Is the military purging Christianity from its ranks?

The ever-reliable Breitbart has released a report saying that Christian soldiers who proselytize may be subject to court martial.  And now every Christian outlet across the web is pissing and moaning that somehow the Christians in charge of our government are outlawing Christianity and that finally we’re seeing the oppression of the majority that they’ve been ranting about for decades.  The Family Research Council (which, ironically, spends most if its time stopping families from forming) even has a petition urging Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel to “protect the religious freedom of troops” and “not to proceed with the purge of religion within the ranks called for by anti-Christian activists.”

So let’s start with religious freedom.  Citizens have it, as do members of the government.  However, the government itself must remain neutral on matters of religion, and that simply cannot happen if all the people who work for, and represent, our government are running around telling everybody they need to turn or burn.  So consider a teacher at a public high school.  That teacher is allowed to believe, allowed to attend church, but cannot proselytize to her students without breaking neutrality.

So what does neutrality look like?  That teacher cannot, for instance, leave a bible on her desk.  Even if completely innocent, it can make some students feel like outsiders.  Likewise, that teacher also could not have a copy of The End of Faith on her desk, as that would have a similar effect on religious students.  So neither is allowed.  That is neutrality.

Just like the teacher, our soldiers (and especially their officers) are employees of the government.  They defend the rights of all citizens, believers and non-believers alike.  And while they are allowed to have their faiths, proselytizing in their official capacity would violate government neutrality.  This goes for Christians and atheists alike.  And just like a copy of the bible or The End of Faith on a teacher’s desk silently evangelizes to students, the copy of a bible on an officer’s desk can have the same effect – especially given the history of negative treatment of non-Christians in the military.  Once you put that into the equation, it’s plain to see how a non-Christian soldier could take a bible on an officer’s desk to mean “toe god’s party line or else”.

It’s the FRC and those like them who are super concerned about the feelings of Christian soldiers if they don’t get to treat the military as their own captive audience for converting the wayward.  They seem to disregard the feelings of the non-Christians who often feel as though they have to lie about their beliefs or submit to the pressure to conform in order to be a part of their troop.  This has the effect of creating dissonance in the military, not mending it.

The other charge in the petition is that the government is purging religion from the ranks of the military.  Yet, soldiers still have their religion printed on their dogtags.  How can this be if religion is being purged, and not the use of people’s roles as representatives of the government to spread their religion?  There is a difference, you know?

Retired Gen. Jerry Boykin (now with the FRC) is even doing the same old scaremongering we’ve long seen from Christian groups like the FRC:

“This has the potential to destroy military recruiting across the services as Americans realize that their faith will be suppressed by joining the military,” Boykin said.

Yes, if a soldier can believe whatever god they want, read their bible during their own time, attend church on their own time, but not use their position in the government to proselytize, they might just go proselytize somewhere else.  Good.  If defending our freedoms takes a backseat to using one’s unit as a pulpit, it may very well be best they find another job.

But didn’t the FRC say that if we repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell it would destroy military recruiting?  Wasn’t that supposed to signal the end of democracy?  Weren’t our soldiers supposed to quit in droves to the point where we could no longer defend our country?  Wasn’t the end of DADT supposed to be the end of military cohesion?  Weren’t there insurmountable reasons for that injustice in favor of Christians to go on forever?

And yet ending DADT was the biggest non-event of all time.  But still Christians all over are shitting their pants, having so quickly forgotten about the last hundred times Jerry Boykin and his ilk cried wolf.  (It should also be noted that following DADT’s repeal there have been no apologies, no remorse for misery in the wake of legally enforced bigotry, and certainly no admissions that even with the ear of god they were wrong the entire time.)

If you can’t fulfill the requirements of a job, you should seek out another job.  If you’re a surgeon with a religious aversion to anesthetic, you shouldn’t demand the discipline of medicine make exceptions just for you.  You should either do what the job requires or do something else.  Likewise, if you want to be a teacher, a soldier, or any other representative of the government but hold religious beliefs prohibiting you from behaving in a religion-neutral fashion while serving in that capacity, then yes, you should find another job.

But let’s get one thing straight: joining the military will not force you to abandon your Christianity for fear of a court-martial.  And telling government representatives they cannot evangelize while in uniform is not “purging religion” from the ranks of the military.  That message only comes from people in the majority, who have never known oppression, desperate to demonstrate their willingness to fight for their faith by overreacting to even the slightest hint of fairness.

It is not your religious freedom to use the power vested in you by the government to spread your faith.  That is a freedom the government simply does not have, and when you become an extension of the government that also applies to you.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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