The Constitution and Military Christianity

Christian fighter pilots face a unique challenge in their roles as “government officials” and religious individuals.  The struggle is ongoing in large part because the American public is confused or misinformed about the correct relationship between religion and society.  Weak Christian responses to these public misperceptions have failed to reverse the resulting rise of secularism in America.

Misunderstandings of the proper role of religion in American society have 200 years of history behind them and center on a few simple words in the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The single sentence may seem self-contradictory because laws that are intended to avoid establishment may potentially restrict free exercise.  (The existence of military chaplains is the most frequently cited “paradox.”)  The responsibility for clarification generally falls to the Supreme Court, since it is the de facto “interpreter” of the Constitution (Marbury v. Madison).  Unfortunately, some judicial decisions have been ambiguous, contradictory, or even wrong, so they have sometimes only added to the confusion.

In recent years, however, some issues haven’t even made it to the Supreme Court, or even to court at all.  More challenges are being conceded in their early stages because public perception has slowly become biased against religion in public.  When situations regarding the role of religion in society are cleverly summarized in sound-bite headlines the public often gets the wrong perception.  If a billboard with the word God on it comes down and an atheist cries victory—even if it came down for a completely irreligious reason—the public learns to think that is the way things should be.  This is particularly true when a “scandal” arises respecting religion in the military.  When the public learns erroneous lessons from cases like these secularists gain significant ground.  The root cause of the public misperception is less the facts and more the poor “public relations” efforts of those who support the positive role of religion in society. 

A single victory, scandal, or policy reversal—even for non-religious reasons—strengthens the secularists’ position and further confuses the issue in the public arena.  As an example, the Santa Maria Times recently reported that a poster of the American flag with the words God Bless America—which had been hanging since the terrorist attacks in 2001—was removed from the Post Office because an atheist expressed offense.  It is likely that the actual reason for the removal was a Post Office policy that prohibited nonstandard wall hangings.  As the political activist atheist cries “victory,” however, the American public is left to believe that an atheist complained and the US Post Office conceded because he was right.  The situation has supported the perception, however inaccurate, that the word God cannot appear in a government-related facility.

Though his intentions were reportedly the opposite, Navy Lieutenant Klingenschmitt has also helped foster a misperception of religion in the military.  The Chaplain was court-martialed in September for inappropriately wearing his uniform at a partisan political event.  Military members are prohibited from appearing in uniform in political settings to avoid official embarrassment or the perception of military endorsement.  Klingenschmitt, however, claimed he was punished because his prayer used “Jesus’ name.”  The fact that Klingenschmitt was convicted of something irreligious—disobeying a legitimate and lawful order—has been overshadowed by his claims of religious persecution.  His conviction in the face of his assertions may create the perception that military Christians are not allowed to pray in Jesus’ name.  That misperception could negatively impact every military Christian if someone lodges a complaint or restricts a prayer based on the incorrect belief—fostered by the Chaplain—that “Jesus’ name” is unauthorized.

Even Mr. Michael Weinstein’s latest attack on “religion” in the Air Force will undoubtedly create misperceptions.  Weinstein wrote a scathing opinion column in the Air Force Times that “demanded” the removal of “Christian symbology” from the patch and unit name of the 523rd Fighter Squadron Crusaders.  The Air Force will probably let time solve the issue; the last round of base closures slated the 523rd to be deactivated.  When the unit ceases to exist within the year, Weinstein’s timing can make him seem causal; if no one rebuts that perception, the public will see yet another case of religion “rightfully” being removed from the military.

Another source of secularist “victories” influencing public perception is essentially economic secularization.  Activist legal firms with significant financial resources have threatened local governments and school districts with withering and costly litigation in response to potential religious issues.  Under current laws the loser in such a suit can be forced to pay the attorneys’ fees of the other party.  Faced with a potentially bankruptcy-inducing court battle, some have simply opted to acquiesce and eliminated the contested condition without regard to the Constitutional accuracy of the accuser.  The monetary and public relations cost is judged to be not worth the protection of religious freedom.

In forcing settlements by threatening to wage cost-prohibitive litigation law firms have replaced the Supreme Court as the interpreter of the Constitution.  They choose which actions are and are not impermissible.  They enforce their will on the American public at their whim.  As a revenue producer it is an admirable example of capitalism and free enterprise; this form of policy-making, however, is not the essence of a democracy.

Any American citizen—Christian fighter pilots and other military members included—is free to exercise his legal and Constitutional rights until they impede on another’s.  That “boundary” may be an uncomfortable limit, but there is no Constitutional protection against offense.  In fact, in its protection of minority rights the Constitution virtually guarantees that people will be offended.  In a free society people are allowed to have and express their own thoughts and beliefs—whether they are good, bad, wrong, or right.  This “right to be wrong” or even offensive specifically includes religion; again, there is a Constitutional right to exercise religion, but no Constitutional protection against being exposed to religion.  If someone disagrees with the expression of another’s beliefs, they are free to exercise their equivalent Constitutional rights to express their disagreement.  They cannot demand the silence of the other and claim the Constitution as justification.

Unfortunately, the trend in public perceptions on the role of religion in public society—and specifically the military—continues to favor secularism.  Confusion about what the Constitution actually allows has led the American public to believe that religion should, in many cases, be separated from society.  This misinformed belief is epitomized by the popularity of the phrase “separation of church and state” in Constitutional debates, even though the phrase itself is not found or implied in the Constitution.  These misperceptions can be reversed and the truth of the Constitution restored, but only with active, concerted efforts on the part of those who support the proper, constitutionally correct role of religion in society.  If challenges are left unanswered, litigation goes uncontested, and restrictions are accepted in silence, secularists will prevail.  Christian fighter pilots—indeed, all supporters of religion—must make a stand to stem the unconstitutional erosion of religious freedom and reverse the rise of secularism in America.

Return to God and Country.
Go to