Military Religious Freedom in a Stay At Home World
A few years ago, it seemed issues of religion in the military – scandals, some might say – dominated the news cycle for weeks out of the year. Every December the “top ten” religion media stories of the year included several regarding the US military. More recently, however, such “scandals” have fallen out of the news. To be sure, issues of religion in the military still pop up every now and then, but now those stories tend to involve actual issues of religion in the military, not manufactured outrage. Media stories are now far more likely to be about the changes that allow a Sikh to wear a turban or beard than about some random member of the military saying “have a blessed day” or having a Bible on their desk.
Part of the reason for this change has been the rise of religious liberty organizations who have defended the religious rights of US troops. The Becket Fund, First Liberty Institute, the ACLJ and others like them have become prominent and public defenders of religious freedom in the US military. While they were available to troops as a resource for many years, these organizations have gradually become more proactive, to the point that recent changes in US law and military policy have been proposed – and successfully passed – because of these groups. These laws and policies have dampened some of the prior years’ flail because they unified and standardized the military’s response to faith and free exercise. Rather than a cycle of military bases having repeats of the same kerfuffle, overarching policies govern the reaction of the entire DoD. (Sometimes.)
The end result is that the basic tenor of military religious freedom has become more stable. There are bumps and occasional swings now and again, certainly, but by and large many events that now arise are practically within the noise.
Combine that calmer tone of religious exercise in the US military with a national crisis that dominates the news cycle, and it almost seems as if suddenly there’s nothing going on in what was supposedly an existential crisis just a few years ago.
The ironic part of this is that the free exercise of religious liberty seems to be at an all-time high during this coronavirus stay-at-home period. That may be in part, according to one chaplain, because adversity grows faith:
“True faith always grows in the face of adversity,” Stoner said. “When we really know what we believe, develop it in our lives and actually live it, that faith can provide an answer.”
US military chapels around the world are streaming their services online, providing a reassuring visible symbol of the holy around the world – with no doubt such public displays of faith are coming from the US military.
“It has made an impact beyond my expectations,” he said. “Where normally we see between 45 and 50 people each Sunday, I’ve had over 650 views of last Sunday’s service, and our numbers are still climbing.”
The fact that no one has complained is almost shocking, given the generally outlandish claims over the past few years that the US military was trying to win the world for Jesus Christ. After all, anyone who had an argument against military chaplains now has their strongest case: They used to say the military chaplaincy was unconstitutional, since servicemembers have access to any of a variety of churches in their local towns. Now, why have military chaplains if US troops can just go online and get any service of any faith they want? Checkmate. Right, atheists?
The truth, of course, is twofold. First, it is too sensitive a time to call for such measures. Most critics of military religious freedom (that is, critics of Christians in the military) are essentially on pause, realizing that if they crow now about bringing an end to military religious freedom, their callous bigotry will be recognized. Second, most “prominent” groups critical of religion in the public sphere run on faux moral outrage, which generates public interest and media attention. But with the pandemic sucking all the public relations air out of the room, there’s almost no way they can break into the news cycle for any time at all, much less long enough to generate enough profit. A February complaint about a special session of the US Court of Military Appeals held at Liberty University — a complaint filed only because Liberty is a Christian school — fizzled when coronavirus quickly overtook the news cycle.
Take, for example, a desperate attempt by Michael “Mikey” Weinstein to ride on the COVID-19 coattails. Weinstein tried to demand the Air Force and Navy ban in-person chapel services, as the US Army already had. Both the Air Force and Navy responded to press inquiries by noting they are not structured that way. Unlike the Army, the Air Force and Navy do not make service-wide directives on chapel services; they are a command function and naturally vary by locale. If Weinstein knew that, he didn’t let on. If he didn’t know that, his research assistant Chris Rodda was left looking like an idiot. Regardless, it has nothing to do with religious liberty, yet Weinstein tried to turn it into a religious scandal. He was unsuccessful, and the story died very quickly – largely because local military bases were already working in coordination with local governments’ orders on mass gatherings. Thus, there was no evidence the service-wide order Weinstein cried for was even necessary.
As a result of those issues, perennial critics like Weinstein are largely silent, even though Weinstein is being deprived of his annual fundraising off of military prayer breakfasts (which were starting up just as the virus picked up). Their silence is not because the environment of religious freedom has changed in their favor. (Quite the opposite, actually, as military chaplains have supported their units and troops, as well as first responders, with services and help around the globe, and they report increasing numbers.) Nor is their silence because they’ve been forced to “stay at home.” (Mikey Weinstein was a keyboard warrior long before New Mexico told its residents to stay home.) Rather, these critics’ silence is entirely self-serving: They know they won’t get enough press coverage to generate the public attention and income flow they want. So, they wait. It’s not about principle. It’s about pocketbook.
For now, US troops are largely free to exercise and express their faith without harassment. Rest assured, though, that as soon as the news cycle comes up for air, critics like Weinstein will once again try to assert their claims that the world is coming to an end at the hands of Christians trying to bring on a nuclear war.
Back to normal, in other words.