In this article, I will spotlight several of the many examples of the overt, light-of-day Christian promotion and proselytizing going on even at the highest levels of our military. Each is individually outrageous. Every non theist and even every non-Christian serving in the military is presented immediately and frequently with the clear message that Christianity is preferred, religion is essentially required, and atheistic beliefs are at best tolerated.
This situation is hardly surprising. General George Washington (see demographics insert) issued an order creating the military chaplaincy with the explicit mission to promote Christian values and practices among his soldiers. This order was issued before there was a First Amendment or even aConstitution. Washington had full authority to issue any order he liked. Many military leaders and chaplains still operate today under a Christian-nation philosophy in many ways unchanged since Washington’s day. From this philosophy flow Special Forces Bibles, crosses on government property, mandatory prayers, command-sponsored evangelistic retreats, special privileges for religious personnel, and Jesus rifles.
An additional reality is that the United States military has been nominally Christian for much of its existence. Abraham Lincoln first allowed Jewish chaplains during the Civil War. This was a progressive act, but even to this day, the Jewish population and chaplaincy is just a tiny fraction of the military. The chaplaincy included only Christian and Jewish chaplains until the first Muslim chaplain entered the military in 1992. The first Buddhist chaplain entered less than ten years ago. The first Hindu chaplain entered in 2011. The military chaplain population is currently 66 percent “evangelistic”and 98 percent Christian. Chaplains are trusted to be honest brokers operating in a pluralistic community. However, the general military population is less than 70 percent Christian and not even 18 percent evangelistic. Expanding cultural tolerance of diversity should begin with addressing the great disparity in belief between religious service providers and the service members they support.
It is also important to note that the recent repeal of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” has put great strain on many chaplains whose churches or denominations oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians. This effort to reform the military’s treatment of gays and lesbians—while officially welcomed and encouraged by(as far as I am aware) every non theist organization—has in some ways overshadowed efforts to secure better accommodation for nontheistic service members.
But these environmental concerns provide no excuse for condoning ongoing violations. The diversity of the military has increased, and the culture of theUnited States has changed. Survey after survey shows that secular and nontheistic beliefs now permeate society. This growth is most apparent among the young, the population from which the military recruits. That is why it is so important that the non theist community oppose the rampant religiosity within the military while reaching out to directly support our fellow atheists and humanists in uniform.
Which Agencies Work For or Against Military Non theist Rights
The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF, of which I serve as president) is a nontheistic organization that has built communities among military serving throughout the world. These groups provide a home for non theists who need support in order to meet the stresses of military life,especially during deployments. MAAF-affiliated groups are limited in resources and are not found at every installation, but numbers are growing.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) is a secular organization that has been fighting in the media and courts for years to expose and resolve church-state violations. This group’s take-no-prisoners approach has commanded attention from major media and the non theist community. By raising consciousness and, without exaggeration, scaring military leaders, it has given notice that the time of evangelism in the military is coming to a close.
The chaplaincy establishment within the military has been stolidly unhelpful. The Chiefs of Chaplains of each service gather under the auspices of theArmed Forces Chaplains Board to set policy for religious activities and chaplain operations. These are three two-star generals (Army, Air Force,Navy/Marines) with staffs of full colonels. During the first part of 2011, I personally met with each office and received a polite “not no but not yes,” followed by lots of continued communication but no helpful assistance.
MAAF also sent letters and e-mails and/or telephoned all available military chaplain endorsers, including churches and religious denominations. These endorsers are represented in the military by the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF). NCMAF includes endorsers who have the power to remove endorsements and thereby end the careers of chaplains, including those generals and colonels who set policy. I have reached out to and in many cases spoken directly with the NCMAF board about our concerns. Again, no helpful assistance has been forthcoming.
