James Gill: War on religion in military a phony one

During a lull in the fighting, a Pfc. faced a serious allegation.

“Have you been proselytizing?”

“No, Sarge. I know I could be court-martialed for that. I was just exercising my right to evangelize.”

The sergeant opened a desk drawer and took a surreptitious look at a dictionary, but he still couldn’t figure out where to draw the line between proselytizing and evangelizing. Nothing to be ashamed of there. No mortal could negotiate such a linguistic minefield.

The sergeant sent the godly Pfc. on his way and turned to Google for the Pentagon’s idea of the distinction. A spokesman had explained that members of the armed forces are free to “share their faith,” but not to make “intrusive attempts to convert others.” But this did not help the sergeant much, for he did not think it possible to share faith without recommending it in the strongest terms. Indeed, if evangelism does not involve saving the souls of others, he could not see the point of it and neither, in his experience, could barrack-room believers.

He did not envy the military judges who, one of these days, would have to rule on an evangelism defense in a proselytizing case.

Such scenes may be imaginary, but they are a possibility as the law stands. They could never happen, however, under legislation that is being pushed by the Christian right. We have always called the right evangelical, but now we see that the term is too feeble; they are full-fledged proselytizers. If they have their way, the law will protect not only religious freedom but grant immunity to service members preaching the gospel. That should really make for a disciplined fighting force.

Louisiana is bound to be prominently represented in any parade of right-wing zealots, and two prime specimens have surfaced here. Indeed, the whole campaign to turn military campaigns into Sunday school outings originated with Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council in Washington. Perkins is a former Louisiana legislator whose picture in the paper always looks suitably beatific. It has been appearing lately as he rallies the forces to halt the “anti-religious purge of America’s armed forces.”

Didn’t know about that purge, did you? That just goes to show how much we need Perkins.

Anyway, the Family Research Council duly produced a report entitled “Clear and Present Danger: The Threat to Religious Freedom in the Military.” It was released at a news conference called by Perkins and his pal U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden.

It confirms what we had long suspected. The religious right is nuts, or, at least paranoid. Nobody in the armed forces is denied the right to practice religion, but the Family Research Council is up in arms because, for instance, an air force officer was told to quit displaying a Bible on his desk. Perhaps they think we should put the little show-off in the next book of martyrs.

The myth of religious persecution in the armed forces is evidently gaining currency. Fleming filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act removing any restrictions on the “words and actions” of the military faithful, and it passed the House.

Now, the House has passed another Fleming amendment inspired by the Family Research Council. This one would ban atheist chaplains from the military. There must be more of them than you might think, for this is the third time to House has voted for such an amendment.

Put that dictionary down. It will only tell you that chaplains are by definition religious, but this man’s army is no slave to stereotypes. Still, it would be quite a shock for a young Christian soldier to discover that, not only are there atheists in foxholes, but he has to call them chaplain.

If Fleming’s first amendment doesn’t pass, it would be better if his second didn’t either. Under current regulations, atheist chaplains have a great advantage over the rest. They don’t evangelize and they don’t proselytize, so nobody has to go crazy trying to figure out the difference.

James Gill can be contacted at jgill@theadvocate.com.