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There Is No Right to Religious Proselytizing in U.S. Military

Todd Starnes of Fox News recently ignited a firestorm of controversy when he reported:

Religious liberty groups have grave concerns after they learned the Pentagon is vetting its guide on religious tolerance with a group [the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, or MRFF] that compared Christian evangelism to “rape” and advocated that military personnel who proselytize should be court martialed.

Also in the Fox article, the president of the Family Research Council commented on the recent Pentagon meeting with the MRFF, stating, “It threatens to treat service members caught witnessing as enemies of the state. Non-compliance, the Pentagon suggests, even from ordained chaplains could result in court-martialing on a case-by-case basis.”

Conservative media quickly seized on the story to criticize the Pentagon’s policy and to suggest that it was part of “an agenda to destroy any vestiges of Christianity in our military.”

However, Starnes failed to report important details of the story, and the claims of a deliberate Christian purge are patently unwarranted.

Had Starnes quoted the most relevant portion of the comments of Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen, readers would have learned the following:

The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions and respects (and supports by its policy) the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs. The Department does not endorse any one religion or religious organization, and provides free access of religion for all members of the military services.

The policies in question can be found in sections 2.11 and 2.12 of an official document of Air Force standards drafted last year, making them existing policy that the MRFF had no role in “vetting.” The document states:

Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. For example, they must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion. . . . All Airmen are able to choose to practice their particular religion, or subscribe to no religious belief at all. You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.

As if that were not clear enough, the Pentagon released another statement in which it clarified the specific meaning of its ban on religious proselytization: “Service members can share their faith (evangelize), but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs (proselytization).”

As part of the federal government, funded by taxpayers, the U.S. military is both morally and constitutionally correct to forbid religious proselytization and to discipline military personnel who violate this policy. As the Supreme Court emphasized in 1947, the establishment clause of the First Amendment means (among other things) that the government is forbidden to

prefer one religion to another. . . . In the words of [Thomas] Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.” . . . That wall must be kept high and impregnable.

Military personnel are both individual citizens and parts of the government. As individuals, they have a right to freedom of religion (or non-religion). As parts of the government, they have no right to push their religion on anyone. That is the policy of the U.S. military, and, in contrast to Starnes’s rabble-rousing report, it is fair and balanced.

By taking an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, all military service members are honor bound to uphold America’s “wall of separation between church and State”—not Christianity’s Great Commission. Any prospective service member who is unwilling to accept this legal and moral obligation is free to seek employment elsewhere.

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