The Air Force, and the Increasing Misuse of the Term ‘Religious Freedom’

The Air Force, and the Increasing Misuse of the Term ‘Religious Freedom’ June 23, 2012

“Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.” – John B. Finch, 1882

If you follow religion news these days, you can’t help but be inundated with the current debate over what, exactly, “religious freedom” means, and what its limits are. The most popular manifestation concerns Catholic opposition to new contraception guidelines set forth by the Dept. of Health and Human Services (a topic I’ve covered before), but a large number of enterprising souls have taken this proverbial football and are running as far as they can with it. The most recent effort to “protect” religious freedom comes from a consortium of 66 Republican lawmakers who have written a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asking for an investigation into “a series of steps signaling hostility towards religious freedom” by the Air Force.

The lawmakers outlined several instances where they had problems with Air Force policy, particularly a memo last year from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, which said that “chaplains, not commanders” should notify airmen about chaplains’ religious programs. The lawmakers wrote the memo was “suggesting that the mere mention of these programs is impermissible.” They also took issue with the suspension of a briefing that discussed Bible references, the changing of a Latin office motto that included God and removing Bibles from Air Force Inn checklists. They wrote the policy of “complete separation” between church and state is having a “chilling effect” down the chain of command.

An Air Force spokesperson responded by saying that “Airmen are free to exercise their Constitutional right to practice their religion—in a manner that is respectful of other individuals’ rights to follow their own belief systems.” Indeed, these instances the 66 Republican lawmakers are concerned about aren’t initiatives to limit religious freedom, but to instead avoid showing favoritism for any particular faith.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz

“The Air Force’s top officer has issued a stern reminder to leaders about religion and their jobs: Don’t proselytize or show favoritism toward a particular faith. Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz sent a servicewide memo Sept. 1 cautioning leaders at all levels to balance the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom and the prohibition on government intrusion. “We have seen instances where well-meaning commanders and senior noncommissioned officers appeared to advance a particular religious view among their subordinates, calling into question their impartiality and objectivity. We can learn from these instances,” said Lt. Col. Sam Highley, Schwartz’s spokesman.”

We should also remember that these corrections aren’t happening in a vacuum, and were prompted by a culture of evangelical Christian takeover within the Air Force Academy, where blatant religious favoritism was in full and open display.

…my son’s orientation became an opportunity for the academy to aggressively proselytize this next crop of cadets. Maj. Warren Watties led a group of 10 young, exclusively evangelical chaplains who stood shoulder to shoulder.  He proudly stated that half of the cadets attended Bible studies on Monday nights in the dormitories and he hoped to increase this number from those in his audience who were about to join their ranks.  This “invitation” was followed with hallelujahs and amens by the evangelical clergy.  I later learned from Air Force Academy chaplain MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran who was forced to observe from the choir loft, that no priest, rabbi or mainline Protestant had been permitted to participate.”

This was a major scandal for the Air Force, which, like all government bodies, isn’t supposed to favor any particular faith, and to maintain separation between Church and State. They’ve since made major efforts to make their branch of the military a place where all faiths are respected, including the building of a Pagan/Nature Religions worship area at the Air Force Academy.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy. Photo by: Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

Sadly, these worthy efforts towards making the Air Force a place that respects all manifestations of faith is being framed as an attack on “religious freedom” by these lawmakers. For them, religious freedom means freedom for Christians to swing their theological “arms” without any regard to whose nose might be struck. When U.S. Representatives Diane Black of Tennessee, Randy Forbes of Virginia and Todd Akin of Missouri assert that “the combination of events mentioned above raises concerns that the Air Force is developing a culture that is hostile towards religion” what they mean is hostile toward unfettered Christian expression, and little else. I cannot imagine that any of the 66 lawmakers gave one thought as to what things were like for religious minorities before the recent shift in policy and tone. Religious freedom, for them, begins and ends with their conception of America as a “Judeo-Christian” nation that exists under a single, monotheistic, God.

As I’ve said before, to these Christians, government-enforced secularism isn’t a neutral ethos, but a method of attacking their faith and limiting their free expression. In the minds of these Christians “religious freedom” means, in this time of demographic dominance, the right to let the majority dictate the religious norms of a society. Any deviance from that, in limiting prayer in schools, or sectarian prayer at government meetings, is a persecution of their church. We are increasingly caught in Christianity’s own crisis over its role and purpose in a post-Christian pluralistic society, and the results aren’t always pretty. This crisis will only escalate as religious minorities continue to stand up for real equality, for their voices to be heard in the public square, and as litigation starts to reevaluate what the standards for inclusion are in government-backed religious initiatives.

