Secular groups take aim at mandatory military religion


Troops reenlisting in Afghanistan. How many should be sent home for failing a religious test for public office?

Atheists are in foxholes and always have been. Yet the Air Force has recently dug in to try to oust those who don’t fit new religious (read: Christian) requirements. In early August, a MAAF member, an Air Force NCO, reported that he was being denied the opportunity to re-enlist in the Air Force unless he agreed to say “So Help me God”, thus requiring submission to a divine being in contradiction to the Constitution and his own personal beliefs. MAAF has received this complaint many times, and the resolution normally requires not much more than a phone call to the local command to remind them of the Constitution. (MAAF has an FAQ written that has helped many with such issues.) Now for some reason, the Air Force has implemented a new God-only oath policy. Presumably someone in the Department of Defense will come to their senses and offer the same secular affirmation that has been available in the Air Force and elsewhere before, but as of now, it looks like certain officials plan to fight for a Christian nation.

Bryan Fischer of the fundamentalist Christian American Family Association (AFA) praises the new Air Force policy and says no atheist should serve in the military because, in his world, the United States is by-Christians, for-Christians and others are second-class citizens at best. He ignores legal precedent, the 1st Amendment protections of freedom of religion and government neutrality toward religion, and the specific Article VI Constitutional prohibition against a religious test for public office. (Update: AFA General Counsel Patrick Vaughn contradicts Fischer’s opinion, showing clear legal precedent (and Biblical precedent) for secular affirmation.)

This issue is so ridiculous that even atheists were skeptical that the problem was real. Common responses on social media included: “Absolutely not! That’s the reason there is an option to ‘affirm’, just as in the courts,” and “We were told when I first enlisted in the Air Force in 1989 that I didn’t have to say under god if I was uncomfortable with it. I was never told I couldn’t reenlist if I didn’t say under god.” Atheists, always skeptical, wanted evidence for what seemed both entirely ridiculous on its face and out of step with their own experience. As this story has been picked up by major media, secular organizations, and fundamentalist pundits, it has become clear to all that the advance of Christianization and anti-atheist sentiment is well-entrenched.

After the initial August report, MAAF reached out to the American Humanist Association Legal Center (AHLC) which drafted a legal challenge to the NCO’s command laying out the very clear Constitutional right to a secular affirmation and the very simple accommodations that would resolve the issue: offer a verbal secular affirmation and allow for line-out of the religious portion listed on the form. Our joint efforts were successful quickly with an Air Force officer last year, yet something has changed. In response to this issue, the Air Force not only denied the request but hid behind US Code Section 502 which has been in place for decades. Hopefully this is just an effort to make more clear the secular options available, yet we will now be made to fight to keep that right.

A Navy officer gives a secular affirmation in the Pentagon in August 2014. This is a simple accommodation of equal rights:

Always the fast follower on high-visibility issues, Mikey Weinstein has gathered a few of the tens of thousands of military personnel facing ouster from the military over this issue. In a letter to Secretary Hagel, MRFF warns of the expulsion of honorable and effective military members. On September 19th in front of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, Mikey will join representatives from the Center For Religious Liberty and Chaplain Alliance. The three will show clearly how evangelical Christianity is under attack in the military, one from the perspective of Constitutional governance and two from the perspective of proselytizing using government authority. MAAF has also submitted testimony to be read into the record at the hearing. This testimony highlights church-state violations but focuses primarily on the accommodation for humanists and chaplaincy reform that will allow for Christians, atheist, humanists, Hindus, and others to serve effectively alongside each other in a truly inclusive and diverse military.

Several groups have taken aim at the Christian evangelism so prevalent in the US military. Bibles at hotels and entrance processing are the latest targets. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Humanist Association have put their legal teams to work against military hotel Bibles and enlistment processing stations, respectively. Later, the Mikey  jumped in on those issues in the press as well. They, like MAAF, have been involved for quite a while, but maybe with unified effort to remove evangelism from the military, there might be compliance with this round of reforms. There should never be the impression that only one group is fighting a lone fight to protect secular values in the military. It’s counterproductive to progress and disrespectful to the larger movement.

