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Religious Expression or Religious Coercion: Commanders Caught in the Crossfire - Analysis
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To dissect the issues, a dialectical approach allows for a thorough analysis of both sides. Additionally, one must evaluate the second and third order of effects, that is, the lingering impact of these issues.

Dialectical Analysis of the Issues
In his classic book On War, Clausewitz used a method described as dialectical reasoning to analyze war. By using Clausewitz’s approach of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, the next task is to evaluate religious expression within the USAF. With so much negative verbiage and hostile vilification, the critical issues are being lost in media and litigation noise. With this dialectical approach, what are MRFF’s major concerns? MRFF produced numerous press releases and filed several litigation briefs. Using a MRFF’s press release of its 2010 Nobel Peace Prize nomination, one can identify their primary focal issues: 1) to support the wall between church and state in the U.S. military; 2) to counter religious discrimination; 3) to stop proselytizing of foreign nationals by the U.S. military; 4) “to stop the systemic and embedded discrimination against those who are not fundamentalist Christians”32 ; and, 5) to support DOD personnel against the “unconstitutional abuse of forced religious oppression from their military chains of command.”33

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize nomination letter further clarifies MRFF’s agenda as the language and tone appears to reflect closely the attitude and passion of MRFF’s founder. The 15 October 2009 redacted letter states MRFF’s clients “find themselves targeted by power wielding fundamentalists, superior to them in the military chain of command....”34 It further states,

the brutal yoke of religious oppression wrought from the draconian spectre of U.S. military command influence is extremely painful. Normal and traditional internal military personnel recourse has been so terribly corrupt by this same religious extremism scourge that MRFF stands completely alone as the only entity to whom the thousands of victimized servicemen and servicewomen can effectively turn for help. MRFF works tirelessly in the courts and in the media to expose this extremely dangerous mixture of American military fanatical religious proselytizing with U.S. weapons of mass destruction.35

Additionally, MRFF believes chaplains are forcefully proselytizing. In fact, Mr. Weinstein used Chaplain, Brigadier General Cecil Richardson’s reported quote from a New York Times article to highlight this issue both in his litigation and book.36 Chaplain Richardson, then the USAF Deputy Chief of Chaplains, supposedly said, “We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched.”37 Chaplain Richardson then added, “The distinction is that proselytizing is trying to convert someone in an aggressive way, while evangelizing is more gently sharing the gospel.”38 Weinstein dismissed Chaplain Richardson’s clarification as he said, “evangelizing is merely a Christian form of proselytizing. Anytime a senior officer asks to discuss religion, a lower-ranking service member would feel coercion.”39

Using their own vivid language, MRFF’s thesis could be stated as military members are under rigorous and unusually severe attacks of terror of religious oppression by fanatically religious, proselytizing power-wielding-fundamentalist military commanders. Even though this thesis statement captures MRFF’s sentiment and tone, a simpler restatement is that commanders must not discuss religion to any subordinate as it automatically could be perceived as coercive. Central to this thesis is whether commanders are using their position of authority to coerce or unduly influence, either intentionally or unintentionally, Airmen toward adopting some particular faith expression.

Given the thesis presented above, the antithesis would be all Airmen, regardless of rank or position, have the constitutional right to live and express their religious faith tenets. Unless commanders (and all Airmen) are able to express their faith without constraint, they are being denied free exercise of religion and free speech. The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses balance each other because the state can neither coerce an individual toward a particular religion nor limit free expression of religion and speech. If the government or courts limit religious expression and speech in the military, then they become equally coercive and restrictive with individual rights. Any freedom of religion limitation becomes a step toward freedom from religion. Free exercise of religious expression and speech are so foundational to individual freedom, any institutionally forced constriction is equally to be avoided. Any government or litigated restriction of religion automatically becomes a coercive step from religion.

