Military Maneuvers: A New Day for Religion in the Armed Forces?

By Lynn, Barry W. | Church & State, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Military Maneuvers: A New Day for Religion in the Armed Forces?


Lynn, Barry W., Church & State


I have spoken to many people in lots of different venues: to a million people at a women's rights rally on the National Mall, to 1,000 Christian Reconstructionists at a Georgia conference and to local meetings that attract a few dozen attendees.

Until last month, however, I had never had a chance to speak to 500 Air Force officers. Oh, and did I mention, that I spoke to these soon-to-be-commanders at Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery, Ala., during an "active shooter exercise"?

I didn't know what that was either until a few days before my arrival when I was informed that my session would start earlier than expected because everyone needed to be ready for a "lock down." This kind of drill involves a person pretending to be an armed gunman who will roam around the base at will for a few hours or so to help the leadership figure out if the staff is following orders for such a potentially devastating terrorist attack.

I was there at the invitation of Lt. Col James E. Parco to do a debate and discussion with the American Center for Law and Justice's Jay Sekulow on issues of religion in the military. As we were munching on breakfast, we both thought it would be very likely that all these commanders would be a prime "target" for the exercise and that we could almost certainly anticipate an interruption of our session. But we were wrong - there was no break-in during our presentations. So much for our military strategy acumen!

Religious issues in the military are taking on a very high profile these days. Some chaplains insist that they must be allowed to pray in Jesus' name even when they know that the gathering before them includes a variety of believers and non-believers as well.

Americans United's legislative staff worked overtime (again) to stop an amendment to a Defense Department funding authorization bill that would have guaranteed such a "right" to pray in a sectarian manner. (The measure was sponsored by Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a key Religious Right ally.)

Some chaplains are also demanding the right to overtly condemn the behavior of gay and lesbian service members if the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is overturned and persons of any sexual orientation may serve openly. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention has suggested that allowing gays to serve openly would make it more difficult for that denomination even to continue to provide chaplains.

The problem with this view of chaplains as conduits for their own theological views is that military chaplains do not function like a local pastor, rabbi or imam. First, they are paid for with the tax dollars of all of us. Second, they are part of an institution with a unique chain of command. …

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