Whenever conservative Christian groups see a court decision or a new law that runs counter to their belief set, one of their tactics in recent times is to whine “you’re violating our rights!” Whether it is marriage equality, abortion, removing references to “God” from public buildings and property, Sunday alcohol sales, you name it; if it’s something that conservative Christians object to you can bet that a spokesperson for a right wing Christian group will be in front of a microphone, decrying how the government is persecuting them because a legislature or a court decided to write or interpret law that is based on the Constitution and not the Bible.
One of the latest examples of this “poor persecuted us” syndrome is actually an attack on the U.S. military.
In 2011, General Norton Schwartz, who was at the time U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, sent a memo entitled “Maintaining Government Neutrality Regarding Religion” to military officials that advised the following:
Leaders at all levels must balance Constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and its 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. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order, and discipline.
This past May conservative bloggers falsely claimed that the military was considering court-martialing Christian soldiers who talk about or attempt to spread their beliefs. Leading the charge was Breitbart.com, which published a story on May 1 entitled “Pentagon May Court Martial Soldiers Who Share Christian Faith.” The story was based on a very out of context quote by Defense Department spokesman Nate Christensen. Christensen told Fox News Radio commentator Todd Starnes that
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.
Court martials and non-judicial punishment are decided on case-by-case basis and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome in specific cases.
However, religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense.
The Pentagon confirmed to Fox News that Christian evangelism is against regulations.
“Religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense, LCDR Nate Christensen said in a written statement. He declined to say if any chaplains or service members had been prosecuted for such an offense.
“Court martials and non-judicial punishments are decided on a case-by-case basis and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome in specific cases,” he said.
Enter our friends at the Family Research Council. This past Tuesday they released a report on religious freedom in the military that is nothing more than a series of brief anecdotes offering examples of cases the FRC claims prove that Christians are being persecuted in the armed services. The report contains references for each of the events it cites, but on close examination it is obvious that most of the references come from questionable or biased sources. (For example, a claim that the Houston National Cemetery was prohibiting Christian prayers at military funerals made by Republican representative John Culbertson references only Culbertson’s claim, with no other sources.) In fact, a sizable portion of the references come from only two sources: Breitbart.com and Fox News Radio’s Todd Starnes.
Once again Christian conservatives have managed to portray themselves as a persecuted minority, simply because the Pentagon has properly informed its commanders that all soldiers, sailors, marines,and airmen have a right to religious liberty, which includes the freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion. It may do well for members of the Family Research Council and their allies to read the history of early Christianity, so that they might gain a perspective on what it was like to truly be a member of a persecuted minority.