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.

  • Glodson

    It is amazing how a group of people belonging to the majority religion with a majority of the power are constantly persecuted.

    By persecuted, I mean they lie and fearmonger as a means to protect their privilege.

  • Sara Sharick

    Absolutely right. I deal with this almost every day between innovations at every mandatory social event to religiously biased surveys to yearly assessments of my “spiritual fitness” (which, incidentally I do very well on).

    Because of the way military hierarchy is structured, the difference between proselytizing and simply casually talking about your opinions on metaphysics can have a lot to do with rank, position, and audience. For example, I have a particular opinion on the use of “so help me god” at the end of the oath. But it would be inappropriate for me to talk about that, especially uninvited, to my Soldiers because my name goes on all of their evaluations as either the senior rater or reviewer. But if I’m in a group of peers, other captains, maybe some junior majors, and the topic came up, I would feel less inhibited to engage in some consciousness raising and education.

    MRFF has a couple if different threads going on its Facebook group on this topic too.

  • DJ GiNSU

    and why is there a christian chaplain at every single base…

    • Katherine Lorraine

      Cause there also tends to be a Jewish chaplain, and a Muslim chaplain, and a Buddhist chaplain, and a…
      You get the point I’m sure.

    • Nate Frein

      I have no problem with the chaplaincy program per se…

      I don’t think that chaplains should be officers.

      • Sara Sharick

        Chaplains also have a staff advisory role though to commanders. They can delegate it to other members of the unit ministry team, at least according to Army regulations, but it is still part of their job. Just for that they have to be officers.

        • Nate Frein

          I disagree that it requires they be officers.

          A soldier should not be forced to salute a chaplain. A chaplain should not be in the chain of command.

          • Sara Sharick

            The chaplain isn’t in the chain of command. He or she is an advisor TO the commander the same way any other staff officer is. You’re saluting the rank, not the person or position.

  • John Eberhard

    Well done, Son. Coincidentally, I was holding forth on this subject on another thread this morning. Here’s mine:

    The Breitbart article is a propaganda piece written by “senior fellow for
    religious liberty at the Family Research Council and on faculty at
    Liberty University School of Law.” In other words, someone whose job it
    is to push Christian fundamentalist right wing propaganda and to tear down the wall of church and state separation.

    I get angry when Christians in the United States — members of the single
    most powerful and influential religious group in the country, in the
    wealthiest and most powerful country in the world — act like
    beleaguered victims, martyrs being thrown to the lions all over again,
    whenever anyone criticizes them or they don’t get their way. Christians
    control all three branches of the Federal government as well as every
    governorship in the nation, and over 99% of both Houses of Congress.
    Only Judeo-Christians have ever sat on the Supreme Court. The only way
    to convince those in power that they are actually a minority facing
    discrimination is to lie, lie, lie. With some occasional distortion and
    misrepresentation thrown in.

    How can any reasonable person buy into their complaint that the roughly 75
    to 80 percent of Americans who profess allegiance to some denomination
    or another of Christianity constitute a cruelly oppressed minority? It
    is pretty well known that there are essentially no atheists in public
    office because they are unelectable by the Christian majority.

    Christians aren’t being pushed anywhere. Christians who think they’re allowed to
    run roughshod over everyone and everything are finally being told to
    grow up and act like adults. They don’t like it and are throwing

    So many of them demand impunity for suppressing the rights of others by
    dressing it up as their right to do so and squealing intolerance when
    people suggest it’s not.

    So are we really seeing an unprecedented wave of hostility toward
    Christianity? Or is it, rather, that the waning of the cultural hegemony
    to which some Christians have come to feel entitled is perceived as an
    attack? Many of the most loudly trumpeted complaints in this vein are,
    after all, complaints about the absence of special treatment: no special
    spot for the Ten Commandments in the courthouse rotunda; no pride of
    place for Christmas among those happy winter holidays; no exceptions for
    the Christian charity.

    Since “special rights” has been a term of aspersion among conservatives for
    decades, would-be theocrats have at least the decency to be too ashamed
    to demand them explicitly. Instead, they’ve learned the power of the
    victim narrative, of framing the debate to cast themselves as underdogs.
    Since the battle is a reactive one against the undifferentiated forces
    of anti-Christian bigotry, such nice distinctions as that between a
    business that fails to cater to its customers and an arm of the state
    adhering to strict neutrality can be dispensed with. More importantly,
    moderate Christians with no desire to impose their faith on others might
    be convinced to support a re-Christianization of public life on the
    premise that they’d only be defending themselves against marauding

    Christians have the most followers of any religion World wide! And in many places where they claim to be victims, especially here in the USA, they more or
    less run the country and have done so since the beginning. Christians
    squeal like pigs not when they are being discriminated against, but when
    they aren’t given special privilege.

    When courts block fundamentalist Christians from forcing their religion into
    public schools and government institutions, religious right leaders cry
    discrimination and say they’re being victimized. When the scientific
    community rejects the religious right’s pseudo-scientific ideas about
    human origins, theocrats complain of unfair treatment and hint darkly of
    conspiracies, again playing the victim card.

    The religious right’s vision is one where an individual’s religious faith
    allows him or her to run roughshod over the rights of others.

    • Loqi

      The worst part about it is that it flattens the meaning of persecution. Every time someone from the religious right squaks about being persecuted, I get angry because they equate not being allowed to burn heretics (or whatever other “religious freedom” is being taken away) with the Jim Crow south or concentration camps. To call this persecution is to completely remove all meaning from the word. Any rational person would recognize these cries as absurd. Laughable. A joke. If this is what persecution is, then we need a new word for what we used to call persecution, because that isn’t a joke. If it were just some clueless privledged idiots crying “woe is us,” it would be funny. But by hijacking the meaning of a terrible word, they’re pulling people who are actually persecuted into the joke with them. And that’s why it’s not funny. It’s infuriating.

  • Stev84

    There is another issue here you haven’t touched on. When a low ranking soldier tries to convert someone it’s not so bad. But the problem in the military is that this crap frequently comes from commanding officers. When a unit commander uses overtly religious language and invites people to religious events, that’s frequently taken as an order. Even if it’s not meant to be. And of course in many cases they do mean it as an order and their subordinates can do nothing about it. They can’t just say “Sorry, I’m not interested” without hurting their career.

    • Glodson

      It is a power dynamic. Hell, we can see in schools too. Those in charge likely know this. They have a captive audience, an audience that cannot really dissent.

      You make an excellent point.

  • Jake LeMaster

    “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.”

    Perfectly worded.