Judging by the deafening silence on nontheistic issues after two years of consistent, patient outreach, it is clear that the military chaplaincy leadership in its current form is unable to accept that it holds any responsibilities toward non theists. (This does not include individual chaplains who have been occasionally helpful or at least sympathetic.) Therefore we must account for the attitudes of the chaplaincy leadership in our approach.
Supporting and Growing Our Own Community
There is an ongoing debate within the nontheistic community as to whether the stick or the carrot yields the best results. It depends, in certain cases, on what one intends. In the case of the military, we must ensure that atheists and humanists have the support they need to serve their country in peacetime and war—the same sort of support routinely provided to service members who are religious. This can only be done by assuring equal rights within the military. This first section focuses on building community.
The Marines Allow Christian Shrines and Prayers
On a summer day in 2003, several Christians walked up a hill on the northern side of Camp Pendleton in California and planted a cross. It burned down in a fire four years later. A commander then ordered his unit to carry a fireproof thirteen-foot cross up that hill and conducted a Christian prayer for the unit to celebrate their pilgrimage and new shrine. The response from the Marine Corps to a MAAF complaint: “We’re working on it.”
In reaching out to the military, MAAF has focused on the chaplains. They have the resources to provide services tailored to an individual’s core values,beliefs, and identity. To have a place to meet with others of like mind is beneficial to personal well-being and resiliency. It is often assumed that religious involvement brings about such well-being, but existing studies are often misinterpreted to attribute the benefits that flow from enjoying the acceptance and support of a religious community to the benefits of religion itself. When available studies are properly interpreted,it seems clear that nontheistic communities could offer the same positive results as religious communities, should such communities be available.
Unfortunately, chaplains have been unresponsive. Despite the availability of certified “lay leaders&rdquo
;—personnel designated to assist the chaplains in supporting underserved belief communities—the chaplaincy has refused to recognize those who have applied to serve as lay leaders for the nontheistic. SomeU.S. Air Force personnel, including those stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, Travis Air Force Base, and Royal Air Force Lakenheath (a base in the U.K. at which many U.S. personnel serve), have received valuable but informal support due to permissive regulations. However, the Navy and Army require higher-level approvals. At Fort Bragg, Fort Meade, and aboard the USS Boxer and USS Green Bay, among others, applications to recognize lay leaders have been blocked or lost in the bureaucracy.
Prayers Broadcast Nightly on Navy Vessels
Tonight, as on many nights in the past and presumably many nights in the future, the 1MC (the audio announcement system on naval vessels) will broadcast a prayer by the chaplain. All work will cease, televisions will be shut off, and the entire ship will be reminded that religion, primarily Christianity, has a special privilege and status within the naval command. Those who disagree can sit quietly and listen as every word reminds them that the command-approved option is to believe in God. The Navy approves this practice.
Chaplains often respond that the Armed Forces Chaplains Board (AFCB) is “reviewing the paperwork.” This has been the continual response since mid-2011.MAAF submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request in July 2012, requesting all minutes of meetings of the Chaplains Board from January 2011 through July2012. There was no indication in any of the documents received that any issue pertaining to non theists had ever been discussed. MAAF is appealing for information regarding some redacted portions, but what we have seen suggests a level of inaction that betrays the lack of any desire to support non theist service members.
After years of focus on the military academies, and thanks to the courage of individual cadets and midshipmen, MAAF was able for the first time in 2012 to secure official recognition for cadet clubs, enabling nontheistic cadets to organize activities and events. This official recognition had to be obtained outside of chaplaincy channels. In the case of the Air Force Academy, Academy chaplains, reportedly under direction from the Air Force Chief of ChaplainsOffice, have officially disavowed any involvement with or support of non theists. This interpretation of the Chief’s letter was appealed immediately, but the associated paperwork was never forwarded. Cadets continue to operate as a club but do so knowing that senior officers are authorized to officially discriminate. At each Academy, to some degree, clubs still seek—but have not yet obtained—funding, off-post trips, and advertising equal to what other clubs receive.
