Pentagon Supports Religious Expression, Opponents Fume

By Mark A. Kellner | Posted September 22, 2020

It’s a fact of life that when one joins the military, certain personal rights are surrendered: Someone else tells you when to get up, when to go to sleep, where to go, what to do. Even your meal choices can be dictated by others, particularly at the battlefront.

But is an American servicemember also stripped of their right to religious expression? On September 1, the Pentagon released “ Religious Liberty in the Military Services,” a nearly 20-page document, approved by Matthew P. Donovan, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. The document sets forth Department of Defense (DOD) “policy on the accommodation of individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) … which do not have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, or health and safety.” Furthermore, “an expression of sincerely held beliefs … may not, in so far as practicable, be used as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment.”

All this should be good news for the approximately 1.3 million active-duty personnel who comprise the U.S. armed forces, believed to be the third-largest military in the world. According to Military Times, an independent publication covering the armed forces, attorney Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, a public-advocacy law firm, and himself a Marine Corps reservist, asserted, “Service members don’t lose their religious freedom by virtue of being in the military.”

One of the hallmarks of American society is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which promises, in part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That means the government can’t legislate what religion the nation should practice, neither can it restrict an individual’s exercise of his religious conscience.

Chaplains Challenged

The new Pentagon directive comes after several incidents involving faith-based expressions. Those incidents were called out in a May 2020 letter, signed by 20 lawmakers, to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. In all three incidents, advocacy group Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) incited the complaint.

In one incident, religious videos posted on Facebook by military chaplains were removed. In another, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, also a chaplain, was stopped from preaching sermons from his apartment balcony. The last was an investigation into a U.S. Army chaplain, stationed at Camp Humphreys in the Republic of Korea, who shared copies of an online Christian book on the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the article, he sent it to “35 subordinates via military email.”

“It is clear that Army commands are not on the same page about how to address religious liberty issues that may arise,” stated the lawmakers in their letter. “Far too often,” they concluded, “commanders react in a knee-jerk fashion to loud complaints from vocal anti-religion activists only to have their decisions immediately overturned upon scrutiny, but often only after congressional intervention pressing the Services to adhere to their own regulations (let alone the Constitution).”

However, the head of the MRFF, Mikey Weinstein, a graduate of the Air Force Academy and a 10-year veteran, sees it differently. In a statement to the Military Times, Weinstein declared, “MRFF will never allow this brand-new regulatory provision to illicitly buttress the already repugnant and omnipresent efforts of the fundamentalist Christian religious right from perpetuating its pervasive and pernicious pattern and practice of forcing its weaponized version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ upon otherwise defenseless military subordinates.”

His group won’t be backing down any time soon, promising to “fight tooth and nail, day and night” against the DOD policy.

In contrast, Berry, who supports the new policy, argued, “If we want our military to remain the strongest, most capable military, we’ve got to ensure that our troops don’t lose their constitutional freedoms because otherwise, they’re going to start asking, ‘Why are we fighting?’”

Military Rights, Military Wrongs

While the Bible is replete with martial imagery and stories of battles, those who follow Christ are often conflicted about whether or not to serve in their nation’s military. In many countries, most notably the Republic of Korea, Sabbath-keepers and other conscientious objectors, in adherence to the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13) have gone to prison rather than serve in the military.

Cover of the book The Hero of Hacksaw Ridge

But there is at least one story of a Sabbath-keeper who was able to both serve his country and do it in accordance with God’s commands. His name was Desmond Doss, “ The Hero of Hacksaw Ridge.” Doss was willing—eager, in fact—to serve as a medic during World War II, but he refused to carry a weapon, even in training. He was severely punished and oppressed for this until he won an exemption from military superiors. He was also, by God’s grace, able to keep the Sabbath.

During a battle on the Japanese island of Okinawa, Doss famously risked his life again and again to lower wounded soldiers to safety. “Lord, help me get one more” was his constant plea. After several hours, Doss ended up saving 75 lives. He was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor, presented to him by President Harry S. Truman. Doss was a lifelong Sabbath-keeper.

So should a Christian serve? This is a question on many a mind, and one that Pastor Doug Batchelor answered on Bible Answers Live, bringing both personal experience and Scriptural insight to the topic. You’ll find his answer toward the end of the broadcast transcript.

May those who are faithful to God remember this: “The LORD your God is He who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” (Deuteronomy 20:4).

Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.

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