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.