Also published at my web magazine, The Public Record.
Barack Obama's decision to have the evangelical megachurch leader Rick Warren conduct the invocation at next month's presidential inauguration proves that fundamentalist Christians still wield enormous power within the federal government and will likely continue to be a dominating force under an Obama administration.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the U.S. military where, for the past several years, in apparent violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, chaplains have openly proselytized to thousands of active-duty soldiers and, in some cases, have tried to convert Iraqis and Afghans to Christianity.
The U.S. Military is barred from enacting or supporting policies that advance, promote or endorse religion. Prayer sessions in the military “must have a secular purpose; the primary effect of the prayer must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and finally, the prayer must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion,” according to a 2003 U.S 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that struck down meal-time prayer at the Virginia Military Institute as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
But, now that Obama has decided to keep Robert Gates on as Secretary of Defense—and he's embraced Warren—it is virtually guaranteed that fundamentalist Christianity will continue to permeate throughout the military just as it has during George W. Bush’s eight years in office.
Despite being named in several lawsuits filed against the Pentagon for allowing military chaplains to proselytize to soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the numerous letters he has received from civil rights organizations and government watchdog groups since he was tapped as Defense Secretary two years ago, letters demanding that he launch investigations into widespread proselytizing, Gates has failed to issue a response of any kind to these groups and has refused to take steps to address the matter. Meanwhile, soldiers continue to have fundamentalist Christianity shoved down their throats.
Of the nearly 11,000 soldiers that have lodged complaints about proselytizing with just one of the various government watchdog groups, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, reports that about 96 percent have identified themselves as Christian, however, there are numerous cases in which atheist and Jewish soldiers have said they were subjected to Christian prayer sessions and proselytizing by chaplains despite their objections.
One recent example of proselytizing began last June, when two Army chaplains and one Air Force chaplain led mandatory Christian prayer sessions and Bible study as part of daily shift change briefings in the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC), Iraq. The 3rd ESC works 12-hour shifts, meaning mandatory Christian worship and ritual, occurred at least twice a day.
A non-commissioned officer, who identified himself as an atheist, objected to the denominational prayers. He was told by one of the chaplains, Lt. Col. Chaplain Harrison, that he could be “excused” from the Christian prayer sessions and the chaplain advised the non-commissioned officer that his goal was to turn soldiers into “his congregation.”
The chaplain’s remark led the non-commissioned officer to write to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin-based watchdog group. In an e-mail to the organization, the non-commissioned officer wrote that he was not seeking help out of “self-interest.”
“I'm doing this because, as a non-commissioned officer, part of my job is to look out for the interests of soldiers of lesser rank than me,” the officer wrote. “This is not a Christian-exclusive club, but a group of highly diverse individuals with varying religious beliefs.”
In 2006, the Air Force adopted new religion guidelines, in the aftermath of a proselytizing scandal at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, that said the Air Force will “remain officially neutral regarding religious beliefs, neither officially endorsing nor disapproving any faith belief or absence of belief."
Those guidelines specifically state that prayer cannot “usually be a part of routine official business.”
Rebecca Kratz, a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said, in an interview, that the non-commissioned officer’s name was being withheld for fear of retribution.
Kratz sent a four-page legal brief to Gates on Nov. 5, stating that the non-commissioned officer informed her organization that Lt. Colonel Harrison also told the non-commissioned officer that he was not forced to enlist in the U.S. Army and that he should just accept the fact that Christian prayer sessions will be conducted on a routine basis for the 3rd ESC.