Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy (right) and Rev. Barry Lynn (left) photos courtesy Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications

COMMENTARY: The truth about religious freedom in the military

WASHINGTON (RNS) Serving in the armed forces is one of the most honorable professions one can choose in our society. And putting one’s life on the line in defense of freedom is a sacrifice the rest of us can never repay.

Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy (right) and Rev. Barry Lynn (left) photos courtesy Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications

The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy (right) and the Rev. Barry Lynn (left) photos courtesy Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

That's why it saddens us that these very freedoms are being undercut by forces seeking to infuse the military with a very specific version of Christian culture. Leaders from the religious right claim that the religious liberty rights of Christians are under assault in the military. This is simply not true, and the implication is an insult to people around the globe and here at home who truly do face persecution for their faith.

What is true is that military life is different than civilian life. A chain of command impacts every aspect of a service member’s life; because of that, safeguards must be in place to ensure that no member of the military is being coerced into religious practices unwillingly.

It’s also true that some individuals have had their religious liberty threatened, but those threats are not what Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and others would have you believe.

Those who choose military service should enjoy the freedom to practice their faith openly and without significant interference from their superiors. However, no one faith should be given greater prominence than any other. Further, nonreligious personnel should not feel pressure to change their views in order to gain acceptance or upward mobility within the ranks of the military.

Let's be clear: Christians in the military are not under threat of constant, widespread persecution. Existing military regulations are in place to deal with any problems. Many, if not all, of the cases that Perkins cites as attacks on religious freedom are in actuality the opposite -- they are actions taken by the military to ensure the religious freedom of everyone.

If anything, they reflect the military’s appropriate and admirable respect for the diversity of the armed forces and by extension, the diversity of our nation.

To give just one example: Perkins complained about the removal of a painting with a Bible quote in the dining hall of Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. That quote may hold meaning for some, but not all, of the airmen stationed there. Its presence in a chapel during worship would be wholly appropriate, but its placement in a public dining hall is an implicit endorsement of that religious perspective by the base’s military leadership. We doubt Perkins would have been similarly supportive if the base hung up a quotation from the Quran or a comment by a famous atheist.

The religious right has a skewed definition of religious freedom -- and their interest lies only in preserving religious freedom for one very specific sectarian point of view. This is not what the Constitution calls for.

Religious freedom is our first freedom, the first clause of the First Amendment. Historically that freedom has been understood to protect an individual’s right to practice their faith freely up until the point where it interferes with someone else’s same right. It has meant that government should strive to stay out of matters of faith -- and vice versa -- for the better of both institutions.

The far right is making a concerted effort to redefine religious freedom as a catch-all concept that gives “authentic” Christians the right to do what they want, whenever they want, wherever they want. They seek to use positions of authority -- including in the military -- as platforms to proselytize their faith while seeking to limit the ability of people of other faiths to take a different perspective. When challenged, they present themselves as victims or martyrs and claim the mantle of religious freedom as the ultimate defense.

This is not what our Founding Fathers intended for civic life or for the military. Our government and our military must protect the rights of all members of the armed forces regardless of faith or belief. And they must be blind to the virtues of any one faith over another. All service members should feel comfortable practicing their faith -- or not practicing any faith -- as they protect our nation.

(The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance. The Rev. Barry Lynn is a United Church of Christ minister and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.)


  1. What’s sad is that these two “pastors” profess to know the “truth” about this issue. They are making dogmatic claims without providing evidence to back up those claims. They seem to be in the business of preaching rhetoric. I feel sorry for their congregations if these guys lead their churches with the same lack of interest in research and accurate interpretation. Or, maybe they just read the Sunday comics from the pulpit?

  2. The liberal or Mainline Protestant Christians need to organize a party or PAC to combat the radical right, the evangelical/fundamentalist Christians. Atheist, agnostics, and secular humanists combat this lunatic group at every stage, but it’s really the Mainline Christine’s that can have the greatest impact to stop this potential threat of a theocracy. Make no mistake, the radical right wants a theocracy and they are a big enough political entity to get their way, if there is no formidable opposition.

