Military Religious Freedom in a new Era
With the airwaves and mainstream media clogged with politics and other drama, issues of religious freedom in the US military largely fell to the wayside these past few months. The reason is that most (not all, but certainly most) military religious freedom issues begin as attacks from outside the military. With an inattentive public, those who would attack the religious liberty of US troops for their personal benefit haven’t been able to gain public traction – or have simply chosen not to, given the low monetary return they would see for their efforts.
Thus, organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation have been either silent or largely ignored these past few months. (Mikey Weinstein’s Facebook page has been entertaining, as he’s been paying to promote otherwise ignored posts only to have the comments filled with “Who is this guy?” and “Why is this #$%$ on my feed!?!”)
With a new administration, there will certainly be changes that will be a challenge for religious liberty. For example, President Biden has promised to allow transgenders to serve in the US military, staking a government position on morality that has yet to be fully aired in either the court of public opinion or the judicial branch.
More important than any particularly policy, though, is the tone that the administration sets – and the tone that is reflected in society. President Trump actually made very few direct statements or policies on religious freedom in the military, but the tone of his administration was one that strongly supported religious liberty, a fact that merited support from many religious conservatives. That tone was subsequently reflected in the direction promulgated by senior military leaders, resulting in some significant advances in military religious freedom over the past four years.
Just as easily as it was created, however, that environment of religious liberty can be restricted. To wit, Biden has nominated Rachel Levine – a man who declares himself to be a woman – as an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services. Last year Levine accused a radio host of being “insulting” for “misgendering” him.
If those views of Biden’s nominees are representative of what his Administration will promote, how long will it be before a member of the US military is punished for “misgendering” a servicemember who “prefers” a different gender?
If US troops will be “vetted” for their political views expressed in social media, how long before they’re vetted for their religious views?
The House of Representatives has been opened with a prayer by Missouri Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a former minister, that ended with “Amen and A-woman” – an egregious “pun” that showed the “insane” lengths to which some will go to emphasize gender, even in non-gendered language. (The backlash seemed to offend Cleaver — and inspired some to start calling him “Ewomanuel.”) The Senate has seated Senator Raphael Warnock – another minister – who supported Jeremiah Wright and preached that “no one can serve God and the military.”
On a seemingly more neutral front, Speaker of the House Rep Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) named retired Chaplain (RADM) Margaret Kibben to be the House Chaplain. While by no means a policy position, it may reflect some of the “tone” of the House: Kibben declined to speak up for US Navy Chaplain Wes Modder, after he was almost run out of the Navy for doing his job as a Navy chaplain.
Given the general attitude of those who align with the current Administration, it seems statistically probable that at some point in the next four years a major religious liberty case will not only arise in the US military, but also that the case will work its way to the US Supreme Court. Judicial deference to the military’s good order and discipline will weigh even against what some call a “conservative majority” on the bench of the Nation’s highest court.
It will be an interesting time, though for now it seems likely that the news will be “normal.” For example, yet another active duty US servicemember has been charged with plotting an attack against his fellow troops and the US public. That US Army PVT Cole Bridges is only the latest to express support for Islamic extremism will not stop some critics from claiming it is Christians in the US military who are the ‘real’ national security threat.