Separation of religion and state is one of the founding principles of American democracy. Recently that constitutional principle has been tested by several high profile events involving conservative evangelical Christians and the military. Jeff Swicord reports on the latest incident.
"There are over 25,000 Department of Defense leaders working in the rings and corridors of the Pentagon. Through bible studies discipleship, prayer breakfasts and outreach events, Christian Embassy is mustering these men and women into an intentional relationship with Jesus Christ." So begins a promotional video for "Christian Embassy," an Evangelical organization whose ministry targets high-powered government and military professionals.
The video has been criticized by a religious freedom watchdog group, which claims it violates the American principle of separation of religion and state.
At a news conference in Washington D.C. the Military Religious Freedom Foundation asked the Pentagon to investigate whether the video appearance of uniformed officers on location at the Pentagon, violates military regulations and the United States Constitution. Mikey Weinstein, the foundation president, says the video is symptomatic of a larger problem.
"I have received thousands of complaints from people being tormented all over the world from a radicalized version of Christianity being pushed upon them. Ninety six percent of the complaints that come to me are from Christians."
According to U.S. military policy on religion, "professionals and especially commanders must not take it upon themselves to change or coercively influence the religious views of subordinates."
Robert Varney, the Executive Director of Christian Embassy, the organization that produced the video, declined VOA's request for an on-camera interview. But in a telephone conversation he said, in his words, "Investigations are good. And in the end, the Pentagon investigation will show there is no merit to the complaint."
The Reverend MeLinda Morton disagrees. She is a former Air force chaplain, and works with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
"It definitely was against regulations and that it demonstrates incredibly poor officership that this never entered their mind. Well, why doesn't this enter their mind? Because the whole issue of religiosity in the military has become such a systemic problem. It has infiltrated the military so much, that that is the problem that no one gives this a second thought."
In the video a lieutenant colonel refers to Evangelical Christian officers as being "Godly men," a term Reverend Morton says shows favoritism toward one belief over another. She says this has a coercive effect on subordinates and is bad for moral and order.
Part of the video’s soundtrack provides an example of this problem. "These Godly men are taking godly principles that they are learning in the Christian Embassy Bible studies and they are applying those things to their personal lives. And as a result they are going to go out and they are going to lead men. And their soldiers are going to benefit from the fact that these military men who are also Godly men."
"Now you draw a line, a line that is in no way to be drawn by regulation or by ability. Suddenly the good officer is the Godly officer. And the Godly officer is defined in fundamentalist Christian terms."
In another segment, a general says when he meets people in his office, he tells them up front that he is a Christian. "I found a wonderful opportunity as a director on the Joint Staff, as I meet the people that come into my directorate, and I tell them right up front who Jack Caton is. And I start with, ‘I am an old fashioned American and my first priority is my faith in God, then my family, and then country.’ I share my faith because it describes who I am.
"That is not the concept of officership that has long been held in the military. The concept of officership that has long been held in the military held distinct the privilege of separation of church and state. And said, yes there are things that you bring to the table as an officer, particularly as a senior officer. And no, you do not share with your staff and with those people who work with you every detail of your personal life."
Christian Embassy has pulled the video from its website. The group says it will return to the site in the future with a disclaimer stating that nothing in the video is endorsed by the U.S. military. The Pentagon says it needs more time to determine whether Military Religious Freedoms Foundation complaint warrants an investigation. The foundation says it is ready to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. .
All this follows a religious controversy at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in which Evangelical Christians were accused of bullying cadets of other faiths.