GUEST OP-ED – Fear, Reprisal, Retribution and Victim Blaming: Reporting Religious Abuse in the Military

The following was written by a Senior Active Duty Client of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which remains the only organization solely devoted to ensuring church-state separation within the U.S. Armed Forces for service members of all faiths and no faith.

I am a senior active duty member of the United States armed forces.

I am an active and grateful client and supporter of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). I fight against the epidemic of fundamentalist Christian religious extremism in our military because my oath to the Constitution absolutely requires me to do so.

You will never know my name, rank, title or assigned unit and installation.

Here’s why:

A constant and recurring theme among critics of the MRFF and its clients goes something like this:  “If it’s so important of an issue, then why aren’t those complaining about it willing to identify themselves publically?  They must be cowards and don’t belong in the military anyway, so we should ignore them.”

It would be easy to just reject that argument as fallacious—an ad hominem attack that ignores the real problem—but I’ll admit that I’ve occasionally had similar thoughts myself as I’ve navigated multiple decades within a Christian-dominated military.  I’ve wondered, “Is it time to dive on my sword, go public, use my name and expose those involved in a public way?”  I even remember giving advice to someone very close to me about 10 years ago who was being told to stand at attention in his basic training dorm room while his comrades attended “optional” religious breaks and study sessions (that included cell phone use and soft drinks).  I said, “If it’s that important to you, go to your chain of command and complain.  If not, just suck it up and realize that you’ll see more of this in your career and just resolve to change it when you’re finally in a position to do so.”  He chose the latter path, but alas, separated from his branch of service shortly after completing his initial obligation, frustrated in part by leadership and a system that all but demanded public declaration of active, evangelical Christian faith, conflating that with honorable and patriotic service.

I’ve given this issue more thought of late as I’ve witnessed this reticence in myself and others as more issues surface.  In so doing, I come to the conclusion that the reluctance to put one’s name “out there” is completely consistent with the ultimate aim that all of us have:  to keep our religious beliefs part of our private lives without any intention of shoving it down the throats of our subordinates or using it to judge our leaders or peers.  It is a rejection of the evangelical, dominionist “martyr miasma” in which our opponents so love to wallow.  I won’t play that game.  (For a recent example all one needs to do is google “Kentucky County Clerk.”)

The 25-Year Gauntlet of Conformity

Before I elaborate on the previous paragraph, though, let’s look at the more proximate, tangible reason for not coming forward—namely, that it would almost instantly end our chosen career and stifle any follow-on career plans.  The military is a hierarchy that depends upon longevity.  Unlike the corporate world, active duty careers begin at the beginning.  We don’t hire middle or upper management directly into the Army or Air Force.  One’s first tour with the Navy is not as a Commander or Admiral, nor do Marine recruiting centers have want-ads for just “a few good regimental commanders.”  No, we all enter as basic trainees on either the enlisted or officer side and then, only through a decade or more of loyal service are we entrusted with consequential leadership positions and command.  Junior officers lead enlisted personnel fairly early and often in many military career fields, and they can have a huge impact on their larger unit, but no one in ANY of the services pins on their first star of “flag rank” until well past 20 years of service and it is usually only then that they can have any kind of service-wide impact on policy.

There are many reasons why this process is a good one:  it demonstrates commitment to the service mission and culture, builds credibility and experience, and provides each service with multiple real-life situations in which to judge a future commander’s potential and develop them into the type of leaders they want and need.  There are drawbacks, too.

The winnowing process that ultimately results in a few dozen new flag officers chosen per year in the entire Department of Defense requires a virtually spotless record—the competition is too tight for anything else.  Remember that, across the DoD, about 10,000 new officers are minted each year from all of the sources (service academies, ROTC, OTS, OCS).  Twenty-five years later, that 10,000 becomes something less than 100 new brigadier generals and rear admirals (lower tier).  Ninety-nine percent attrition on the road to the top.  What this practically means is that, in terms of the annual performance reports that are the coin-of-the-realm at the five promotion boards and numerous other selections that mark a career, a single mediocre word or even the omission of a superlative can spell the difference between being passed over for captain or major and advancing to the next rank, being selected for a choice military education spot (e.g., our nation’s “War Colleges” through which virtually all of our generals and admirals must pass before achieving stellar rank).

