Military Officers and Religious Ideology

As previously discussed, a civilian author recently criticized a military Chaplain for “expressing contempt” for the Constitution when he made “derogatory remarks about Islam:”

When a uniformed officer of the US military makes derogatory remarks about Islam, he’s violating [his] oath and expressing contempt of the First Amendment.

The comment was made by Jeff Sharlet, posting under the moniker Ishmael, on the Daily Kos website.  Sharlet is also the author of The Family, a book that purports to be an expose on a secretive and conspiratorial religious organization (the “Christian Mafia”) attempting to influence the US government.

The comment was in defense of Chris Rodda, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation researcher, when she criticized Camp David Chaplain (LtCdr) Carey Cash for his religious views.  Sharlet’s use of the word “derogatory” notwithstanding, is he right?  Can a religious leader of one faith in the military say nothing negative about another–even if such statements are consistent with the tenets of their faith?

The core question: Can a Chaplain (or any other military officer) espouse specific, even exclusive, religious ideology?

The shortest, most accurate answer: Yes.

No policy restricts a military member from espousing his religious beliefs.

Nothing in the Constitution, government policy, or any military regulation prohibits any military member from being Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, atheist, or holding to any other belief system.  Yet each of those systems have tenets which are incompatible with the others.

For example, Christians believe Jesus Christ was God incarnate and died on the cross.  Muslims believe he was a prophet who was replaced on the cross before he died.  Jews believe that the Messiah is yet to come.  Atheists think they’re all wrong, and some atheists even think religion itself is inherently dangerous.

Members of each of those belief systems are permitted to hold and express those beliefs, despite the fact that they may seem “derogatory” to another faith.  Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said

An individual’s ability to practice his or her religion has no bearing on others’ freedom of speech. The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions. These differences should be met with tolerance, not with the suppression of discourse.

A Christian in the military can espouse the belief that Islam is a false religion; a Muslim in the military can espouse the belief that Christians are infidels.  Their religious freedom and free exercise permit them to have and express those contradictory beliefs–even as uniformed US military officers.

Just as with every other citizen in the world with human liberty, no military member is required to hide, obscure, or change their belief system simply because it is inconsistent with those of other military members.

Are there times when military necessity or good order and discipline might constrain those liberties?  Perhaps, but current regulations already lean in favor of ideological adherents.

For example, Marine Corps regulations explicitly permit military members to wear their uniforms when participating in religious services (MCO P1020.34G 11003.1b(2)).  Army regulations explicitly permit religious services to be conducted as required by religious dictate (AR165-1, 4-4e).  Thus, the military already permits military officers to espouse their specific religious beliefs, even when in uniform.

That is not to say that a member of one religion should go on Oprah and degrade or belittle another in the name of “religious freedom.”  Nor does such freedom give anyone license to be disrespectful of other military members because of their beliefs.  Respecting someone, though, does not mean you have to agree with their beliefs.

When a military member of a specific belief system is congregating within the context of that belief system–either in a ceremony, study, lecture, or even written format–that military member is permitted to espouse the tenets of his faith, even if those tenets may be in conflict with the tenets of other beliefs.

Broadly speaking, then, when Jeff Sharlet suggests that speaking ill of Islam as a military officer is a “violation” of any kind, he may believe that to be true, but he is incorrect.

With regard to Chaplain Cash, the content of the book with which Sharlet takes issue is unabashedly and unapologetically Christian.  When Cash contrasts Islam and Christianity (the specific content at issue), he addresses his audience in the first person, indicating he is speaking with fellow believers.  Cash is entitled to espouse the tenets of his faith, even more so as a religious leader communicating with like-minded believers.  There is no requirement that he do any differently.  Finally, the book contains the infamous disclaimer that the views are his own, and not necessarily the position or endorsement of the military or the government.