Whatever valid concerns Catholics, Evangelicals, and other conservative Christians might have over religious freedom in the United States, they are continually tempered by their insistence on being the sole definer of where that concept begins and ends. No one is asking Buddhists, Pagans, Hindus, or practitioners of Native religions for their input, and in many cases the same Christian leaders and lawmakers who cry persecution are the very same who ignore our concerns, or are outright dismissive of non-Christian religious expressions.


“I don’t care what the naysayers say. This nation was founded as a Christian nation. The god of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. There is only one God. There is only one God, and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words. I’m tired of people telling us as Christians that we can’t voice our beliefs or we can’t no longer pray in public. Listen to me. If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, get out! […] We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

To me, the Catholic Bishops and Evangelical leaders who claim to be baking the bread of freedom, produce only the taste of ashes in my mouth. Have we really forgotten that Christian Republican lawmakers as recently as 1999 tried to get the practice of Wicca banned from the military? That the Catholic Church, openly hostile to non-Christian faiths, has proposed a grand coalition of the dominant monotheisms to quash the rights of faiths and traditions who want to perform legal same-sex marriages? To my mind these are not the defenders of my religious freedom, to say the least.

If religious freedom as a concept is going to mean anything, if isn’t going to just be hollow rhetoric, then it needs to apply equally to everyone. That means creating a level playing field in the realm of government, it means not privileging the Christian majority simply because it’s a politically expedient thing to do. Sometimes it even means rolling back privileges that some have mistaken for “rights.” The problem is that far too many Christians in America have grown over fond of having no limits on their arm-swinging, and every judicial decision or law that tells them that certain noses are off-limits enrages them, and feeds into an ugly persecution complex (to the point where the majority assumes the mantle of the persecuted minority). Real religious freedom starts when groups stop twisting the concept to privilege themselves at the expense of others.

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32 responses to “The Air Force, and the Increasing Misuse of the Term ‘Religious Freedom’”

  1. Jason,

    Thank you.  Just, thank you.  Thanks for staying on this story.

  2. This Air Force thing is election-year posturing. The Christian Right couldn’t get Perry at the top of the GOP ticket. Instead they got a Mormon they’re almost as scared of as they would be a “none.” So to turn them out in November the GOP needs to build up the Obama Administration as the home address of the Anti-Christ.

  3. You are much too polite for me!  By the way, did you know, it is becoming a common tactic among Christian-Republicans to float a bill/law to opt out of any legal requirement if they or anybody has a “sincere belief” that it is against their religion?  What next, are we going to go back to the days when many xians had a sincere belief that people of African ancestry were sub-human and needed to have white people make all decisions for them? I believe it is only since about 1965 that the Mormon church has allowed black men to be come “ministers” in the church. In the Mormon religion, all men are expected to become ministers. For a long time black men were prohibited because of the Biblical injunction against black people ruling other (white) men, based on the punishment of Ham, one of the three sons of Noah, who was condemned to servitude because he saw his father naked. Then magically the Mormon church had a new revelation, and black men can be in high status/teaching/ ministerial positions. All women are still excluded.

  4. Wouldn’t it be amusing and simultaneously horrifying if Romney was elected and started actually forcing his religious views on the very folks who supported him?  It would show them what persecution really is.  But of course, he wouldn’t turn on his handlers and hopefully he won’t be elected.

  5. “I later learned from Air Force Academy chaplain MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran who was forced to observe from the choir loft, that no priest, rabbi or mainline Protestant had been permitted to participate.”  Well, of course they weren’t allowed.  Mainline Protestants are not radical enough.  They also have government like entities that have standards of belief which makes it harder although not impossible to be penetrated by fringe and otherwise heretical ideas.

  6. Jason: “to these Christians, government-enforced secularism isn’t a neutral
    ethos, but a method of attacking their faith and limiting their free

    To be fair, secularism is not actually neutral, because it is, by design, hostile toward any form of religion that seeks to impose itself on others, while favoring (again, by design) all forms of religion that are respectful of other religions.

