Higher Power in the U.S. Armed Forces

Humanists clearly reject the imposition of dogmatic thinking but must acknowledge the necessity of authoritative command ingrained in the structure of the U.S. Armed Forces.

On July 20, 2007, the Department of Defense’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report substantiating claims that high-ranking Army and Air Force personnel violated regulations when they participated in a promotional video for the Christian Embassy while in uniform and on active duty. The video offered effusive testimonials–from several generals, two colonels, six Congressmen, two ambassadors and other appointed officials–to the non-profit organization, established in 1978 to evangelize members of the military and politicians in Washington via daily Bible studies and other events. The DOD report stated that the video was intended to “raise funds and attract supporters” for the Christian Embassy rather than to merely “document the Pentagon Chaplain’s ministry” as was stated in the original request for permission to film at the Pentagon.

Air Force Major General Jack Catton, who defended his appearance in the video by asserting that Christian Embassy had become a “quasi-Federal entity,” had this to share on camera:

    As I meet the people that come into my directorate I tell them right up front who Jack Catton is. And I start with the fact that I’m an old-fashioned American, and my first priority is my faith in God, then my family, and then country. . . . You have many men and women who are seeking God’s counsel and wisdom as we advise the Chairman and the Secretary of Defense. Hallelujah!

But what about the men and women in the military who aren’t seeking God’s counsel and wisdom?

There’s no getting around the power differential imposed by the military structure; using an official position of authority in connection with personal activities implies sanction or endorsement of those activities. Moreover, it specifically violates a section of the DOD’s “Joint Ethics Regulation.” Religion in the military must therefore be contained to private interest. However, as detailed in the September/October Humanist, such a limited role for one’s personal truth runs contrary to the core beliefs of evangelical Christians and has led to constitutional violations, namely at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Mikey Weinstein, the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, sued the Air Force Academy in 2005 for religious discrimination and also wrote the letter to the Inspector General that prompted the aforementioned investigation into the Christian Embassy video. The July 20 OIG report ends with the recommendation that the secretary of the Air Force and the Army chief of staff “consider appropriate corrective action with respect to the military officers concerned.” Such exposure of violations should be celebrated, but as the former Air Force Academy cadet and three faculty members (two of whom have recently been reassigned) writing in the current issue of the Humanist suggest, systematic changes are yet to come.

“The rise of evangelical Christianity inside the military went on steroids after 9/11 under this administration and this White House,” Weinstein stated with characteristic grit in a widely distributed interview. Let’s hope the analogy doesn’t extend any further–that, unlike doping scandals in cycling and Major League Baseball, violations of the establishment clause and issues of religious intolerance in the military are dealt with handily before the American public’s collective shrug ensues.

Jennifer Bardi is the editor of the Humanist.