  3. Insults without substance. Why? Does this article offend you? Again, why?

  4. No offense taken. I’m not offering dogmatic assertions just speculative personal opinion based on the evidence presented in the article. The sarcasm has been added for seasoning to assist in generating responses. These two pastors are presenting their speculative personal opinion as dogma. My opinion is just that – an opinion. If I presented it as anything other than that it was not my intent. I just wish these two pastors would have made the same clarification.

  5. Scott, are you even in the military? I am and have been for the last 20 years and have yet to see this persecution that is supposedly happening. What examples and evidence do you have? If someone is truly being persecuted then they need to file a complaint or perhaps what they perceive as persecution is just them no longer getting their own way and now they are mad.

  6. AMEN to every word written here by C. Welton Gaddy and Barry Lynn. The same outspoken leaders of the religious, cultural and political right, such as Tony Perkins’s Family Research Council, and the vehemently anti-gay Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL), led by retired reserve Chaplain Ron Crews, have long been opposed to the religious liberty of those whose beliefs are at odds with their own. They opposed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, notwithstanding gay service members have every right to be ministered to by their own welcoming and affirming chaplains, and to exercise integrity and dignity regarding their sexual orientations. They opposed the right of chaplains endorsed by progressive faith groups to perform same gender weddings in military chapels. And, they oppose legally married, same-sex military couples receiving equal entitlements as heterosexual couples. In short, these ultra-conservatives are demanding and lobbying for Christian privilege, while disparaging those who simply want equal liberty and justice for all.

    Chaplain (Colonel) Paul W. Dodd, D.Min., LPC
    United States Army (Ret.)

  7. When I look at the page it is labeled ‘Commentary’. Does that not imply personal opinion? I thought the commentary was great.

  8. Well, I work for the US Air Force Chaplain Corps and I can tell you that he is spot on. This is an issue we deal with daily and people constantly hit us up for advice and accommodation requests, which are met 99% of the time. Only 1% of the time do we have to say no to someone, and only in extreme circumstances (what they want will undermine or cause severe failure of a current military mission – usually this is only in deployed locations and the member is of a critical combat skill).

    Overall, things in the military are actually very balanced and nowhere near the way the far right is making things out to be.

    So there you go – right from the inside of the military itself, working in the branch that deals with this topic.

  9. If you had bothered to read the author bios at the bottom of the article, you would know that Rev. Lynn is the Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, while Rev. Geddy is President of the Interfaith Alliance. Both groups are deeply entrenched in ensuring religious freedom for all, and are in the business of knowing quite a lot about the article’s subject matter. Check them out – the links are provided.

    Methinks you just don’t like what they had to say.

    From my own perspective as a military member (I have served on active duty in the army and as an air guardsman), I can attest to the prevalence of Christianity in the military. There is no persecution of Christians in the military. It’s hard to argue that “persecution” exists when worship services are held every weekend at active duty bases (monthly for guard & reserve units) for Protestants, Catholics, and frequently others; when Bible Study groups and faith-related activities are advertised using government equipement and facilities; when virtually all official ceremonies begin and end with prayers (an invocation and benediction) that are dubbed “non-sectarian” merely because “Jesus” isn’t specifically mentioned.

    The very idea that Christians are persecuted in the U.S. (I am aware that it does, in fact, happen in other countries) is absurd. But that won’t matter to those who believe it’s happening. After all, we live in a country in which Franklin Graham – the son of Billy – can write, without a trace of irony, about how he had a personal talk with Vice President Biden about the lack of tolerance in the U.S. for Christians.

    The bottom line is that the religious right has twisted religious liberty to mean something it doesn’t, and continues to beat the drum of persecution in order to rouse the ire of their audiences. As long as they continue, I hope Rev. Lynn, Rev. Geddy, and everyone else who understands religious liberty will continue to speak up.

  10. How exciting, a progressive puff piece which ignores current events, in order to bolster its core audience! Now, if they actually dealt with more than just one or two incidents, this might approach decent commentary. Balance, however, is not expected when the left lectures.
    Perhaps Barry Lynn co-writing with Jerry Boykin? Now that would be interesting! A premiere lefty, with a retired 3-star general!