Short of demanding that Cash censor his religious beliefs, for which there is no legal or military precedent in this case, Sharlet neither suggests nor has any recourse.  Rodda, Sharlet, and Weinstein’s MRFF may disagree with Cash’s religious freedom to espouse his views, but he is Constitutionally entitled to them.  That hasn’t stopped Weinstein from demanding his head, however:

A…public denouncement by the president of Lt. Cash’s [sic] dangerously outrageous statements must be made at once by President Obama [sic]. This…will send a…message that he will not…tolerate these…unconstitutional fundamentalist Christian religious ‘crusaders’ in [the] military…Lt. Cash should be swiftly removed from his Camp David chaplaincy slot and…publicly punished for his egregious statements…

Weinstein is calling for the “public punishment” of a Christian Chaplain for espousing Christian views; his excuse appears to be an inaccurately attributed quote from a book written five years ago.  That’s par for Weinstein’s course.  More telling, though, is Weinstein’s characterization of Chaplain Cash’s beliefs: he calls him one of the

unconstitutional fundamentalist Christian religious ‘crusaders’.

Cash has committed no act that qualifies for such an accusation.  Worse, Cash has said nothing that is significantly inconsistent with mainstream evangelical Protestant doctrine.  Weinstein is vilifying Cash–and, by extension, every other evangelical Protestant–based on his own interpretation of Cash’s beliefs.

That Weinstein’s calls for governmental discrimination on the basis of religious belief go unopposed is amazing, particularly given the fact that Weinstein claims he is defending, rather than opposing, Constitutional freedoms.  For example, as in this case, Weinstein routinely calls for governmental action based on nothing more than an expressed religious belief.  Thus, he is demanding the creation of a “religious test” prohibited by Article VI of the Constitution.

There was a time when being utterly intolerant of a differing belief system was considered socially unacceptable.  Weinstein’s public vitriolic contempt for the beliefs of evangelical Christianity appears to lack that social stigma.


  • Why no link to what I actually wrote, JD? Because anyone reading what I wrote would see that it wasn’t MRFF that went after Lt. Cash for his anti-Muslim statements? That it was actually the Washington Post and the Times of London, and that I was just reporting on the the reaction to the story around the world?

    MRFF’s issue with Lt. Cash was his involvement with Campus Crusade for Christ’s Military Ministry — particularly his statement: “First we get the military, then we get the nation.” I had written nothing about Cash’s anti-Muslim statements until it became apparent that this was the issue that newspapers and blogs around the world were zeroing in on from the Washington Post article.

    Here’s the link to what I actually wrote so your readers can see how you grossly distorted the story to feed your insatiable obsession to bash MRFF:

  • it wasn’t MRFF that went after Lt. Cash for his anti-Muslim statements

    MRFF’s founder, Weinstein, did–as quoted in your own article.

    Thus, your impassioned defense is untrue.

    That said, the MRFF view of Cash’s statements on Islam wasn’t the point, and your blog wasn’t the point. The point was “Rodda, Sharlet, and Weinstein’s MRFF…disagree with Cash’s religious freedom to espouse his views,” a point which you just reinforced.

    And do a little research, MRFF researcher. Chaplain Cash is not a Lieutenant.

  • Mikey’s quote was IN RESPONSE TO the revelation of the anti-Muslim statements in the Washington Post article, and the effect these statements were obviously having in other countries. This was not something that MRFF started. The Washington Post did. Sean Hannity even brought it up on FAUX News, saying that Obama should have done a better job of vetting this pastor! Does that mean Hannity thinks chaplains shouldn’t be allowed to express their religious views?

    And, Chaplain Cash most certainly is a Lieutenant. Apparently, you are unfamiliar with Navy rank insignia.

  • What does “who started it” have to do with anything? Your insistence on digressing to grade school irrelevancies is intriguing.

    This is about the incorrect opinions, asserted as fact, that military Chaplains cannot speak in accordance with their theology. This basic religious liberty is, as you state, one of the Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms with which the MRFF takes “issue.”

    Have you seen Chaplain Cash in uniform recently? While there are undated photos of him in Lieutenant rank (which he has held since at least 2003), a variety of public records indicate that is not his pay grade. Admittedly, the USNR may operate under an abnormal arrangement regarding status.

