The U.S. military is a stronghold for Christian-nation evangelism. That statement may sound inflammatory, but it accurately represents the convictions of many in the chain of command that, among other things, the United States is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles and that it is not only legal but required to utilize personal rank and military resources to spread the message of Christianity.
Military ministries like the Officers’ Christian Fellowship and the Campus Crusade Military Ministry operate with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The military chaplaincy is nearly 98 percent Christian, and nearly two-thirds of its members hail from denominations that prioritize proselytization of their beliefs. So-called spiritual fitness programs, which flourish throughout the military, are developed and overseen by those same chaplains, so no one should be surprised that service members are being pushed toward religious worship and prayer. But this trend carries many costs. Across the armed forces, compulsory religion is driving a wedge into the military team, failing to resolve issues of post-traumatic stress, isolating many service members, and violating our Constitution.
In growing numbers, advocates of secular government are standing up to fight back against religious discrimination and advocate for the rights of those who have suffered from the improper intrusion of religion into government. The Forum on the Military Chaplaincy is an organization of current and former chaplains who are helping to steward the military through its implementation of the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” The Forum is also paving the way for increasing diversity in the military, including transitioning and queer service members. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation engages in media and legal activism to fight against Christian evangelism in the military. My organization, the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF), builds community for atheists and humanists in the military. By and large, these organizations didn’t exist or were in their infancy just ten years ago. Now, they and others are building strength to turn the tide against a well-entrenched and powerful Christian military establishment.
The articles in this special section focus on how the military needs to continue its progress toward achieving equality for all service members. Gretchen Mann, MD, draws from over thirty years’ experience in addressing “moral injury,” which results from tragedies that challenge people to their very core. Resolving such trauma requires health-care workers to reach out in terms of religious and nontheistic world views. Major Ray Bradley writes about his personal experiences with making changes from the inside. A certified lay leader, he has been denied the opportunity even to identify himself as a humanist. Carlos Bertha, PhD, a military officer and MAAF board member, comments on the implications of a contracted, rather than active-duty, chaplaincy that would provide for the religious needs of service members without the concerns associated with a government-paid (missionary) clergy. Dr. Cliff Andrew, who leads the Annapolis Unitarian Universalist Humanists, describes the ongoing success of one military group, the Naval Academy Freethinkers and Atheists. I lead off with a grim state-of-the-military report and propose a daunting way forward for accommodation of atheists and humanists in the military.
Whatever we do, it is important that atheists and humanists learn a few lessons that Christians already know well. First, military personnel are arguably the most respected group in America, and it is important to be seen as represented in that community. Second, military personnel are in vulnerable and impressionable situations. We need to protect them from evangelism while also reaching out and providing support not just with mental health and secular services but with connections to communities of atheists, humanists, and other non theists. The non theist community and the secular humanist community together have distinctly different contributions to make in reengineering the military to accept diversity of belief within its ranks.