Among the other scandals I’ve seen spillage of in postings by my fundamentalist friends in recent weeks, there has been a matter of the US military making efforts to clamp down on the extent of the “witnessing for Christ” being done by its officers. One Coast Guard Rear Admiral in particular has vocally objected to being told that he is not allowed to share his faith when and where he chooses. As this is fairly directly related to the subject of the doctoral studies I am just getting started on, I thought this would be a reasonable opportunity to see if I can put some of the theory I am working on shaping on this matter into terms that even fundamentalists can understand it. Please let me know how I do here.
The practical issue, as I understand it, is whether or not people in high positions of authority, being paid by the government to tell people what to do, can from that position of authority suggest to those working for them what they should believe in religious terms. In the case of the United States there is a delicate balance between every person at any level of society being free to believe whatever they are inclined to believe religiously, and to express that belief publically, and then the requirement that the government itself would not officially sponsor or endorse any particular set of religious beliefs, or tacitly require them of citizens or government workers.
This goes back to the question of to what extent the United States can be said to be a “Christian country” and what we are really talking about when we speak of the importance of freedom of religion and the separation between church and state. There is a lot of noise and confusion about these topics these days, and sorting them out is no easy task.
I’m inclined to start sorting these matters by following Nicolas Wolterstorff’s lead and going back to the middle ages. There we had something called “Christendom” which was a social system based largely on an assumption that everyone who mattered in society was a baptized and believing Christian. Yes, there were some non-believers or different believers within the system, but their perspectives on things didn’t really matter when it came to the rules by which society functioned, and they could be kept in their place through the judicious exercise of the righteous sword of the rulers. So this system operated on the assumption that all those who mattered recognized two intertwined systems of organization within the society: the one dealing with heavenly concerns and the one dealing with earthly concerns –– the church and the empire(s). There was more than a little overlap between these ruling systems: the church was involved in taxation, war, policing and the legitimizing of the secular rulers; and the emperors made it their duty to cultivate morality and “true religion” in their people. This led to more than a few power struggles between representatives of the state and representatives of the church, and you don’t have to follow The Borgias to be aware of how bad it could get at times.
For many good reasons this system started to break down, most definitively with the Protestant Reformation, but the resulting systems of organization were not so much tolerant and pluralistic societies as what Wolterstorff calls “mini-Christendoms”: systems in which tried to keep the same sort of Christian consensus within their societies, but with a purer and more focused doctrinal basis. Among the bravest and most ambitious of these mini-Christendoms were those that took shape in the New England colonies in America in the 1600s, where governor Winthrop boldly proclaimed that Massachusetts would become the proverbial “city on a hill” that the rest of western society could look to to see how a truly godly society would operate. Much later on Ronald Reagan dusted off that same imagery, and there are some who seem to think that there is clear thread of “Godly governance” in America that stretches from Winthrop to Reagan, with the odd liberal aberration here and there in between and since.
The fact of the matter, however, is that mini-Christendoms didn’t really work that smoothly. Pluralism started creeping into even the most carefully exclusivist of them, causing all sorts of practical and political problems. This is where the real American innovation came in: the radical separatists who determined that their government would be better off independent of English governance also decided that there would be no officially sanctioned church for the nation. It took some time to break free from the mini-Christendom mentality –– and it could in fact be argued that this is still an on-going process in the US –– but the radical innovation that the American founding fathers brought to world politics was a system of governance in which, to quote Wolterstorff again:
- Church (synagogue, mosque, etc.) and state are to be separate and distinct institutions, without any administrative connections between them.
- Religious exercise is to remain free from any state interference.
- The state, when distributing benefits and burdens, is not to discriminate between citizens on account of their religion, or lack thereof.
- There is to be no differentiation among citizens with regard to religion in their right to hold office and in their right to political voice.
The first of these is what we are talking about when we talk about the separation of church and state; the following three are the essential standards for what we call freedom of religion. These are separate but related issues: it is possible to have separation of church and state without freedom of religion, and visa-versa. It is fair to say that the former is more important in the US than in most other countries, but the latter is more freely ignored in the US than most other countries –– at least those which publicly endorse the concept of human rights. The challenge is to allow all religious and non-religious people freedom to express their convictions and attempt to build coalitions based on their shared perspectives without allowing them to silence or put special burdens on those they disagree with. This is many times easier said than done.
One of the most influential theorists in this field has been John Rawls, and American social scientists who started out in academic life training for the priesthood, but who lost his faith due to the emotional struggles he went through as a soldier during World War 2. Rawls’s basic principle when it came to religion and politics is that in order to have a mutually respectful public debate about the principles on which a democratic government should operate we need to base our arguments on premises that all participants in the debate can accept as starting points. So for instance if we are talking about what sort of laws we would have restricting the practice of summer barbeques, it is perfectly justifiable to base these arguments on limiting damage to the environment and limiting the smoke and smells that drift into your neighbor’s space, because those are things we can all agree are important things to take into consideration. But we cannot, from Rawls’s perspective, limit people’s right to cook pork sausages in public just because Jews and Muslims find them to be religiously offensive. If Jews and Muslims don’t want their neighbors to be allowed to grill such summer delicacies in public they will have to find some secular justification for their objection. Otherwise it just won’t fly.
