Military is no place to proselytize
June 30, 2005
As they defend the nation, the U.S. armed forces should also protect the separation between church and state.
Several military leaders have lately been using their positions of authority to promote a specific religious point of view. This threatens the very idea of religious freedom.
The latest case involves the Air Force Academy in Colorado. Allegations of religious intimidation at the academy surfaced last summer when a Yale Divinity School team visited there. It discovered an environment rich in evangelism, often at the expense of other religions.
The Yale team revealed that a campus chaplain warned 600 cadets (and instructed them to warn others) that if they were "not born again" they would "burn in the fires of hell."
A subsequent Air Force investigation also related how, when the academy screened "The Passion of the Christ," invitations to the movie were placed on every cadet's seat in the dining hall. Following the film, Jewish cadets reported experiencing anti-Semitic incidents that they believe were inspired by the film.
Jewish and other non-Christian cadets also complained of the near impossibility of gaining permission to attend their own religious services, which don't occur on Sundays, and they objected to proselytizing by faculty, staff and the athletic department. The head football coach raised a "Team Jesus" banner in the locker room.
This is not merely a problem between Christians (who make up 85 percent of the academy) and Jews (1.5 percent), or between Christians and Muslims (0.4 percent), or Christians and Buddhists (0.9 percent). It is also a problem for non-evangelical Christians. After one critic, Capt. MeLinda Morton, spoke out against the evangelical fervor of the academy, she was transferred to Japan. She decided instead to resign her commission.
The Air Force subsequently concluded that there was no "overt discrimination" at the academy. Instead, it characterized the issue as one of only "insensitivity" by other cadets and staff. But since the report appeared, the Air Force has created a position for a religious tolerance adviser.
Unfortunately, the problem of an overtly religious military may not be limited to the Air Force.
The Anti-Defamation League recently rebuked the U.S. Naval Academy for organizing prayers before meals. A federal appeals court has also recently ruled that organized prayers before meals at the Virginia Military Institute are unconstitutional.
And in late 2003, Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told audiences in churches around the country that he is in "the army of God," while claiming that Muslims "worship an idol." After the controversy over his comments exploded, Boykin was lightly reprimanded for failing to make it clear that he was not speaking in an official capacity.
Military chaplains of all faiths must be made available to assist soldiers in the moral difficulties of war and combat, but the military must remain free of even the slightest whiff of official endorsement of any particular religion.
First, soldiers who are not part of the "official" religion should not have to contend with the constant pressure to conform or to justify their own faith. Surely, being a soldier is stressful enough.
Second, the perception that the American military is full of proselytizing Christian soldiers can do nothing but complicate any mission in the Middle East.
The most important reason, however, is that military endorsement of a particular religious point of view tramples on the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Protecting America's religious diversity, not squelching it, ought to start in the armed forces.
Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor in the English department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and co-editor of "The Edward Said Reader" (Vintage, 2000). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.