The long-simmering controversy regarding the role of religion in society has burst into the open again this week, with Defense Department officials being forced to clarify the DoD's policy on proselytizing religion in the military as conservative and religious commentators condemn the policy as anti-Christian persecution. The dustup began after an April 23, 2013 meeting of Pentagon officials with activists seeking to prevent undue religious influence in the military. The Pentagon's subsequent statement on the policy — that it only prohibited proselytizing but not evangelizing — only muddied the waters further, as it is unclear where one ends and another begins. The result has been a public battle between the religious right, cheered on by Fox News Radio's Todd Sarnes, and a coalition supporting a greater separation of religion and the military being led by Mikey Weinstein and his Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a group he founded in 2005.
Hyperbole abounds. In a May 2 interview with Sean Hannity, Starnes did not hold back, accusing the U.S. military under the Obama administration of "Christian cleansing." For his part, the MRFF's Weinstein seems to give as good as he gets, calling fundamentalist Christians "monsters who terrorize their fellow Americans by forcing their weaponized and twisted version of Christianity upon their helpless subordinates" in the military.
Despite the recent attention, the policy against proselytization is nothing new. The prohibition dates back to a DoD directive issued in early 2009 and was itself adopted from guidelines issued by the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission in August of 2008 regarding unwelcome religious expression in the workplace. Prohibited behaviors include derogatory comments about another worker's religion and trying to convert those who had previously declined.
Contrary to Starne’s claims of a "Christian cleansing," the military remains a thoroughly Christian institution, with 68.6% of enlisted personnel identifying as one form of Christian or another. Not only that, but there have been far more reported instances of discrimination by Christians against non-Christians over the years than the other way around. Examples of bias include requiring prayer at events with mandatory attendence, distribution of bibles with armed-service insignias to enlisted men, and preferential treatment for Christians over non-Christians. All of these raise potential issues of church and state as well as Equal Protection.
This issue represents more than the latest flare-up in the culture wars. It raises serious questions. How does the separation between church and state apply to soldiers, who don't just work together, but very often live together in tight-knit groups? Especially with regard to evangelical Christians (who are often known to evangelize), one person's proselytizing can be another's religious expression. Perhaps a more difficult, but pertinent, question for the Pentagon is how are evangelical Christian soldiers and officers perceived abroad, especially in Muslim countries? It's hard to convince the native population that your soldiers aren't modern-day Crusaders when your rifles have Biblical inscriptions on them. When evangelical Christianity is so entrenched in the culture of our armed forces, is it even possible at this point to mitigate its effects? Whatever the outcome, this issue will only be the latest in the unending battle between the pious and the secular over the issue of church and state.