Brave Army Captain On the Dangers of Fighting Proselytism

I get a lot of touching comments, and letters of support from inside and outside of the military. The Rock Beyond Belief team has a few officers on board, but this letter comes from a Captain who understands the complications keeping most of my fellow team members, and foxhole atheists in general, from publicly identifying themselves.

In case the reader is unaware, simply speaking out in the military is not easy. And standing up for what is right when it comes to religion and proselytism is extremely tough at the local unit level. Speaking out at the national level is exponentially more difficult, but is simply not a path that most people can take. This letter really meant a lot to me – and it illustrates that even just enforcing existing rules, regulations, and laws can be hazardous to your career. The author has clearly made tough choices, and at great risk to his own professional development.

SGT Griffith,

I would like to commend you on your incredible efforts to galvanize support for and organize a truly one-of-a-kind secular event. Those of us who are of like-mind on this issue (whether atheist, humanist, or just strictly secular on governmental affairs) have nothing but respect for the work you have done, even if our own work precludes any reasonable chance of our participation. You are — without a doubt — a credit to the NCO Corps and this grand profession of arms we share, and the fact that you persist in the face of such strong opposition (which consistently demonstrates no shame in using unethical and unconstitutional means to push its ends) shows who is truly committed to our National and Army Values. Hooah!

I have gone through my own battles against the pervasive attitudes of religion in the Army, although nothing so dramatic or public as your recent affairs. Starting with my commissioning, I had to file an IG complaint and push it along all the way to Cadet Command to get my ROTC to allow me to say the oath of office without “[S]o help me God” appended to it’s conclusion. My original oath of office document, with those last four words crossed out, is now framed on the wall at my house and I never spoke those words during the ceremony.

Since then, I’ve seen a number of discriminatory religious practices, almost always pushed by Unit Commanders who seem uncaring as to the legal limits of their authority or rights of their subordinates with regards to religion. I had a Reserve Company Commander who allowed Evangelicals a two-hour “bible study” (which was almost always just goofing off) on Sundays while everyone else had to clean weapons or PMCS vehicles, including theirs. I’ve seen a Brigade Commander require participation in prayers, with the Sergeant Major singling out those who didn’t bow their heads and say the right magic words for “remedial training” punishments. I’ve been lectured by a Chaplain for an Army 3-Star Command that Atheists and Humanists are incapable of being good Soldiers after I “failed” the spirituality portion of the fitness tracker (this BS affects Officers just as easily). Hardest of all, I’ve had to counsel a Platoon Sergeant on his unconstitutional use of coercion to get his platoon to attend religious services.

In some ways being an Officer has made dealing with the pervasive push of religious elements easier, as I felt less inclined not to push back against clearly wrong actions of my superiors, peers, and subordinates. In other ways it has been more challenging, as career progression (promotions, assignments, and ratings) amongst Officers is much more of a political affair if the “wrong” information about you is public, resulting in an inclination towards self-censorship for career preservation. All I wish to do – and we seem to have this trait in common – is serve my nation honorably, and yet for a decade I have been embroiled in an internal war of religious rights just to prove that I am fit to serve.

I applaud you and your efforts, especially your tricky decision to go public, and want you to know that you have my full support for everything you have been doing. I have, for some time, been toying with the creation of a similar atheist/humanist support organization at my own duty station, and may seek your advice as to lessons learned in the near future. I am also a supporter of gaining acceptance for humanists within the chaplaincy, and have some thoughts on the matter (pertaining to legal strategy) that I would very much enjoy sharing with you. Wherever our paths should take us, however, I wish you the best of luck.

CPT [Name withheld]
Military Intelligence
United States Army
[Duty Station / Location Withheld]

Name, Location withheld for very understandable reasons. I’ve had many other letters in my inbox that were just as well written and eye opening – but few give me permission to print (even anonymously).

There are many more brave Soldiers just like this one. I’ve described the situation previously like this:

We find ourselves in the curious position of being on the front line of two types of war. One is tangible and you see it on the news every day, the other is the subterranean ideological battle that unfolds as the evangelical Christian groups work against the separation of church and state.

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  • beerslayer

    Incredible. I thought this was supposed to be a FREE country, where people were allowed to believe or not believe whatever they damned well please. Apparently the military brass haven’t gotten this message in the last, oh, 235 years.

  • Mrs. H.

    I feel I must respond in some way, but words fail. I am a Christian, and I have a very good friend who is an Atheist. She is a military spouse, I am living on the economy in a country where American forces have bases. My friend and I have never had problems with each other’s beliefs or ever had a lack of interesting things to talk about. I think I’d like to write a brief letter, too:

    Dear Soldiers,

    Your JOB is in the area of Defense and Security. The government of the nation which issues your paycheck was founded on the precept of Separation of Church and State. That means that the government –and those who represent that government– may not dictate to the people of our nation about religious beliefs or practices.

    Our soldiers, their spouses and their children hold a variety of beliefs, and every one of them are entitled to those beliefs, based on our nation’s Constitution.

    If your JOB were in any other arena, you would be told to “leave it at the door.” The American military, who claim to be protecting our freedom, seem to have forgotten that Freedom of Religion (or lack or if, or aversion to it) is among the most basic of our rights as Americans.

    So, while on the job, please DO the job our government pays you to do. Discussing religious beliefs while you are on duty is not acceptable, and using those beliefs to set standards of job performance and career promotion is unconstitutional.

    Please do us, whose rights you are supposedly defending, a big favor. Focus on your JOB, and leave your personal religious beliefs at the door.

    In case you were wondering, I am a Christian.

    Mrs. H.

  • Todd Allen

    I don’t care what your job is, it’s not appropriate to bring your religion to work. I don’t ask my coworkers what their religion is, or counsel them against following any religion at all. It’s not the appropriate place.

    That goes triple for the military, with its strong command structure and captive audience. The Constitution guarantees that each of us may follow any religion of our own choosing, or none whatsoever. It just as strongly guarantees, however, that none of us may be pressured or coerced into making a different decision.

    It’s sad to see that those who have sworn to defend and uphold these values instead work to undermine and erode them.

  • That letter from an Army Captain could just as well have come from me! It’s amazing the pervasiveness and downright oppressive level of religiosity in all branches of the military. While I cannot support the assertion, my wife is convinced that my lack of faith cost me promotion to LtCol.

    I am retired now, and it still sickens me to see continuing enforcements of religion. The sense of entitlement that some of these people seem to carry about is at best totally hypocritical. SGT Griffith, you also have my support.

    To Mrs. H. I sincerely wish there were more people like you in the theistic community. Sadly, I think you are in a vast minority.

  • Heiko Knipfelberg

    I merely wish to express my support to all men and women in uniform that exercise their right to a separation of church and state. Thank you for serving.
    Sincerely, Heiko Knipfelberg

  • Barry Johnstone.

    I’m an atheist and I find that it is extremely difficult to accept that xians in the American Military can force their perverted views onto other people in the Military who just want to deal with reality – not religionist B/S! There are also deeply disturbing parallels with Taliban extremism. I’m also deeply disturbed that some religious elements in the USA want to remove the all-important gap between church and state – thus displaying a profound ignorance of the xian religion (or any other religion) Islam is a religion for the COLLECTIVE, hence there is no difficulty in the concept of an Islamic government – whereas Christianity is a religion for the INDIVIDUAL, so democracy (in the Western sense) cannot work without the gap between church and state!