Military Maneuvers: New Armed Forces Rules On Religious Expression Spark Religious Right Complaints About Christian ‘Persecution’

It’s hard to imagine a group that comprises 78.5 percent of the military (as of 2008) being persecuted, but sound reasoning isn’t really the Religious Right’s strong suit.

A recent effort by the Pentagon to make religious minorities feel more welcome in the U.S. Armed Forces has the Religious Right up in arms.

Last week, the Pentagon announced in a directive that it would relax certain rules governing a soldier’s personal appearance while in uniform. Specifically, armed services members will be able to display beards and some tattoos, if they’re for religious reasons, as well as turbans, yarmulkes or other religious clothing. The directive covers a range of accommodations for a variety of religions, including Islam and Wicca.   

This is part of a wider attempt by the military to accommodate “individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs,” the Pentagon’s directive said. The directive is not absolute. Religious expression can still be curbed if it affects things like a soldier’s health, safety or preparedness, or the cohesion of military units.

But the Religious Right, which has long sought to Christianize the U.S. Armed Forces, threw a fit over this development, charging that religious minorities are getting special treatment while Christians face persecution in the military.

Sandy Rios, an anti-gay blowhard formerly with Concerned Women for America who is now the American Family Association’s (AFA) director of governmental affairs, told AFA’s news service OneNewsNow that this is nothing more than an effort to accommodate Muslims.

“But there are red flags here that make us concerned that this is likely another deceptive move with an ultimate agenda to accommodate Muslims,” Rios hyperventilated. “The Department of Defense gave us a preview of this not long ago when Major Nidal Hassan, the Ft. Hood mass murderer, was allowed, against military regulations, to keep his beard while on trial to express his Muslim faith.”

(An army judge did say that Hassan’s beard violated regulations, but she allowed him to keep it anyway.)  

AFA President Tim Wildmon also weighed in, ranting that the military is bending over backward to protect minority faiths while simultaneously persecuting Christians.

“In the past year, we have seen a clear crackdown on the Christian faith from the military and our government,” Wildmon carped. “The military is not protecting Christians, our religious liberties or our chaplains, yet policies are making room for other religions, specifically Sikhs and Muslims, with no indication that these privileges will extend to Christians. At the minimum, what we ought to expect from the military is equal treatment and respect for Christian religious liberties, too.”

Of course none of that is true. The regulations actually extend to all faiths recognized by the military, including Christians. Of course Christians don’t usually wear turbans or beards as part of their beliefs, so Wildmon probably doesn’t care about this directive because he doesn’t see an obvious benefit for Christians.

It’s also hard to imagine a group that comprises 78.5 percent of the military (as of 2008) being persecuted, but sound reasoning isn’t really the Religious Right’s strong suit.

Fortunately, Americans United is here to inject some sense into this debate. Today, the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services is holding a hearing on religious accommodations in the military.

Americans United Legislative Director Maggie Garrett submitted written testimony in which she praised the new directive, but urged caution because proselytizing must not be allowed in the name of “religious freedom.”

“[E]nsuring religious freedom for service members is vitally important,” Garrett said. “The military must permit service members to exercise their religion yet also protect them from unwanted proselytizing and religious coercion.”

Expanding religious expression in the armed forces is indeed a slippery slope. The Pentagon took the right step in allowing for religious groups to deviate from standard uniforms to accommodate religious beliefs because those decisions affect only the people who choose to adopt them. No one should feel unwelcome in the military, and this is a great way to ensure that they don’t.

But as we see with the AFA, allowing for expanded religious expression brings all sorts of cries from the Religious Right that proselytizers deserve some sort of special treatment. The Religious Right, it seems, is looking for any excuse to codify the freedom to proselytize, and they see expanded directives for religious observance as an opening to push their radical agenda.

So tread lightly, Congress.