Most civilians don’t get this.  One doesn’t need to commit a punishable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice to derail a career and if I’m a commander judging a group of subordinates, I don’t even need to bother myself with the mountains of paperwork that would come with actually initiating disciplinary action against one of my junior officers that was subpar or didn’t fit in.  Instead, I just can as easily kill the career of an unchosen one with sweet kindness and honesty.

“A solid officer with the potential to do great things.  Continue to challenge!  Consider for Squadron Officer School.”

Sounds pretty good right?  Most outsiders would say that’s a nice line for a lieutenant with a couple of years of experience.  Wrong.  I’d only write something like this about my absolutely worst lieutenant.  Even if I spruced it up and said, “Superior officer with solid future in logistics—pick for developmental education,” that would be deadly.  I’ve seen officers passed over for promotion to lieutenant colonel because, after 14 annual evaluations that said they were simply the best their boss had ever seen, the evaluation on top didn’t say that they were the current boss’s #1 choice out of 10 or 12 peers.  If you don’t have a complete, unbroken string of golden soccer trophies for every assignment and year of service, you’re done.  The competition is too tough for any other result.

What does this mean for the whistle-blower?  For example, the MRFF client?  Why does anyone think that there’s a sexual harassment and assault issue in the military, or persistent issues with racism and sexism or that those in majority religious groups hold sway?  The fault lies in the fact that all of our services have at least a 99% attrition rate to any really powerful rank/position and that to finally achieve that rank and make a difference one has to demonstrate a brand of loyalty and corporate buy-in that can crush an urge to cite problems or issues.  The logic goes like this:  “I’ll never be able to change things if I don’t achieve rank and I’ll never achieve rank if I rock the boat, so I’d better sit still at least for now.”  Then, twenty years go by, and the vast majority that survive the crossing, having seen most of their peers tossed over the rail, have forgotten that they can do anything but row at the chanted cadence.

Conflict of Service

What’s lost on most critics of the MRFF is that the MRFF’s clients are fundamentally, to their bones, committed to serving the United States and our Constitution and see the military as their calling to do so.  I, for one, love the Air Force and thank it for an enormous array of opportunities provided to me while I make tangible contributions (in my mind) to the defense of that amazing document and what it represents.  We take seriously the understanding that to do our jobs effectively and reap the personal benefits that accrue with military service, we must subjugate some of our personal desires and beliefs.  I can’t participate in a political candidate’s rally in uniform or show support for one candidate over another in my workplace.  This even can extend to the bumper stickers on my car if I drive it onto my base.

The idea of civilian control over the military is well-established and well-understood by most of the population.  That’s also why, in times of needed social transition in our nation, the military has been used as a means of implementing that change.  Truman’s integration of forces in the 1940s is the best example of this, but the military has also led the way in promoting women’s rights and, recently, even LGB rights.  Individual members of the military may have had their own personal objections to the directives that made these changes effective, but their Constitutionality was never in doubt and there have been numerous examples over the years in which service members have been disciplined and even court-martialed for speaking out against these policies or actively disobeying them.

Why don’t MRFF clients then come out of the closet, use their own name, and report the many around them that continue to flaunt individual service guidance as well as the Constitution’s requirement that no religious test be required for those that hold public office (Article 6)?  Simply put, MRFF clients value their privacy and humbly believe that the issue is not about them.  They are all too often surprised that the restrictions against proselytizing in the work place aren’t so obviously beneficial and important—and that that isn’t intuitively obvious to everyone—that they’re taken aback when someone says, “But they meant no harm.”  Would we use the same explanation for a racist or sexist remark?  Not in today’s military—not for long.

