Supervising Spirituality






Some would like to see the United States Air Force, and, consequently, our entire military, become a religion-free zone. Ridiculous as it sounds, a pending lawsuit brought against the Air Force could result in the government supervising all religious speech of all military personnel, including chaplains.

The lawsuit's premise is separation of church and state, and, of course, our military is state-controlled. So the court must decide if it is constitutional for military personnel—agents of the state—to enjoy the same religious freedoms other citizens enjoy.

What the suit's plaintiffs don't understand is that if something is free, it's not supervised by the government. Freedom of the press means that there are no government censors supervising news reports. Freedom of speech means that the government cannot arrest us for what we say in classrooms, restaurants and church services. In the same way, freedom of religion is the absence of government supervision of religious expression.

Why do the accusers of the Air Force want to restrict these freedoms? Apparently it has something to do with their prejudice against evangelical Christians. In a message to his mailing list, the plaintiff complained about the "unbridled, evangelical lust for proselytizing [that] seems to trump all other facets of the human condition and international relations ... " and expressed dismay that evangelical expression is "advancing with wreckless abandon and trumping constitutional freedoms."

His solution: religious expression needs to be bridled by the government. Let me get this straight. In the name of protecting freedom of religion, the secular fringe would have the government clamp down on cadets sharing their faith, chaplains training their flocks and pastors expressing their views—all in the name of freedom.

I've written about the case in this space before, but it's an ongoing concern because if these claims are upheld in a court, a frightening precedent would be set against the practice of faith in America. And the court would be withholding from members of the military the very freedoms they give their lives to protect.

This would devastate the military chaplaincy as we have known it. Military chaplains are sponsored by their endorsers in respective denominations or religious traditions. They can minister to the men and women who come to them, and make full use of the theological and spiritual resources in their traditions.

If this lawsuit prevails, chaplains' work would be dictated by the government. Our Chaplain Corps would no longer be chaplains at all—they would instead be lame-duck spiritual advisors under strict government supervision. In effect, the American courts would have created our first established church.

Like its First-Amendment partner freedom of speech, freedom of religion is guaranteed only when religious practice is unencumbered by government. When that happens, we get more diversity, more understanding and more room for more voices. Sure, things get messy sometimes, but Americans have proven themselves able to clean up the mess.

As evangelicals, we need to stand for the freedom of religion in all places and for all religions. We need to protect the rights of Muslims to walk into their mosques unharmed, of Jews to wear yarmulkes, of Catholics to recite the rosary, and of evangelicals to share their faith. And, without a doubt, we must defend the freedom to practice religion for the men and women who serve our country in uniform.

Leading sociologists argue that religion has flourished in America precisely because it is free to take root and flower in a context of democratic liberty. Here, you can be an atheist, Jew, Buddhist or Scientologist, and you can share your beliefs with anyone who will listen. Here, the religious marketplace is open and a variety of faith traditions flourish.

The First Amendment makes all this possible. Because of it, America—a nation that seems so secular, a nation that takes great care to keep religion in a tiny corner of the public square—is also a nation where religion flourishes unlike anywhere else in the world.

Simply put, secularist efforts like the current suit against the Air Force must be defeated at all costs. The people who serve this country can be trusted to handle multi billion-dollar military machinery and grasp current geopolitical complexities. Surely they can be trusted to practice their faith, too.


Ted Haggard pastors New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the author of many books and is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

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