Evangelizing the Troops

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Evangelical Christian groups are lobbying members of Congress and the Air Force to make sure their views are represented in new religious tolerance guidelines. Specifically, they want to make sure government-paid military chaplains still have the right to evangelize troops. Opponents are also lobbying. They say paying chaplains to evangelize violates the establishment clause of the Constitution.


Evangelical Christians are flooding the White House with letters and petition signatures hoping to influence new guidelines on religious expression in the Air Force. The guidelines are being developed amid claims that evangelicals at the Air Force Academy in Colorado tried to force their religion on others. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

The Air Force has become the latest battlefield in the war over how much of a role religion should play in government. On one side, evangelical Christians; and on the other, people who believe in a clear separation between church and state. Tom Minnery with the evangelical group Focus on the Family says religion is especially vital in the military because soldiers may be required to die for their country.

Mr. TOM MINNERY (Focus on the Family): The military must then encourage military men and women to grapple with the ultimate meaning in life, and those are the great solutions that come from religious teachings. What the secular left wants to do is stamp out meaningful discussion of religion at the Air Force Academy. That's a tragedy.

BRADY: Mikey Weinstein says he's proud to be a secularist because, he says, whenever religion is infused in the military the result is rivers of blood--the Crusades, for example. Weinstein is Jewish and graduated from the Air Force Academy. His sons followed in his footsteps. Weinstein says they've been called Christ killers and they faced pressures to convert to evangelical Christianity. Weinstein and four former cadets are suing the Air Force to stop all forms of evangelism by military personnel on duty. He says in a military command setting, evangelism starts to look like an order.

Mr. MIKEY WEINSTEIN (Father): If a senior member of the military tells you to go to the base dentist at 4 PM and you don't go, that's a felony. Now if they sit down and tell you they have such control over your life that you're going to burn eternally in hell like all your ancestors, like all your descendants unless you make a change and do this now, `Get out of my face' is not an available option.

BRADY: Weinstein filed his lawsuit after the Air Force released interim guidelines on religious expression this summer. He and other separate of church and state advocates say they weren't restrictive enough. Evangelicals say they were too restrictive. On evangelism the guidelines say superiors should be cautious about sharing their beliefs with people under their command. On prayer, the guidelines say it's generally not appropriate at common events like staff meetings. But on special occasions, like a change in command, a short, non-sectarian prayer is OK. Matt Staver with the evangelical legal group Liberty Council says it's unconstitutional to restrict evangelical Christians from practicing a cornerstone of their faith, and he says the military shouldn't be telling people how to pray.

Mr. MATT STAVER (Liberty Council): When the government is able to determine whether a prayer is religious vs. non-sectarian, the government essentially is micromanaging the prayer.

BRADY: Several evangelical groups are asking President Bush to intervene with an executive order, but he hasn't so far. The Air Force plans to release its permanent guidelines on religious expression in coming weeks. Lieutenant General Roger Brady is heading the task force that's writing the guidelines. Mikey Weinstein says Brady is the wrong person for the job because he's an evangelical Christian. Brady says his personal beliefs are not skewing the process. But Weinstein doesn't believe him.

Mr. WEINSTEIN: Look, we're in federal court now. We don't trust this executive branch, which is infused with apparently the same agenda as the extreme religious right, the Christian Taliban. We can't go to anybody who's in the Republican Party; the Democrats themselves seem to be afraid. So our last vestige of hope is the federal judiciary. That's where we are.

BRADY: General Brady says it's been difficult developing the guidelines and perhaps impossible to satisfy camps that are so far apart.

Lieutenant General ROGER BRADY (US Air Force): It would be naive of us to think that we're going to write these guidelines and everybody's going to stand up and applaud and say, `Boy, you guys did a good job,' because that isn't going to happen.

BRADY: Brady hopes the permanent guidelines will settle the issue, but he grudgingly acknowledges what both sides of this debate now say: The issue won't be settled until judges, perhaps even those on the Supreme Court, weigh in. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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