Americans United Debunks Itself on Military Religious Freedom

When the Family Research Council published its “Clear and Present Danger” (PDF) report on the state of religious freedom in the US military, there was caterwauling from secularists and critics of religious freedom that the report was full of lies and fabrications. In the intervening months, however, no one actually sat down and rebutted the claims.

Granted, with 61 events contributing to what the authors call a “picture of the threat to religious liberty” in the US military, the breadth of the situation made it a daunting task to counter.

It’s also hard to refute because its true.

Chris Rodda, of Michael “Mikey” Weinstein’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation, gave a half-hearted attempt last June, discussing three of the events in what she called a “debunking” of the “Clear and Present Pack of Lies.”

She failed spectacularly.

Even though she confined her accusations to only three events (presumably choosing the easiest targets to “debunk”), she failed to demonstrate that anything reported in those three events was false.

Oh, she had her opinions about the events, certainly — but she did not come close to proving the FRC said one word that was factually incorrect. Notably, the point of her report was to claim that AFI 1-1 shouldn’t be altered — because these three events proved the rest of the report was a “pack of lies” (and, thus, all was well with religious liberty in the Air Force). That the Air Force did change AFI 1-1 gives some indication as to the little weight her voice carried.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State went further, going event by event through the entire report. The AU similarly titled their report “Clear and Present Falsehoods” (PDF) and portrayed their report as “debunking” and “disprov[ing]” the FRC report.

But the AU actually debunked itself.

Of the 61 events in the current edition of the FRC’s “Clear and Present Danger,” Americans United “debunked” 22 of the claims by using language like

  • “This incident did occur…”
  • “The claims…are generally true.”
  • “These claims are factually true.”
  • “It is true…”
  • “This claim is true…”

Does that sound remotely like “disproving” the report? The AU proved those events — it didn’t debunk them.

For another 29 of the events cited in the FRC report, Americans United provided more details or re-explained the facts as originally presented by the FRC — but the additional information substantiated the events, it did not dispute them. (In one case, the AU debunked a straw man using facts that supported the original FRC claim, and in another it cited and then “debunked” a claim made entirely outside the FRC report.)

In one case (#13), the AU cited contradictory facts that were actually wrong, but it still came to the same factual conclusion as the FRC. In two others (#37 and #55), the AU misstated the FRC position — and then “debunked” that misstated position.

In another (#52), the AU didn’t cite a contradictory fact: In a single sentence rebuttal, the AU cited a statement by the Army saying an investigation determined the FRC position was untrue.  This is the closest the AU came to actually “disproving” the FRC position — but they provided an opposing fact, not a contradictory one.  The AU did not attempt to explain the statements by servicemembers who were present and initiated the complaint, nor did the AU cite the actual Army report to explain how these troops reported one thing but the situation was determined not to have occurred. Thus, while the AU cited an opposing fact, its veracity is just as questionable as the original claim.

For 6 of the events, the AU repeated the FRC’s facts or expounded on them, but seemed to waver on making any declaratory statement on the event itself.  It neither debunked nor stood behind the claims.

For those who lost count, that’s all 61 events listed in the FRC report. Despite the critical claim it was going to “debunk” the FRC’s “falsehoods,” the AU didn’t prove a single thing in the FRC report to be false.

So, there were two attempts to “debunk” the FRC report — one by Chris Rodda, another by Americans United — both of which characterized the original report as “falsehoods” or a “pack of lies.” Yet neither effort actually proved a falsehood or lie in the original report.

What they did demonstrate, on occasion, was an ideological disagreement with what the facts meant. For example, referring to the FRC’s claim that the Air Force pulled a class on Just War theory, Americans United validated the claim and said [emphasis added]

The Air Force did properly pull a presentation…

In other words, the AU agreed with the FRC that the event factually occurred. The AU disagreed that the outcome of the event was a “bad” thing for religious liberty, but that makes the original claim neither “false” nor a “lie.”

It is unclear why Americans United felt the need to make the unnecessary — and ultimately incorrect — accusation that their ideological opponent wrote “falsehoods.” Historically, the AU has been somewhat less vitriolic than other organizations, so the digression into personal attack is slightly out of character. It might be that the two staff authors are in the AU’s “legislative” section and have no experience with either the military or its policy — but such ignorance should not inhibit the ability to tell the difference between the truth and “falsehood,” a failing clearly visible in the AU report. Ultimately, the AU stands to lose substantial credibility — if anyone actually reads and fact-checks their “report.”

For Chris Rodda, ad hominem is standard operating procedure. Rodda has practically defined her life by calling people “liars,” ranging from members of the military to members of Congress. As with her “pack of lies” report, however, Rodda never actually demonstrates the person she’s labeled a “liar” did, in fact, lie. (One wonders if she knows what the word even means.)

For Rodda, this is part of a larger pattern of failing to support her positions in her writing. Rodda can go on and on (and on and on, for brevity is also not her strong point) listing detail after detail without ever explaining how those details relate to her stated position — or, in many cases, without realizing those details don’t even support her position.

The concept of starting with a theme and following it with supporting sentences is a skill most learn in high school English class, but is something Rodda’s writing — as demonstrated in her “pack of lies,” as well as virtually all her other works — woefully lacks. As a result, her arguments frequently fall flat, if one looks just slightly beyond the strongly-worded assertion (“liar!”).  Fortunately for her and Mikey Weinstein, her sometime employer, few of their acolytes ever do.

There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with a person or an organization. The ability to have a different opinion — and to loudly proclaim that opinion — is a valuable aspect of freedom in American society. However, there is a stark difference between having a different opinion about the facts and disputing what those facts are. Despite their sensational claims to the contrary, both the AU and Chris Rodda seemed to actually agree with the facts of the events cited by the FRC. They disagreed with the propriety of the outcome of the situation, not the facts upon which the situation was based.

That Americans United and Chris Rodda had to stoop to ad hominem to make their case serves only to demonstrate the weakness of their argument.

In the end, their report can still be used, just not the way they intended: The Family Research Council produced a report of 61 events that demonstrated the “picture of the threat to religious liberty” in the US military. The Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) and Chris Rodda of the MRFF largely agreed those events did, in fact, occur.

When organizations from such disparate ideologies can agree on the facts, what does that tell you about the facts?

It would seem the FRC may have a strong argument to make about the state of religious liberty in the US military.