The challenge is how to find balance between these two competing perspectives of potential coercion. Therefore, having defined a thesis and antithesis, we need a synthesis. The military’s hierarchal command structure bears careful scrutiny of any potential coercive action created by a commander sharing his or her faith. Military command is a sacred trust of responsibility. Using a position of power to force another to accept any religious position is contrary to individual freedom of conscience and is disruptive to good order and discipline. Any faith perspective that uses any form of real or implied force on others to accept a specific faith tenet is not religious freedom but religious tyranny. An individual’s religious freedom must not be restricted by any authority to choose to believe or not.

However, an equal danger exists to perceive any religious expression by a person of authority to have an automatic coercive effect on those who choose not to embrace a particular faith perspective.  For argument sake, a commander’s religious expression could have an equally positive effect on others and could help create an environment that exhibits respect for human dignity regardless of a person’s race, gender, or religion.

After careful analysis, the issue is not coercion but offense. For many, including MRFF, being offended becomes the standard to determine coercion. With individual expression, the problem is someone will always be offended. Religion creates passion for those who adhere to it as well as those who want nothing of it. One blogger offered, “Religion will KILL this country. It's truly terrifying and must be investigated. Thank you MFRR... God, I hate religion (sorry for the unintended pun).”40

It is critically important to realize that to guard against any possibility of offense is to over constrain. To base restrictive guidance on the potential of offense is too costly of an abrogation of individual freedoms. Consequently, to use whether or not someone was offended to determine religious coercion is a faulty proposition and woefully deficient.

The challenge, then, is to create an environment that respects free exercise of religion and speech while recognizing potential risks of perceived or real coercion. A synthesis view recognizes both freedom and sensitivity of religious expression while equally respecting others’ freedom of conscience. Accordingly, free expression of religion does not imply forced acceptance. To imply otherwise is to reveal one’s hypersensitivity from one’s own world view.  If one constrains all religious expression by commanders in order to avoid offense, then we are creating a society from religion and not of religion. Is this the unspoken goal of watchdog groups?

To seriously address the issue of First Amendment rights and DOD’s emphasis on spiritual fitness, another approach must be used. To hold commanders hostage under a threat or accusation of coercion and abuse of power if they express anything religious is simply too egregious. While some limitations within a command structure must exist because of potential abuse of power, a different paradigm is a must. If one’s proposition is to protect free expression and to protect against religious coercion (and not offense), the synthesis would allow religious dialogue, even from commanders, while defining very clear, self imposing boundaries to protect against potential abuse of power.

Any strong bias in a position not only heightens sensitivity toward perceived abuses but also energizes a reaction. Therefore, any restrictions on constitutionally protected freedoms must have overwhelming weight to justify its action and consequences. It is imperative to beware of lingering effects in response to watchdog groups’ efforts. Unfortunately, these accusations of religious coercion are reaching a feverous pitch with people becoming hypersensitive.41 This growing tension within the USAF is having a causal effect which, in turn, may create additional reactions known as second and third order of effects or unintended consequences.

Unintentional Consequences
Because of watchdog groups’ media and litigation efforts, commanders are increasingly cautious to express anything religious as watchdog groups, the media and bloggers42 are vilifying commanders. While each case should be carefully investigated and properly handled, overreaction is equally destructive.

The atmosphere toward religious expression within the military is changing as many officers believe the USAF’s religious atmosphere is increasingly hostile.43 One very senior officer, who wished to remain anonymous, told this author, “Being a Christian and an officer right now can be difficult as we are in a high-threat, hostile environment. I have friends who are out of the USAF simply for being a Christian.”44

While some watchdog groups argue these adjustments are long overdue, this author believes all religious expression is becoming increasingly constrained within the USAF. All Airmen are becoming increasingly guarded about using any religiously oriented expression. Taken to the extreme, Airmen could be completely restrained from expressing their faith outside chapel walls. If this direction fully matures, then part of America will have morphed from a society with freedom of religion to a society with freedom from religion.

How should HC respond to these challenges by watchdog groups like MRFF? Additionally, how can chaplains help commanders analyze and deal with these challenges? Several recommendations are in order.

Last Updated on Monday, 11 July 2011 11:30