  11. Colonel Dodd, thank you for speaking out for true religious freedom. As you probably well know, MRFF’s Mikey Weinstein has been the target of the FRC and other far-right Christian enterprises, for his and Chris Rodda’s diligent work uncovering evidence of religious tests for service members all up and down the chain of command. The example of some members of CARL bringing in US miltary-marked bibles in Arabic for Iraqi civilians during the Iraq war was really low and those involved should have been punished for their proven attempts to ignore the rules they swore to uphold.

    So few are willing to risk the backlash of the Christian fanatics in command to say anything to their superiors who, very likely, hold the same fervent beliefs, and I’m grateful to those, like you, who can at least attest to the facts involved. Thanks again.

  12. Rev. Lynn has already tried that route, with the always slimy Jay Seculow, chief counsel for Regent Universities ACLJ. Mr. Seculow ran out of weasel words to try and act as an apologist for the Christian right’s many, many hypocritical stances, and ran off in shame.

    As for Gen. Boykin, besides him being a stain on the US military’s honor, why would anyone want to engage him? He lies through his teeth, and uses the most hateful and divisive language to smear and bash all that he disagrees with.

  13. If only the military were the only example. But “religious liberty” is being misused across the board to promote Christian supremacy. We used to say that one person’s right to swing his fist ends at another person’s nose. But the Religious Right isn’t content to abide such restrictions. It wants to able to swing its fist everywhere, and claim that its religious liberty is violated if the rest of us try to protect our noses. Longer commentary here:

  14. C. Welton Gaddy and Barry Lynn are correct.

    Let me clarify the issue another way. No one is attempting to take away anyone’s religious freedom in the military.

    Here is the rule of thumb: In a voluntary religious worship environment chaplains, soldiers, and family members can worship as they do anywhere. There are no restriction is the use of the name of Jesus, speaking in tongues or whatever.

    In non-voluntary mandatory environments where soldiers are, say, marched in formation to an event and an invocation is given, the invocation is not a religious act, therefore it is to be neutral in terms of religion because they are not religious services, they are patriotic events. When I did an invocation at a patriotic or military event, I did not consider what I was doing, a prayer; Instead the words were appropriate for the occasion. I attempted to use words appropriate for all listeners, religious and the not-religious; words acceptable across all faith groups. I was comfortable with the distinction I made in my mind in separating religious functions from patriotic and non-religious functions.

    I have preached in chapels and churches all over the world and have been intentional in lifting up the name of Jesus in my proclamation of the gospel. As an Army chaplain the military did not limit my ministry; the military gave me an opportunity to proclaim the gospel, while at the same time allowed me to be faithful to my calling as a Christian minister.

  15. I am the co-chair of the Forum on the MIlitary Chaplaincy. The Forum is dedicated to respecting and preserving the religious liberty of all service members. We appreciate this thoughtful article which confronts the ongoing baseless claims by the Family Research Council that Christians are being persecuted in the military. I have authored two pieces which directly discuss these falsehoods.

    I challenge Mr. Blades and Kennethos to read the articles and then we can discuss the facts about what is really going on in the military. Please take a look at our Facebook site for further discussions on this issue.

  16. I know the situation in the military from many close friends and relatives. I know that you don’t understand the coercive situation that our military men and women are subjected to on a daily basis. Your point of view seems to start with the premise that christian doctrine and ethics dominate the legal and Constitutional rights of America. Only from that point of view can you conceivably claim that it’s the Christians who are persecuted. I and most other citizens think that you’re wrong. The next item that you have problems with is understanding that fundamentalist/evangelical chaplains dominate the religious environment of the military. They often attempt to proselytize and coerce christian behaviors and statements from servicemen lower in rank. In the past, there has been no one to redress grievances in this area. Now, there some regulations addressing these issues. You are wrong in your assessment of where and with whom the religious intolerance resides.

  17. Based on my experience during 30 years of active duty service, I believe this essay is exactly correct.

  18. There are no true restrictions on any chaplain in the miitary but these guys want privileges that I suspect they would not give me. They want to pray in “jesus” name but they would explode if I prayed to Mary in one; they want to tell a soldier he or she is going to hell because they are in a gay relationship but would not like me telling them they are contrary to the will of Christ and using the bible as a club, not a torch. They go beyond the pale.

