Disturbing, upsetting, baffling: these words often apply when young troops face religious pressure or discrimination for the first time.
And it disturbs, upsets, and baffles me that a nation founded on religious freedom produces people that want to abridge or eliminate that freedom in the (false) name of following Christ.
It also disturbs, upsets, and baffles me that a military that is supposed to defend our Constitutional freedoms, to include freedom of religion, occasionally works in ways that undermine that very freedom.
I was born and raised within the Catholic church, but I would never push my religious beliefs on someone else. Certainly not in a military context, in which supervisory authority is nearly absolute.
I believe there is a place for God (or gods, or no god) in the military, and a place for chaplains. Troops should be able to worship freely in the military, as is their right as American citizens. But there’s no place for proselytizing, pressure, “mandatory” Bible studies, and all the rest of that.
I remember how much Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy changed between my first tour there (1990-92) and my second (1998-2002). Lots of evangelical organizations (like Focus on the Family) built headquarters just to the east of the AF Academy. I started to see that evangelical influence permeate the Academy. I suppose I was lucky I left in 2002, just before the scandals involving religious discrimination broke.
The military attracts many young people looking for certitude as well as a mission, a calling. Some of these young people come to espouse a narrow form of “Christianity,” one that sees itself as uniquely American and uniquely suited to a military context.
Yet how can troops take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which enshrines freedom of religion, and then work to curtail or offend the religious freedoms of others?
Here’s what people need to remember about military settings: the authority of your direct supervisor is nearly absolute. If your drill sergeant, your platoon commander, your company commander, makes it obvious that he or she favors Christianity, it puts enormous pressure on subordinates to conform, or at least to fake it.
If your boss in a civilian setting is an assertive Christian evangelist, at least you have the option of quitting (however painful that might prove). There is no option in the military of “quitting” your platoon, your company, your unit. Furthermore, in a war zone, refusing to conform to an evangelical zealot as a leader could literally become a matter of life and death. Hey, Private Jones, you’re an atheist: go ahead and walk point again, i.e. take the lead as the unit walks through dangerous enemy territory infested with IEDs and snipers. Maybe that’ll give you some faith in God. Ha ha.
Again, the U.S. military must remember its purpose: to support and defend the Constitution. In fulfilling that purpose, there is simply no place for evangelism of any religion, Christian or otherwise.
Note: Since 2005, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has fought to ensure religious freedom within military settings. The foundation represents nearly 45,000 service members, 96% of whom identify as Christian. Find out more about the MRFF at http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org.