  7. Secularism isn’t by definition “hostile.”

    secularism [ˈsɛkjʊləˌrɪzəm]n1. (Philosophy) Philosophy a doctrine that rejects religion, esp in ethics2. the attitude that religion should have no place in civil affairs3. the state of being secularsecularist  n & adjsecularistic  adj
    Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

    secularism1. a view that religion and religious considerations should be ignored or excluded from social and political matters.2.
    an ethical system asserting that moral judgments should be made without
    reference to religious doctrine, as reward or punishment in an
    afterlife. — secularist, n., adj. — secularistic, adj.

  8. As appalling as I find the entire concept of forcing *any* religious practice on the unwilling, I really do feel the need to take exception with the way you express some of your views.  Christian is a *generic* term.   It includes Evangelicals and Catholics.  It ALSO includes Lutherans (such as the chaplain who was excluded), Episcopalians, Unitarians and a great many others.  If you describe the people perpetrating these acts of fanaticism as “fanatics,” or as “fundamentalists,” or as “right-wing religious”, you would be accurate.  However, describing them as “Christians” paints a great many of us who are not doing any such things with the same brush.  Which is just as bigoted as the people whose actions you decry.

  9. Hostile toward any form of religion that seeks to impose itself on others **through the mechanisms of the state.** Secular government is passively friendly to forms of religion that seek to impose themselves through radio programming, street-corner preaching or peaceful demonstrations.

  10. Until more Christian branches actually raise their voice, giving a hue and cry against the far right, by their silence they are allowing things to go as the far right wishes.

    If Christians do not wish to distance themselves from their brethren, then sorry, they get the brush because they are not differentiating themselves from their right-wing counterparts. Also, the No True Scotsman defense is grating and needs to be retired. It is not bigotry to say that Christians hold these views, as many of these views are documented either in the Bible that these sects hold sacred, or in the policies they adopt in governance of their churches.

  11. I guess as a reader/fan of this blog, I feel that I have to ask, what do we do about this? I for one would prefer not to stand idly by as my rights and the rights of my kith and kin are slowly bled away. I am not a particularly powerful  political figure, but rather an individual constricted by his military enlistment. 

  12.  Do check this out if you are in the military.

    This organization has been the motivating force behind the changes the Air Force has made, and they work with service members from all branches who are being harassed in any way by the Christian fundies.

  13. Michelle, I hear your pain. But the fact is that what we’re talking about is a Christian phenomenon.

    Everyone knows that Islamist parties in the Middle East do not reflect the views of all Moslems, that Jewish settlers in Palestine do not embody the attitudes of all Jews, and that white racism in this country does not speak for all whites. These labels are used because they reflect reality.

  14. Well, one should ALWAYS be unceasingly “hostile” toward any form of religion that seeks to impose itself on others…

  15. The word “secularism” is used in many different ways. Here we are talking specifically about the concept of “separation of church and state”, which is also known more accurately as “disestablishmentarianism”, which is more unambiguous in terms of being hostile to established, that is government supported, churches.

  16.  To what extent should one be hostile?

    I think that is the question that most will give differing answers to.

  17. In purely numerical terms, the large majority of the world’s Christians are either Catholic, Orthodox, or Evangelical (over 75%, possibly close to 90%), and those three flavors of Christianity are all definitely Part Of The Problem.

  18.  I would say the first step is to contact your elected representatives at all levels and let them know that you vote and that this are issues that concern you. 

    I used to desktop-publish an animal rights newsletter that consisted of one page of news and three sample letters that readers could adapt or simply sign and send.  They were mainly to elected representatives, sometimes to manufacturers.  It is surprisingly effective.  I used to write bluntly, “Our elected representatives are our employees.  We hire them with our votes and pay them with our tax dollars.  So let’s give them some supervisorial guidance!”  We did get some action, too, particularly from Ron Dellums and Anna Eshoo, in getting some research situations investigated, and we bolstered a number of other campaigns, as well.

    Yeah, supervisorial guidance.

  19. I feel “Vocally critical yet not obnoxiously inundating” is a good level of hostility in this case.  I’ve become very aware and vocal about Christian privilege lately, but I’m trying to really balance it against becoming that irritating level of harping that personally pisses me off. 