  19. Food for thought:

    One event detailed in the report described a soldier who was reprimanded for serving fare from Chick-fil-A — known for its owners’ strong Christian beliefs — and for making statements related to the federal law on same-sex marriage at his promotion party. Religious leaders have had invitations to speak at military events abruptly withdrawn, and military personnel have been ordered to remove religious signs and symbols.

  20. So you all are just going to turn a blind eye to what is really happening? I guess religious discrimination is acceptable in the military as long as Christians are the targets? The truth about the issue isn’t going to be honestly addressed by milquetoast Chaplins.

    “It’s been a steady attack on faith and religious freedom that we’ve seen in our military like we’ve never seen before,” Forbes told Fox News. “We are getting a lot of calls from soldiers saying ‘we’re afraid of going to church, we’re afraid to be seen praying, we’re afraid that would hurt our careers, our promotions.’”

  21. Thanks for this link, Doug Muder. You are calling attention to a wider issue that we also need to be aware of.

  22. As co-chair of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, I have written an number of articles about the issues raised in this piece. The authors are right on target. I challenge Mr. Blades and Kennethos to read this one before they continue to pontificate about things they have no personal knowledge about:

    This piece that just came out today demonstrates how potentially dangerous these so-called “conscience protections” being proposed by conservative Christians is to the continued viability of the Chaplaincy. They are setting the Chaplaincy up for a Constitutional Challenge.

  23. The crux of the issue isn’t the status of the Chaplaincy. I don’t know how the conversation drifted so far off topic. The issue being discussed is the religious liberties of individual service personnel. What a Chaplain can or cannot has no bearing on the free exercise and expression of an individual’s faith.

  24. Mr. Blades: While you correct that the primary issue is free exercise of religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment, you cannot divorce the chaplaincy from the discussion because many of the conservative Christian chaplains and their civilian allies are clearly leading the charge. Their demand of “conscience protection” is unwarranted, unnecessary and would be contrary to good order, unit morale, discipline and cohesion. Try this one out for size:

  25. Read the Huff Post article. Same old counter-clockwise spin as usual. The civilian world and military world are engaged in the same war. Those in both worlds are demanding moral relativism be the dominating force of the culture. History has already tried that on more than one occasion and it didn’t turn out so well. Eienstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The human race will never learn.

  26. Wow! Counter-clockwise spin. Have no idea what you are talking about “both worlds are demanding moral relativism be the dominating force of the culture.” To quote one of my Marine buddies WTF are you talking about? My simpleton idea about insanity is doing the same thing over again expecting different results. What are you talking about on this one?

  27. A group of us at Travis AFB has been told that we cannot sing, play music, that bible lessons cannot be taught by officers other than a chaplain. Initially we were told we could not pray. All this comes from the top. So there are restrictions happening in the military.

  28. The notion that there is no discrimination in the Air Force against Christians is just not true. There most certainly is. My son is a Staff Sergeant in the Air Force and has been told not to discuss his faith even with fellow believers. This does not affect someone’s promotion nor is he discriminating against anyone. A Chaplain friend of mine was told he could not “pray in Jesus’s name.” I don’t know where you folks are getting your information. You clearly are not in the military or are not Christian. They seem to have no problem if you are a Muslim. I wonder why?

  29. Col. Sydnor III,

    My Father was a graduate of West Point (class of 1938) and fought in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and then in the Philippines against the Japanese. As an “army brat” I moved 32 times with my parents, up and down the East coast, the Pentagon, and in Europe. My Father died in 1999 and he would be disgusted to see the political correctness that has invaded our military. My son is a Staff Sergeant in the Air Force and a VMI graduate and has experienced these things first hand. Maybe the life of an officer is different than a NCO but I know what I am talking about with this matter. My son and family have discussed this and have concluded that the military and Air Force in particular, is no longer a place Christians can serve. My son is therefore planning to leave the Air Force in a few years when his 2nd enlistment is up for this very reason. So don’t tell us it doesn’t happen because it does and it is getting worse. I might point out that 60% of the military recruits come from the south and mid-west. Of those most have some kind of Christian background. As the military becomes the latest experiment for homosexuality you can expect the number of Christians willing to volunteer for the military to fall off significantly over time. After all, who wants to fight for a country that hates everything you are and believe in.

    Peter Holman
    Advisory Nuclear Engineer

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