STRATCOM Revokes Christian Pastor’s Invitation over Religious Beliefs
Retired US Army LtCol Tom Gray, now a contractor at the global nuclear US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, recently issued a press release (PDF) celebrating his “vigilance” over the “separation of church and state.” Gray announced he’d had Dr. Philip Kayser of the Dominion Covenant Church in nearby Omaha disinvited from speaking at the Offutt Chapel. According to Gray, Kayser had planned on giving “a class on leadership from a Christian perspective.” Gray objected:
Dr. Kayser’s beliefs…can be found online. I brought my concerns to Captain Yi, the USSTRATCOM chaplain, and the invitation was revoked.
The STRATCOM decision to disinvited the local pastor is problematic — and disturbing.
First, it’s worth noting even Gray — despite his complaint — admits the lecture would not have been “controversial” [emphasis added]:
The leadership class that Dr. Kayser was to present…is based on “The 5Cs of the Healthy Leader”…Much of it is practical advice about identifying “joy givers” and “joy suckers” in our lives and the importance of being of good character.
Most people would not find this class controversial.
Second, as an atheist, why does Tom Gray care that a pastor was invited to give a Christian lecture at the chapel? Gray ultimately answered that question and revealed his underlying prejudice:
Spreading beliefs can have both good outcomes and bad. Certainly spreading a mindset that advocates the supremacy of religious belief over secular government can have tragic consequences.
[This] is a case of extremist beliefs exploiting the well intentioned efforts of others to spread a faith based on “love”.
Gray took issue with Kayser’s faith — his type of religious beliefs. Gray essentially decided Kayser was the “wrong kind” of Christian — and he, as an atheist, made that decision for the Christian community at STRATCOM.
Further, Gray-the-atheist ironically declared Christianity a “faith based on love” and then he decided Kayser was misusing that faith — and should therefore be prohibited by the government from speaking to the Offutt chapel.
According to Gray, STRATCOM Chaplain Mil Yi, a US Navy Captain, withdrew the pastor’s invitation to a Christian speaking event because of those religious beliefs.
In what American government institution is it acceptable to take action against someone based solely on his religious beliefs?
To assert that one has to have the Right Kind of ReligionTM, as determined by Tom Gray, in order to speak at the Offutt AFB chapel is simultaneously laughable and depressing — and potentially illegal.
Again, Tom Gray is an atheist. He wasn’t going to go to a lecture at the chapel on ‘leadership from a Christian perspective’ anyway. Gray was vicariously offended — and he proactively sought to end an opportunity for others to do what he didn’t even want to do.
Religious Beliefs and Religious Freedom
The specific beliefs with which Gray took issue have been intentionally omitted to make a point: religious liberty, including the freedom to express religious beliefs, is a protected right within the US — and within the US military — regardless of the content of those beliefs. Some beliefs will absolutely be offensive to others. That’s why such protection is needed. If everyone agreed, legal and constitutional protections wouldn’t even be necessary.
There were two primary tenets of Dr. Kayser’s beliefs with which Tom Gray took issue. Neither was related to the topic on which he was invited to speak.
First, Gray insinuated that Kayser supported “religious belief over secular government.” That’s a common anti-theist caricature of Christianity which tries to frame traditional Christianity as near-sedition. Naturally, Christians (and Jews, and Muslims) believe God is above government. After all, God’s Word says God establishes (and removes) governments, not the other way around. Any Christian that believes God falls under the US government has a twisted — and quite unchristian — view of God. (In fact, any religion that has a “god” subject to the government of man has a tiny god, indeed.) If Gray is allowed to continue to enforce his personal standard against Christians via the Offutt chaplaincy, it seems unlikely any Christian can ever speak at STRATCOM.
Second, Gray took issue with Kayser’s views on homosexuality, going so far as to awkwardly try to associate Kayser with the controversial laws banning homosexuality in Uganda. Kayser’s views on homosexuality spring more from his views on Old Testament law in general. Oversimplified, in his discussion about the death penalty (PDF) Kayser appears to pine for the return of some Old Testament standards which would expand the death penalty beyond crimes involving death — including, but not limited to, homosexuality. (The timing of Kayser’s lecture may have been an issue, as well, given that Offutt AFB had just published an article detailing and praising an Airman’s sexual journey from man to woman.) These views have made Kayser a fixture for derision, and he’s been a regular feature on the liberal Right Wing Watch.
Kayser appears to have some views few mainstream Christians support. But the standard for religious liberty — and the protection of religious exercise from government interference — isn’t which beliefs are popular. Virtually every religion has tenets someone will find offensive. Yet the US Constitution prevents the government from installing itself as the arbiter of which religious beliefs are acceptable and which are not. Gray, however, appears to have used the government to do that very thing.