But, while progress has been made in many areas of equality and fairness throughout society, “blaming the victim” is still alive and well in the military and throughout society.  The victim in this case is the military member that doesn’t bring his or her religious practice into the work place, but feels pressured to conform to some accepted practice dictated by the supervisor or co-workers.  The MRFF client that doesn’t want to attend the base’s celebration of the National Prayer Breakfast doesn’t feel that her name should be highlighted in a complaint, not because she lacks bravery but because she does not understand how it isn’t clear to all that by setting up an RSVP system for the event run by a base organization, staging it during the duty day on-post, in uniform, that it’s clear that the base leadership is stating that religious practice is a necessary condition of honorable service.  Her identity isn’t important.  She’s in her office doing her job, while others are inappropriately judging her absence as unacceptable non-conformity.

Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Messaging

The Marine infantrymen that doesn’t participate in the commander-called pre-mission prayer isn’t the perpetrator, nor is the sailor that doesn’t feel welcome when the gate guard greets him with “Have a blessed day” upon arriving at work.  The Muslim airman can’t feel included when, on Ash Wednesday, everyone else in his office has a black cross finger-painted on their forehead.  The Jewish soldier might not appreciate that base funds are used for a Christmas Tree lighted by the commander.  The atheist airman that opts out of attending the “spiritual fitness” part of command-dictated resiliency training isn’t the problem either and he, too, shouldn’t be required to publically affix his name to a complaint against the powers that supervise and (in this case) exclude him from unit events based upon a non-mission or duty-related personal choice.

In my multiple decades of military service, I’ve often wanted to counter some of what I’ve seen in my supervisor’s and peer’s offices:  the bibles on the desk facing anyone who comes in; the “priority lists” on the office bulletin boards that say “God, Family, Job;” the inspirational religious texts on bookshelves, the not-so-subtle questions of “Have you found a new church home since you’ve arrived on base?”; the forced prayers at mandatory events where we’re asked or told to “remain standing now while Chaplain Snuffy delivers the invocation.”  I’ve thought of having a sign in my office that declares religion to be the opiate of the masses; quietly taking a seat and beginning my first course while the chaplain delivers his invocation the “Father of us all;” and sprinkled my bookshelf with the works of Hitchens and Harris.  But I don’t.  I don’t because I know that among the many professionals with whom I work, I can find Christians, Atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Agnostics, Pastafarians, and Animists and I don’t want any one of them to think that I’m judging them in the workplace on anything other than their work.  I don’t want my subordinates or superiors to know my religious views any more than they know for whom I’ll vote in November, or what I choose to do in the privacy of my own home.

MRFF clients don’t publicize their names because they don’t want to declare their private, religious views and don’t want to make anyone with differing views feel the isolation they suffer on a daily basis.  Transferring that pain isn’t an option and they see no merit in martyrdom, so they turn to the MRFF—by the hundreds and thousands, unfortunately. This isn’t a matter of courage because, among the thousands that count themselves as MRFF clients, you’ll find many who have faced mortal combat. The MRFF is their only reliable Constitutional ally and their only hope, it seems, to get the attention of those that insist on trampling their rights or tolerating that trampling on a regular basis.  And, that will continue to be the case as long as actual disciplinary action meted out to those that promote proselytizing in the work place, religious bias in promotions, foisted invocations, subtle religious coding, and other Constitutional violations remains as rare in our military as transsexual Chiefs of Staff.

Click to read on Daily Kos

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  1. G

    ‘……they were simply the best their boss had ever seen,….

    That constant phrase that is use by the military when it comes to your performance report. Yes, we don’t hire middle-level or high-level military personnel from the corporate world; however, like the corporate world, the military treats its people as peons who are expendable and who can be easily replace.

    When did commanders start putting Bibles on their desks? Even if they don’t have Bibles on their desks, when you got personal problems, the first thing out of their mouths is “Are you a Christian?’ Yeah, like that is going to solve your problems.

