of chaplains in the armed services. I don’t believe in immortality, as readers on this thread know, but if I did–and if I were about to give “the last full measure of devotion” for my country–I would want the consolation of a chaplain. But it is a clear violation of the First Amendment to privilege Christianity over other religions, and to privilege religion, and religious soldiers, over those who are not believers. And that is what has been happening.
Earlier this year, the Air Force Academy invited three evangelical Christian converts, who claim to have once been Islamic terrorists, to lecture for a total fee of $13,000. Mainstream Muslim organizations objected, saying that the three so-called “experts” habitually depicted all Muslims as violent. Moreover, the three men’s stories border on sheer fantasy, according to real experts on the Middle East (Muslim and non-Muslim). One of the proposed speakers, Kamal Saleem, talks about how as a child, he crossed the Israeli border to plant bombs in tunnels under the Golan Heights. (Israel reports no such incidents.) Imagine spending taxpayer dollars to propagandize future Air Force officers with this trash. You might as well hire someone dressed as the Easter Bunny to give a lecture on the importance of faith in the Middle East.
In 2005, an Air Force Academy Lutheran chaplain, co-author of a a report criticizing “strident” evangelizing of cadets by Christian officers, said she was fired by the academy’s head chaplain when she refused to retract her statements. Capt. Melinda Morton and Yale Divinity School professor Kristen Leslie reported that an academy chaplain repeatedly urged cadets to pray for those who refused to attend Christian evangelical meetings. It must feel great to be a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, a mainstream Protestant, a Catholic, or a freethinker in such an environment.
This situation has been created not by Christians as a group, but by the extreme Christian right and the current administration’s indebtedness to the Christian right and contempt for the Constitution. The trouble can only be corrected by a renewal of respect for the separation of church and state and by the recognition that chaplains are there to serve soldiers who want their services–not to propagandize soldiers of other religions or no religion. The next president must make this clear to all top-level military commanders. It is a disgrace that any military officer would use his position to encourage one brand of religion or to brand atheists and freethinkers as unfit to serve their country.
“My God is bigger than your God” is an idea that has no place in the United States military.