    In the case of Christianity, though, the entire religion has been saturated with their constant persecution complex.  It’s one thing to comment to people who KNOW about the issues regarding the religion, but at that point you are literally preaching to the choir.  The difficulty is in making people understand that you aren’t hostile to them directly, so that you can get more people to understand your critical points and perhaps come to help the situation.  Being blatantly hostile doesn’t do that.

  20. I’ve been re-reading the Jesus Mysteries and even if you believe the critics claims that it is poorly researched and un-factual (and I don’t) the message can still be relevant, especially in the current climate. I’ll take the authors message of acceptance and tolerance every day of the week.  

  21. First of all, in this context, “hostility” is not a matter of language or attitude, but of law. The constitutional doctrine of “separation of church and state” outlaws any form of government promotion of religion, therefore making certain religious ideas, in particular theocracy and anything resembling it, illegal.

    Second of all, there really is no question of degree in this matter, at least  if we take the Jeffersonian attitude of “a wall of separation of church and state”

  22. Are you suggesting that those engaging in these actions are somehow not Christian?  Of what religion are they then, exactly?

    Just because many, most?, Christians do not act in that manner does not mean that the people being discussed in Jason’s article are not Christian.

  23. Those detractors of the privilaged know how to spin the conversation from actual people, problems, and situations in dire need of help by making themselves appear to be the victims.  The religious, political, and financial structures of our post-modern majorities maintain their power by pointing the finger elsewhere…all the while buying up all the air time, which manipulates the conversation, so much so, that attention is taken away from minorities.  And, of course, the middle-class, the impoverished, the elderly, and the disabled are maligned.  Thus the anger is misdirected and taken out on those who are, once again, disenfanchised and victimized all over again.

    Tea Party Republicans, Evangelicals, and Financiers continue to poison the well–blaming those who were laid off, women, teachers, police, firefighters (in the name of “Big Government,” for instance).  There is no integrity, wisdom, compassion, or truth in their actions, words, and policies. 

    It is often said that the duty of privilege is absolute integrity.  Well, there’s none here.

    “Three things most excellent amongst worldly affair: Discerning Folly, Loving Excellence, and Endeavouring to Constantly Learn.”

  24. I’ve heard several Christian religious leaders (including Catholic priests) on TV news shows lately talking about the recent flap about contraception coverage by Insurance companies for women who work for religious institutions.  They always say the same thing:  “This isn’t about contraception; it is about RELIGIOUS FREEDOM.”  Well, the news people always let them get away with that!  We need the media people to CHALLENGE them on this statement.  After all, why does it have to be one or the other?  Can it not be BOTH?  It is a statement of bullying and also of actual abuse to say that their perspective is right and someone else’s perspective is non-existent.

  25.  don’t forget the push of the obligatory vaginal probe before a women can get an abortion.

  26.  “It would actually be against Romney’s religion to force his religion on anyone.”  That may be, but that doesn’t keep them from it.  Who was the group that pushed so hard for Prop 8 in California?  I’ll take Mormons for 1000, Alex.

  27.  I’m a Unitarian Universalist… and a PAGAN. Please don’t lump all UU’s into the “Christian” column. Just saying.

    The United Church of Christ is a super-liberal, almost-UU-like Christian church, but UU’s are not strictly Christian as an organization. Individual UU’s might consider themselves Christian, but the UUA is not.

  28. Catholic bishops, evangelical leaders, republican politicians, and “the Christian majority” are not synonomous. Be careful when you treat a group of people that amounts to a large portion of the population as if it were a single hive-minded organism, using the actions of one individual to “prove” the hypocracy of a seperate unique  individual’s statements.

    You make a good argument against the actions of the evangelical chaplains and a few of the more extreme republican congressmen. There are people that are way to heavy handed and I don’t agree with that. Of course it has no bearing on a group of Catholics Muslmims and Jews (In Europe btw) that want to make sure they won’t be forced to perform a sacred ceremony in a way that violates their deeply held teaching.

    The thing about the first ammendment, id that it allows everyone to make decisions based on moral convictions. This naturally enters into politics as electing a leader or chosing whether to pass or not pass a new law are all decisions that we make collectively. No religion should have an official preference over another… but that doesn’t mean that all religions will end up being equally visible in all corners of society. The more people share a particular value, the more that value is going to influence desicions which are made democratically.

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