Keep in mind, too, that this is explicitly about beliefs. No one — not even Tom Gray — has said Kayser was going to speak about sedition or “executing gays” or do anything untoward during his lecture. Action was taken against Dr. Kayser only because he had personal beliefs with which Gray disagreed.
Espousing Beliefs and Violating Military Policy
Tom Gray’s “boss” at the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers is Jason Torpy. While Torpy praised the outcome in this case, he almost disagreed with Gray — and he should have, if he’d been more principled. Said Torpy:
Restriction of speaking is a drastic step and should be taken only in an instance like this where positions are so directly opposed to military policy.
That’s a fascinating characterization — and one STRATCOM confirmed.
When asked why Dr. Kayser was disinvited, STRATCOM Public Affairs responded by saying Kayser
espouses beliefs in direct contradiction to standing Department of Defense policy on the treatment of the LGBTQ community.
When asked which “policy,” STRATCOM cited only the general DoD Equal Opportunity regulations.
That’s a self-incriminating admission.
STRATCOM explicitly stated Kayser was disinvited because he “espouses beliefs“ — that is, religious beliefs protected from discrimination by those same DoD policies.
Worse, by STRATCOM’s interpretation of DoD policy, more than a million US troops probably “espouse beliefs in direct contradiction” to DoD policies.
The Pentagon’s Equal Opportunity regulations prohibit discrimination — a word generally understood to mean action or behavior. If STRATCOM is going to apply such EO policies to mere belief, the US military will be indicting a substantial portion of its own troops who espouse Christian beliefs about sexuality and marriage. Those beliefs may include, for example, that such behavior is immoral or otherwise “sinful,” that such sexual practices should not be endorsed (by the US government or otherwise), and that citizens and troops should be allowed to express their beliefs on sexuality and marriage.
Based on its treatment of Dr. Kayser, STRATCOM appears to believe those religious beliefs — held by millions of US troops — actionably contradict DoD policy.
If their very beliefs violate policy and warrant discriminatory action by their command, should these Christian troops be allowed to serve in the military at all?
Militant atheists and homosexual activists have already said no — see Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, Jason Torpy, and Tom Carpenter, for example. STRATCOM is now seemingly straddling that same line.
Ironically, the position “espoused” by Tom Gray and action executed by the STRATCOM chaplaincy are more likely to contradict the vaguely-cited “military policy” than Dr. Kayser’s views. Military policy and US law generally prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion — where discrimination is defined as a ‘denial of equal opportunity based on religion.’
It would seem Dr. Kayser, as well as members of STRATCOM and the Offutt AFB chapel and base community, were denied an opportunity simply because of the content of their religious beliefs.
By military policy, that would appear to be unlawful discrimination — by the US military.
Religious Liberty in a Diverse Military Environment
If they felt his beliefs were an issue, the better option for STRATCOM and Chaplain Yi would have been to include Dr. Kayser’s background in his biographical sketch when the event was advertised. That would have allowed everyone, including those who objected to his beliefs, to make an informed decision on their own about what they wanted to do. If his beliefs were, in fact, an issue, attendance at the lecture would have revealed it, and that could form the basis for future invitations. This would have prevented the US military from awkwardly appearing to be the one to decide what was or was not an acceptable religious belief to “espouse.”
Realize, too, that the military is no stranger to inviting controversial or offensive speakers to address military crowds — some voluntary, some not — including those whose views may directly contradict DoD policy.
Even Michael “Mikey” Weinstein has been an occasional invited speaker to ACSC, the JAG school, and others — despite his “espoused” bigotry toward and hateful comments about Christianity, the religion of the vast majority of the audiences he was addressing. (For example, Mikey Weinstein has proposed a religious test for military service, which would violate not only military policy, but also the US Constitution.) Even Mikey Weinstein should not have been censored simply because of his religious views (and he wasn’t).
Yet if the military permits some speakers while censoring or banning others because of their religious beliefs — whether that person is Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, LtGen Jerry Boykin, Dr. Philip Kayser, or anyone else — how can it possibly claim it is fostering an environment of diversity, tolerance, and religious freedom?
What about the Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers and Marines who share the religious views of Graham, Perkins, Boykins, or Kayser? What message are they to take away when their own military institution and their own military leadership say their religious beliefs are not acceptable — or are “in direct contradiction to standing Department of Defense policy”?
According to STRATCOM’s interpretation of “DoD policy,” can these Christians even be in the US military?
The impact of this decision goes beyond Christians, of course, affecting military religious freedom across the board: What of the US troops who don’t share Dr. Kayser’s beliefs, but may feel they, too, hold religious tenets that might offend others? Are those troops allowed to serve? Are they now forced to serve in silence?
With this environment, can there truly be a culture of diversity and religious freedom in the military, as is often claimed?
It seems the answer to that depends on whether you’re a Christian, and who it is that complains about your faith.