This oath issue comes on the heels of secular challenge to Bible distribution in hotels and enlistment processing stations. Several years ago, MAAF orchestrated the removal of an explicit requirement to stock Bibles at Air Force hotels. As reported by MAAF, this was an auxiliary effort of the more comprehensive and difficult community-building, leadership education, and generally positive outreach MAAF primarily focuses on. We have Chaplain Outreach, local groups, lay leaders, and even a pending chaplain candidate. Much of this is overlooked when some try to defend Bibles with claims of anti-social atheists, a Christian US or military, or that such items are simply harmless.

But the fact is, command preference for placing Bibles in prominent places just exacerbates many other cultural impositions of Christianity within the military. And in the military, a culture that reinforces social norms as a primary part of its mission, what would in normal circumstances be easy to overlook becomes a looming call to Church. And the new requirement to swear to God is so clearly a choice of fundamentalist Christianity over Constitutional values, we should all be on notice that Christian fundamentalism has taken long strides in subverting our government. It becomes more and more important to stand up for military troops, or if you’re in the military, stand up for your rights.



4 Responses to Secular groups take aim at mandatory military religion

  1. I find it unfortunate, that the masses insist religion should be accommodated in the military. Personally, I prefer that any exhibition or affirmation of religious affiliation be explicitly forbidden. It would serve to make the military stronger, as oppose to divided by internal conflicts which are irrelevant in regard to security and protection.

  2. I am a devout fundamentalist Christian. I have a radical viewpoint. I don’t believe a devout fundamentalist Christian has any place in the American military. There are so many ways that this is wrong. A fundamentalist Christian who follows Christian principles would not be able to serve in the military because what is being asked in service can be contrary to Christian doctrine. The presidents of the United States have not been — in my lifetime — Godly Christians. And I presume that the leaders in the military below the President are likewise not Godly Christians. So to take orders from ungodly people and being required to obey them without question is not possible for a devout fundamentalist Christian. The Bible clearly states you cannot serve two masters. In the Bible, it is talking about God and money. But it also applies to God and anything that is not godly. A fundamentalist Christian cannot serve God and serve in the military at the same time because the military can and does ask one to act in a non-Christian way against Christian doctrine. I believe a fundamentalist Christian in the military is a hypocrite. In a secular job, a fundamentalist Christian can say, “No,” and quit the job when the employer asks us to act against our doctrine. In the military, I presume one cannot say, “No,” without severe consequences. There is no place for a devout fundamentalist Christian in the military. Every fundamentalist Christian you meet in the military is a hypocrite. Why? Because fundamentalism means you believe there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. With other “Christian” denominations, they allow for gray areas.

    I hope my viewpoint in helpful and encourages you — my atheist brothers and sisters — to pursue your rights to serve in the military. I feel safer being protected by an free-thinking atheist than a Christian hypocrite.

    God bless you!

  3. As a life long Unitarian Universalist and veterans’ advocate, I applaud the work you are doing. A UU military Chaplain friend of mine was railroaded out of his post by other Chaplains who didn’t like him teaching Zen meditation and holding drumming circles.

    My partner, Ed Tick has trained military Chaplains for the last few years and has found many of them (he was told over 50%)are evangelicals who see our troops as “souls to be saved.” The Chaplain corps are whoefully unprepared for their task and certainly for serving troops who are not Christian. My organization, Soldier’s Heart focuses on the wounding to the heart and spirit (meaning the will, the life force, the center of meaning) that happens in the military, especially in war. Most of the troops and veterans we work with either never even saw a chaplain or were given inappropriate Jesus talk.

    The “spirituality” we encourage is the path of the Warrior – in the archetypal sense of the word – the protector, the defender, the peace keeper, the one who creates rather than destroys, does the right thing and walks with integrity. When we teach this to those we work with, it gives them a new, honorable identity to grow into, rather than abandoning them to “hell and damnation,” as so many of them feel. Again, thank you.

  4. The whole theist thing will be a danger in my future enlistment, i want to become a marine lets hope you guys will be able to back me up when i refuse to sign anything that has to do with God.

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