The Army Overlooks Admitted Conversions by Senior Leaders
Chaplain Michael Milton returned from a visit to the Army War College in 2011. He was invited there to run a retreat because he was chancellor of his seminary, a colonel in the Army Reserves, and a prior instructor at the Army Chaplain Corps College. He wrote on his blog that he was excited to see that Jesus was present throughout the war college and being taught in the classroom. He had written in an earlier post about his successful conversion of vulnerable service members on deployment. The Army’s response? Denial and acceptance. The blog post was not even removed.
Following the non-chaplain club model, MAAF has worked around chaplains to form groups on other military installations. Of the military communities currently listed on the MAAF Network, only at a few Air Force installations and at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego have chaplain leaders expressed any support whatever. The other communities operate independently, supported only by MAAF and by individual military personnel when they are not deployed or on duty. Several local civilian groups, such as local humanist or atheist groups, have assisted as well. These local communities are growing in number and quality, despite the general lack of official support.
Humanists don’t ask for much: a location to meet for two hours a week, the ability to advertise those meetings alongside other chaplain/worship services, referrals to supportive groups, and announcements to the unit are enough to facilitate the group. Wiccans looking for a Circle to join know they can contact the chaplain, and the chaplain will put them in touch with the local or national Wiccan organization and provide them with a local space to meet. We are asking for nothing different.
Purely secular support is available from various non-chaplain post facilities, including the officer/noncommissioned officer club, MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation programs), and other community services. They support hobbies, socializing, and fraternal activities. However, such secular support programs are fundamentally different than values-based fellowship. For those espousing humanist, ethical culture, positive atheist, or other nontheistic expressions of core identity and beliefs, meeting with others of like mind provides an additional way to build character and handle the stress of military life.
There is also a need to encourage open and explicit expression of nontheistic identity. Too many in the nontheistic community are lost in the larger group identified by “No Religious Preference” (see demographics insert). The only legitimate category in which we can be found is “Atheist,” and that includes our secular Jewish friends who would otherwise be lumped in with theistic Jews. All personnel who do not believe in a god should have “Atheist” on their official records. Many fear harassment or discrimination, and that is understandable given the state of the military described in the introductory section.In addition, when discrimination occurs in the form of a lost promotion or bad assignment, it is nearly impossible to prove. That said, the nontheistic community and our interfaith and secular legal allies stand ready to provide support. Now is the time to speak up.
Many may be looking to designate themselves as “Humanist,” “Ethical Culture” member, “Freethinker,” or “Secular Jew.” The military provides over one hundred different options but not these. Ray Bradley, a major at Fort Bragg, submitted a request in 2012 to have “Humanist” added as a religious preference. This may indicate that Humanism is a “religion”; however, with options like “Atheist,” “None,” and “No Religious Preference” already on the list, there is no need to label as “religious” any other new addition. Personnel wishing to self-identify on their records as “Humanist” should first change to “Atheist” and then contact MAAF for support in submitting a formal Equal Opportunity complaint for discrimination on the basis of belief.
There are actions that both civilians and members of the military can take in order to support our own. Reaching out to the chaplains, seeking lay leader certification, forming a local group, and changing official records are all actions that military personnel can take. Civilian groups located near military installations can reach out to the military community with military-focused events and to foster any groups that may form on the installation. In addition, groups can prepare care packages to be sent to service members overseas.
As we support our own, it will be harder and harder to ignore our growing numbers. In addition, these growing groups will be in a better position to stand up as plaintiffs to fight for equal rights and against discrimination and the privileging of religion when necessary.
Major Lawsuits Have Increased Visibility
by a superior officer at a MAAF meeting in 2003, Jeremy Hall (center) agreed to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) litigated with Hall and then Dustin Chalker (left), spotlighting Christian bias throughout the military. Justin Griffith (right) has worked with MRFF and American Atheists to fight for equal support for atheist concerts at Fort Bragg and Camp Pendleton.