    But then, as a “senior research director” consulting with the MRFF, you probably already took the time to find that out. Then again, I know you use this site for research, so maybe you’re waiting for me to tell you where to find it…

  • I use this site for research????? That’s freakin’ hysterical!!! Thanks for the laugh!!!

    And, by the way, I’m not “consulting” for MRFF. I work for MRFF full-time, and Senior Research Director is my title. But, since you seem to get such a kick out of describing my position with MRFF in so many different ways to trivialize me, you can keep doing that. At least my job will never be replaced by a robot like yours will. But I’m sure you’ll be able to get a job with FAUX News when that happens. You’ve definitely got a knack for spinning stories. I’m sure they’d be glad to have you.

  • Chris,

    If you call it FAUX news, then why do you reference it as a source of good information? Anyway, if Chaplain Cash is a Lt (O-3) then his current stature is pretty impressive. Somehow I think that he got promoted since his Lt. days…

  • I didn’t reference FAUX News as a source of good information! I referenced it as a source that would usually be in disagreement with the positions of MRFF, but in this case said the same thing we’re saying.

    As for Cash’s rank, even if he has been promoted to O-4 by now, it makes absolutely no difference in regard to the issues raised by MRFF or the Washington Post about the things he said and wrote as an O-3. Unless a promotion suddenly made him change his views on Islam and converting the entire military to Christianity, his rank is irrelevant.

  • Chris,

    You’re saying that you can use Fox news as a reference when it agrees with you, but when it disagrees with you it’s FAUX news? Sounds like biased research…

    Even if a military officer’s views and desires are controversial, you have to evaluate his actions. If you maintain that a military officer always carries his rank then when is that officer allowed to express his personal opinions? I ask that because I am a military officer and want to know on a practical level what your position is.

  • You are missing my point about FAUX News. JD claimed that by saying that Cash’s statements about Islam are a problem, and that Obama complimenting Cash has caused a problem, MRFF is saying that chaplains can’t express their religious views. By JD’s logic, that would mean that Sean Hannity, who usually defends any kind of religious expression anywhere by anybody, also thinks that chaplains can’t express their religious views. Both MRFF and Hannity were making exactly the same point — that Obama should have vetted this chaplain better. Our reasons, of course, were different — MRFF’s concern was the perception of Obama by the world, while Hannity was just relishing the possibility that Obama might have another “pastor problem” on his hands — but our conclusion was the same.

    As for an officer expressing their personal opinions, there is a big difference between a Christian chaplain expressing a theological opinion that their religion is the “true” religion and a chaplain making denigrating statements about another religion. But, as I already said in previous comments, this was not MRFF’s issue with Cash until his statements about Islam were made public by the Washington Post. MRFF’s problem with Cash was his statement “First we get the military, then we get the nation,” which he made via video during a speech by Campus Crusade for Christ’s Military Ministry’s director. There was clearly a statement advocating Campus Crusade’s mission of proselytizing of the entire U.S. military, something that no chaplain should be promoting.

  • Chris,

    I see your point, but I have a problem with you referring to a news organization as false in the same paragraph where you commend the fact that the news organization is agreeing with you.

    Due to lack of time (and sleep) I haven’t reviewed the video clip. Does Cash present this view while in uniform? If not, why is it unconstitutional for a military officer to wish something that he sees as good to happen to the entire military? Isn’t that what you are also trying to do-advocate something that you see as good to the entire military and then to the nation?

  • Miss Rodda is delusional. As a paid shill for MRFF, she is required to come up with outrageous anti-Christian rhetoric to satisfy her boss, Weinstein. Their words are one. MRFF needs to embrace the idea that we have freedom of religion in our military, not freedom from any other religion than “American patriotism,” which is Weinstein’s stated goal on his website. Ironically for the small minds at MRFF, American patriotism has always rested on the notion of “God and country.” Bzzzzzp!