Religious liberty and military personnel

No one escapes religion; the most he can do is trade one for another.

The first few centuries of Christianity were marked by a progression in the attitude of church leaders toward military service. That attitude was affected by the government’s deadly persecution of Christians in some eras, by the systemic idolatry and immorality in other times, by the barbarian threat and by the later acceptance of Christianity as an acceptable, even preferred, religion. These arguments were messy, clearly moved by the changing context within the Roman empire; but one thing was true throughout—a Christian’s conscience must remain inviolate if he is to serve the government. A believing soldier must be able to live according to the precepts of his God, not merely believe but actually practice his faith, if he is going to continue to be a soldier. This is a place where some compromises are unacceptable. Asking a man to compromise his faith in the pursuit of any career is asking him to trade one religion for another. It is also a mild form of persecution, but it is persecution and unworthy of the term “religious liberty.”

So what do we make of our current American context? The end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the U.S. military followed a path familiar when upstart dogma is forced on citizens by their magistrate. It fits an ideological or political need so is deemed necessary. Necessity is equated with established truth. Unforeseen consequences arise. The magistrate cannot budge without seeming a failure. A “benign” political faith statement becomes a flail to discourage dissent, or punish dissenters. The historical examples of this process usually involve the establishment or suppression of a religious faith. We are somewhere in the late “unforeseen consequences” stage of our current drama. 

Perhaps you’ve read the TEXAN stories on Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Philip Monk. Sergeant Monk found himself caught between his commander, a lesbian, and his conscience. Understand that Monk was not asked do something he found unacceptable but was asked his opinion on marriage by a superior who strongly believed in same-sex marriage. His unwillingness to answer as she wished resulted in his dismissal and reassignment. Are Sergeant Monk’s potentially career-ending troubles an unintended consequence of our government’s current definition of tolerance?  

The repeal of DADT also puts our military chaplains in an awkward place. Our North American Mission Board is an endorsing agency for Southern Baptist military chaplains. The guidelines released by NAMB indicated that Southern Baptist chaplains should not perform or even attend marriage-like ceremonies for same-sex couples. In a setting where such households are being forcibly normalized, a commissioned military officer puts his ministry at risk if he even appears to have doubts about the current program. I’m not saying he should put career above conviction; I’m saying that the loss of evangelical chaplains may be another unintended consequence of this social experiment. As Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler pointed out in his column on the subject, it could also mean the loss of Muslim and Jewish chaplains who believe the clear teachings of their own holy books. Although military chaplains still have the explicitly stated right to decline personal participation in services in conflict with the teaching of their endorsing faith, the end of DADT will create unimagined complications for chaplains who believe that God has created only two sexes and only one definition of marriage. I also see the possibility of evangelical chaplains being subtly edged to the margins of military life, unpromotable and destined for short careers. The problem is this draconian effort to normalize what most do not consider normal; but the view from the top will be that dissenters are grit in the social engineering gears.

I don’t think anyone in the administration or the Pentagon intends for evangelical Christian (or practicing Muslim and Jewish) personnel to have no chaplains for their tradition. I do believe they are incapable of understanding the difference between religious affiliation and life-changing faith. Someone who believes that God has spoken and that he must act on what God has said will live his faith. That faith will impact what he will and won’t do, what he can and can’t affirm. That has been true of Christian military personnel for as long as there have been Christian military personnel. Those who consider religious liberty something that ends Sunday morning at 12:00 or Saturday night at sundown cannot understand a transformed life.

The National Defense Authorization of Act for fiscal 2013, signed in January by President Obama, includes Section 533, “Protection of Rights of Conscience of Members of the Armed Forces and Chaplains of Such Members.” The intent of this section, which the president criticized after signing the bill, is to clarify that military personnel and their chaplains are still free to hold religiously based opinions. Chaplains cannot be required to “perform any rite…contrary to the conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the chaplain.” Neither can chaplains face “adverse personnel action…including denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment,” as a result of such refusal. The president’s response: “My Administration remains fully committed to continuing the successful implementation of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and to protecting the rights of gay and lesbian service members; Section 533 will not alter that.” It was the president who implied, calling Section 533 “ill-advised,” that the religious freedom of military personnel is incompatible with current policy. 

Our culture is changing, but not as quickly as some would wish. Our military personnel still reflect our culture as it is today, even leaning to the more conservative end of the spectrum. To push a progressive social agenda upon our service people from the more liberal top will be disruptive and more negative to morale and order than any dissenter could be. Christian soldiers will leave and Christian families will hesitate to send their sons and daughters into a context that persecutes their faith or guarantees short and rocky careers.

Historian Roland Bainton, in his survey of early Christian opinions of military service, notes a late third century persecution in which Christians were violently purged from the Roman legions. In an effort to determine how many Christians may have been serving during the early Christian era, Bainton cites another historian as guessing that Christians were relatively few because “no sovereign would readily deprive himself of a tenth or even of a twentieth of his military power.” Christians, evangelical Christians and Catholics, represent far more than a few of our current military personnel. Is our “sovereign” so committed to dogma that he will deprive himself of their service?

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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