Fighting for Equal Rights and Protection from Discrimination
As mentioned in the previous section, there is an ongoing debate in the nontheistic community about whether the stick or the carrot yields the best results. Community building continues, but it is continually stifled by the overt privileging of Christianity and entrenched unwillingness to provide equal opportunities, not just for secular service members but also for committed non theists. Increased efforts will be needed to create a safe place for non theists in military life.
In many cases, taking legal action and resorting to appeals for media coverage is unfortunate but necessary. It is unfortunate because it exposes the plaintiff to ostracism, creates huge amounts of paperwork, burns bridges, and costs significant money and time. It is necessary because it gets results. Fortunately, many options are available, ranging from press releases, Freedom of Information requests, and sternly written letters all the way up to multi-year lawsuits. Whatever our personal disposition may be, the military and its chaplaincy have shown themselves to be unresponsive to polite outreach. Escalation and legal activism should be the last resort, but after years of outreach, legal avenues may be all that are left.
The Department of Defense Promotes Evangelistic Leaders
In 2007, several senior leaders were shown in an evangelical organization video promoting Christianity in their uniforms during the work day in their offices at the Pentagon. An official Inspector General report found fault with six individuals. Three retired directly to comfortable private sector jobs without demotion after thirty-plus-year careers. A civilian, Pete Geren, was immediately appointed to be secretary of the Army. Two one-star generals have since been promoted to three-star generals and continue to rise through the ranks.
Military personnel should be submitting Equal Opportunity and Inspector General complaints when they believe they have suffered harassment. They should be reaching out to organizations like MAAF, MRFF, American Atheists, and the American Humanist Association for support with these actions. These groups may provide up-front legal advice and support and lead to change.
I have already mentioned the need for “Humanist” self-identification. This change would go far to secure greater recognition of the humanity of atheists.It is critical that atheists be recognized and accepted, but the term Humanist does not inspire the negative emotion in our ideological opposition that atheism does, and it also speaks to the positive beliefs that we do hold.
In order for non theists to be equal members of the military team, they must have a military free from privileging and proselytizing of religion. There are too many to list them all, but it is critical to recognize some of the biggest violations that are occurring. The most obvious examples are the prayers offered at nearly every military ceremony. These are defended as “tradition” or as necessary for “solemnity.” In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU) filed an apparently still unresolved suit against lunchtime prayers at the Naval Academy. Each December, military installations erect Nativity scenes to the exclusion of other displays. While MAAF and others have on several occasions secured equal participation (a secular display alongside the grave) or were successful in getting the displays removed, firm opposition is required. American Atheists recently forced the removal of an illegal permanent cross from a military chapel in Afghanistan. MRFF has exposed outrageous cases of military leaders using their positions to promote Christianity, such as the Christian Embassy Pentagon video and the engraving of evangelical Bible verses on rifles. MRFF has also led the ongoing campaign to fight entrenched proselytism at the Air Force Academy. MAAF secured the removal of an Opus Dei motto from an Air Force logo, but many other examples of religious-military heraldry remain. MAAF forced the removal of a requirement for Bibles in Air Force lodging, but lodging facilities continue to place Bibles. Again, this is but a sampling of issues facing nontheistic service members in the military; all require continued action to compel reform.
Certified Leaders Provide Authentic Humanist Support
MAAF has provided certification to local humanist and atheist leaders in accordance with military regulations. The military requires chaplain volunteers to have certification from an outside agency similar to chaplain endorsement. These certifications, along with actual chaplain endorsement, provide an avenue for MAAF to help garner some of the chaplaincy resources already available to Mormons, Muslims, Wiccans, and others. Unfortunately, their applications have not been processed; our leaders are still being excluded.
