Religious neutrality is the subject of the most recent service-wide memo from Air Force Joint Chief Gen. Norton A. Schwartz. He calls on “leaders at all levels” to take immediate steps to maintain “government neutrality regarding religion.” In the memo, written in the wake of investigations into training and other Air Force events that appeared to endorse, or even demand adherence to, Christian beliefs and activities, General Schwartz’s memo said:
Leaders … must balance Constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and its prohibition against governmental establishment of religion.
A Google search identifies news articles which show that for at least the past two decades, promotion of Christian beliefs has been a contentious issue in the various branches of service, and religious neutrality, especially at service academies, ROTC training groups and training commands is honored mostly in the breach.
Recently, an organization called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) revealed, as reported by Truthout.org, that for two decades, a mandatory part of the Air Force’s nuclear missile launch officer “ethics” training used biblical passages to promote a “just war” philosophy. The course was, in effect, a Christian theological presentation, nicknamed the “Jesus Loves Nukes speech” by some missile officers, hardly a paragon of religious neutrality. Soon after publication of the Truthout story, the Air Force suspended the training module and began a review of all Air Force ethics training.
Much of the training reviewed turned out to be heavily weighted with religious content. Worse, the investigation revealed a pattern of religious “enforcement” throughout Air Force commands, including one instance where airmen who did not attend something called the “Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness Concert” were punished.
General Schwartz’s memo is a long-delayed correction of an unconstitutional practice ubiquitous in the military. The Air Force approach should become the norm throughout the services… soon.
The memo is not reported by what is dubbed the “Mainstream Media” so far. However, given the influence of the evangelical Christian community in politics of late, it has the potential to be a significant “bone of contention” in days to come. Senator John Cronyn (R-TX) already tried to scotch the process at the beginning by objecting when the Air Force pulled the original “Jesus Loves Nukes” training, and misinterpreting the First Amendment as not requiring religious neutrality in government. He was unsuccessful.
A service-related ministry called “ChristianFighterPilot.com,” in its blog “God and Country,” wrote an analysis that seemed more negative than positive in its view of the memo but never expressed a definitive position. Truthout.org has been touting the memo as being a result of its exposÃ© since the memo was released. But the closest thing to a mainstream publication is an opinion piece in Huff-Post.com, titled “Thank You General Schwartz for Finally Putting Your 4-Star Foot Down.”