Much of the current argument against religious content in politics these days is based on Rawls’s premise here, but this is not without its philosophical problems. Briefly, to find abstract principles that everyone can agree are valid starting points in all relevant political discussions is probably too demanding a standard to put on a genuinely pluralistic society, and we can still hold to the principles listed above even if we do allow religious believers to voice their political opinions on the basis of their religious beliefs. It is thus perfectly legitimate for someone to stand up in an American town hall meeting in an area where Jews and Muslims between them constitute a sizeable amount of the population and say, “On the basis of my faith I do not wish for my family to be constantly exposed to the smell burning pig meat all summer, and therefore I suggest that all who agree with me band together to pass a resolution to keep others from being allowed to afflict our senses and sensitivities in this way.” Others are freely allowed to argue back on the basis of whatever ideological principles they subscribe to, and eventually the matter will have to come to a vote.
So how do these principles relate to Christians promoting their faith within the military? To start with there is the matter of military officers, as official representatives of the US government, not using their position as a means to promote their religious beliefs. It would effectively violate the principle of separation between church and state if participation in a particular form of worship is expected of soldiers as part of “following orders.” If military officers –– again, as official representatives of the US federal government –– are actively working to build up active membership in their own religious communities, that effectively violates the First Amendment principle prohibiting government support for particular religious institutions.
But what if officers, not as officers per se, but as believing human beings who “happen to wear the uniform” want to share the joy of their faith with those around them, and in particular reach out to those who are hurting or traumatized, as military service so often makes people feel? This is the justification that Rear Admiral Lee, referred to above, has to offer for his actions in promoting the gospel while performing his command duties.
Here I believe we need to bring in the analogy of sexual harassment, and apply the same principles limiting what we consider to be acceptable behavior. It is true that when someone puts on a uniform he or she does not cease to be a spiritual being, but it is also true that putting on that uniform does not cause a person to no longer be a sexual being either. The military has come to realize that they should not attempt to prevent all romantic or even sexual encounters between their personnel, but what they need to be most careful about is allowing those in positions of authority to use those positions of authority as means of fulfilling their sexual desires. Beyond that they need to make sure that among those of comparable rank, without either one being under the other in the chain of command, the military does everything in its power to enforce respect for who say that they’re not interested. Thus putting on the uniform, figuratively speaking, really does require a greater degree of sexual restraint than what is required of civilians and lower ranking soldiers. I believe the same principle needs to apply to the desire to share one’s faith.
Unfair analogy? I really don’t think so. The urge to religiously convert others has more in common with seduction than most people realize. In both cases the core motivation is (ideally) that of building the satisfaction of a deeper interpersonal connection with the target individual in a way that the object of this attention will also gain greater satisfaction in life in the process. In both cases, however, there are many who are more interested in “scoring points” and racking up impressive statistics for themselves than actually caring about the objects of their attentions as people. In both cases the sincerity of the love involved is extremely difficult to judge. In both cases it is better to ere on the side of caution, but to avoid institutional paranoia wherever possible.
Military chaplains are specially trained not to convert soldiers to the chaplain’s beliefs, but to help soldiers find a sense of comfort, purpose and connection in the soldiers’ own beliefs. That too is a complicated matter, but overall the professionalism of these men and women is held in high regard. For a soldier to talk with the chaplain about religion is rather like a soldier talking with a psychologist about sex: the chaplain cannot do his job properly unless he can relate to the soldier as a fellow spiritual being, but preventing any expectation of the soldier participating in the chaplain’s own religious identity is part of the basic safety of the interaction. Those who are not so trained need to be much more circumspect with regard to their efforts to provide spiritual guidance and support. As with sex, it’s perfectly natural that other officers would want to participate in meeting the needs of those under their command at times, and under certain circumstances it might even be the morally right thing to do, but there are good reasons to have rules against it as well.
To me it is obvious that many consider the conversion of as many as possible to their religions or personal value systems to be the ultimate purpose of their lives. They carry this sense of mission with them whatever they do and wherever they go. In fact I have deep personal respect for many people who live like that, even when the sorts of religions or ideologies they are promoting are not the sort I can identify with. But… and there’s always the “but” in these cases… I believe that those who have this sort of mission and identity, as a matter of personal integrity, need to recognize the rights of others to disagree with them. I believe that those who cannot resist the temptation to continuously compel others to join them in their belief systems probably need to excuse themselves from certain sorts of tasks within society. When they are unable to make this sort of judgment for themselves, I believe that sometimes it will have to be made for them.
Within government service, especially within the military, it is vitally important that each individual can do his or her duty without compromising his or her identity as a Jew, a Muslim, an Atheist, a Sikh, or even a born-again Christian. It is entirely expected and respectable for any of those to be allowed to stand up for his identity and to explain what this identity means to him. If he ends up winning a convert or two, fine. The problem comes when someone from one of those perspectives expects everyone else to share his perspective, and succeeds in making life difficult for those who refuse.
People of good will on all sides of these matters will continue to work on functional compromises that enable practical cooperation. People on all sides who are looking for excuses to hate those who disagree with them will continue to do so, and feeding them excuses for their hatred will continue to be a big business for certain “news outlets”. I can only hope that those I care about will tend towards the former.