We must defend against religious abuses while also protecting the free exercise of religion. While we try to restore the secular character of the military in order to be compliant with the establishment clause, we must be sure not to infringe upon the free exercise of religion. Similarly, religious persons should oppose those who would exercise their particular religion to discriminate against others. The right to worship and to have religious materials should not be infringed, but the government has neither the right nor the obligation to worship on one’s behalf.
Charting a Path Forward
The best way to push for reform may be simply to support our own. Military personnel are serving the nation and need our support. Efforts to reach out and build local groups have succeeded and have succeeded best when done in conjunction with local and national support. MacDill Air Force Base flourished with Atheists of Florida. Fort Bragg flourished with the attention garnered by the event Rock Beyond Belief. The military community in Hawaii has service projects and meetings with the support of Hawaii Secular Society. Excitement is high at Joint Base San Antonio and Fort Hood due to the American Atheists convention in Austin. The same is true in the San Diego military community, with a new billboard campaign conducted through the San Diego Coalition of Reason and the American Humanist Association Convention. And it only makes sense to support our own.
Military Communities for Nontheists are Growing Worldwide
From Japan to Djibouti, California to Connecticut, and in Hawaii and Afghanistan, the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF) has not just members but also leaders and groups. Military personnel will travel, but they should have a supportive community to go to and from. However, nearly all of these groups are struggling due to lack of equal support from chaplains and other military leaders.
The obvious option to request support from outside the movement has met with limited success. The military chaplaincy has been essentially unresponsive to outreach, especially at the highest levels. Outreach to minority religious groups, including Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim organizations, has also met with limited responsiveness. The Forum on the Military Chaplaincy supports reform related to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and larger diversity issues. They have accepted me as a member and assisted with messaging and outreach to the chaplaincy but have not joined in any specific efforts to advocate for equal opportunity for nontheists.
Reforms that have been successful are due in large part to assistance from secular and interfaith legal groups. MRFF, Americans United for Separation forChurch and State, and the ACLU have all joined in briefs against church-state violations, sent letters, and helped to add legitimacy and professionalism to the complaints and lawsuits filed by nontheistic individuals and groups. These collaborations should continue, hopefully with more strategic coordination among the groups to target more systematic and higher-level violations.
However, it is clear that reforms and assistance will not be given freely. After more than two years of positive outreach from MAAF, chaplains have not been forthcoming with support. While this outreach will continue, we need no longer feel obligated to wait patiently for long-delayed consideration of requests. Notice has been properly given in the past, and going forward, we can move firmly ahead for what is right through nonmilitary chaplains and non-chaplain senior military leaders, secretaries of the services, and Congress. With stronger communities of our own and, we hope, growing support outside our community, we can better prevent abuse of military power to privilege religion and thereby create a safe space for nontheists in the military.
Demographics of Military Unbelief
A Christian-dominated military with a significant secular core
Full details, important annotations, and source files are at www.militaryatheists.org/demographics/
Less than 70% of the US military identifies as Christian.
There are 103 total options and 83 are Christian/Evangelistic/Catholic.
The largest single selection is “No Religious Preference.”
Of all specific, non-Christian selections, “Atheist” is the largest. The military currently does not allow “Humanist” as an option.
A Christian-dominated chaplaincy with a significant evangelistic core
Nearly 98% of the chaplaincy comes from Christian endorsers. There are 216 total endorsers, and 191 are in a Christian category.
Only 35 chaplains are non-Jewish/Christian of nearly 5,000 total.
Many Christian chaplains are proud of the origin of the chaplaincy as a personal Christian ministry instituted by George Washington for the Continental Army with the following direct order in 1776:
“[C]ommanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains … to see that all inferior officers and soldiers … attend carefully upon religious exercises … and act as becomes a Christian soldier. …”
While we rightfully revere George Washington, we must recognize that his sentiments on chaplaincy have no place in our pluralistic society. The chaplaincy must be a symbol of diversity of thought, not simply of Christianity. To stay relevant in the modern military, the chaplaincy must come to terms with the modern military, diversity of belief, and responsible separation of religion and government.