    I didn’t like it when I was force to go to Mass when attending basic training especially when some drill sergeant thinks that he/she is God and can wreak your career right from the start. The same can be said for officers/NCOs after you leave basic training.

    Not being a religious person is just another item in a long list of items in the military where you get discriminate because of what you are or refuse to do such as being a teetotaler, staying single when you are suppose to get marry, being black, not being a graduate of one of the service academies, you came from the wrong geographical location of the USA, being in the wrong job occupation slot where your chances for promotion are far and few, unable to be select to go to college/vocational school that can be pay for by the taxpayers, not getting promoted because you didn’t have the right amount of schooling and academic degrees..

  2. Kathryn A. Stone

    This is all so shocking and ‘undemocratic’! As a non military person, I cringe at

    public ‘sectarian’ prayer. It occurs at city council meetings, at the legislature

    and in many other public venues.

  3. Connie

    You said:
    “If it’s so important of an issue, then why aren’t those complaining about it willing to identify themselves publically? They must be cowards and don’t belong in the military anyway, so we should ignore them.”

    My late husband was an out pagan – he followed Thor to his death. Because of his beliefs his career in the Marines was marred with hazing (cigarette burns in his hands, the worst assignments, and at the last, attempted rape. I say attempted because he was a Viking (7th generation follower of the Asatru / Norse Pantheon), and he paid attention in boot camp as a Marine. He escaped three times, including one brig said to be inescapable.

    I wish MRFF had been in existence back then. They are here now and I tell my story because the Marine Corp hushed everything up, promoted the would be rapists and threw my husband away. Any doubters that say religion causes no harm best not say it in front of me. MRFF does amazing work.

  4. G

    To the author of the article

    You state that civilians don’t understand how the military promotion process works. 70 to 50 years ago, most American males knew about the process because they were veterans of World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, and the 1st Gulf War: In addition, many young officers and enlisted people leave the military once their initial enlistment contract is completed, because they see the BS in the military promotion process so they figure why should they stay in. Finally, nowadays, the military is too depended on military families that have serve the in the military since the Revolutionary War to provide recruits which means that the military is being more of a Prussian state within a state.

    Whistle blowers and people who dissent from the corporate line also face harassment from the corporations and rich people and get blacklisted from their professions and/or are prevent from having a second career. In addition, corporations don’t invest in their workforce and find ways to cut people so 35 years later after Reagan came into office, corporate leaders are complaining about they can’t find qualified managers and skilled workers considering the fact that 1) they have been laying off people for the last 35 years, 2) not investing in American schools, 3) send the jobs overseas or bring in legal and/or illegal workers to replace their workforce and it because corporate leaders don’t want to listen to what their subordinates have to say and wish their workers would go away.

  5. Rael Nidess, M.D.

    This is an excellent, readable, and articulate defense of those who feel they must conceal their feelings in order to avoid reprisals from religious bullies and will serve as an excellent resource for those of truly open mind & good intent asking the question from a position of authentic naivete.

    I submit, however, that such persons will already have an inkling about the nature of the conflict and the wherewithal to find the answer. Sadly, it is my experience that those asking the question rarely do so in good faith but rather are using it as a means of discrediting the offended party as being only an ‘attention-seeking troublemaker’ unwilling to demonstrate the courage of his/her convictions or a dupe of the ‘atheist’ Mikey Weinstein looking to further extend his ‘inexplicable power over the military at the expense of our lard’ as a means of delegitimizing any defense of 1st Amendment doctrine in order to further an anti-Constitutional Christian nationalist/domionist agenda.

    That agenda is, in short, to establish a ‘Christian Nation’ (as they define it – read the Lausanne Covenant & Manila Manifesto for particulars) with all the might of the U.S. military at their beck & call to further their ‘end times’ eschatology.

    We understate the stakes at our peril.

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