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Austin Cline

The Christian Right and Religious Coercion in the Military

By July 30, 2006

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The recent scandals about how religious minorities were treated at the Air Force Acadamy caused a great deal of concern in just about everyone except for one group: the Christian Right. It was on behalf of conservative, evangelical Christianity that the coercion and proselytization was done, so perhaps they saw nothing wrong with it all.

In the October/November 2005 issue of Free Inquiry, Laurence W. Britt writes about how the Christian Right reacted to revelations about religious coercion at the Air Force Academy:

As the scandal reverberated slowly through the media, Congressman David Obey (D-Wisconsin) sought to take effective action. He introduced a rider to the main defense appropriations bill that required the Academy to “maintain a climate free from religious coercion and inappropriate proselytizing by Air Force officials and others in the chain of command. . . .”

The rider asked for a report from the Academy within sixty days on plans to implement this reform. The rider was defeated narrowly, 210-198, the opposition being led by evangelical Christians, mostly Republicans, under the direction Tom DeLay. So the message goes out from Congress to the Air Force Academy: no need to make any changes, no need to report back to us.

Which do you suppose the Christian Right objected to more: eliminating inappropriate proselytization or just forcing the Air Force to report on their plans for dealing with it? I think probably the former — according to Christian Right leaders, evangelical chaplains in the military have a right to use their positions of authority to proselytize servicemen and women. They say that the First Amendment protects such behavior, ignoring the fact that we are talking about government employees doing a job for the government and with a captive audience.

Military chaplains exist because the government takes people away from their homes and has them do difficult jobs in far-off places around the world. Military personnel live restricted lives and chaplains are provided in order to ensure that they can exercise their own religious liberties to some extent. This is the only reason why such chaplains are constitutional — not having them would cross constitutional lines more readily.

If we start from this premise, emphasizing that chaplains exist for the sake of ensuring the religious liberty of military personnel, we see that the Christian Right has it wrong. In fact, they have it exactly backwards because they are claiming that military personnel must allow themselves to be subjected to proselytization and even coercion for the sake of the religious liberty of the chaplains.

To put it quite simply: any minister, priest, pastor, or other cleric who isn’t willing to put their religious beliefs and interests behind those of military personnel is simply unfit to serve as a military chaplain. There is no excuse for a chaplain evangelizing to people who don’t specifically request it.


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