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Christian Embassy at the Pentagon: Too close for comfort?

By Charles C. Haynes

Christian Embassy has been ministering in the halls of the Pentagon with little public attention for more than 25 years. But now controversy over a 10-minute promotional video has put the media spotlight on the close — too close, critics say — relationship between the evangelical group and high-ranking military officers.

The flap started in December, when the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group founded by retired Air Force attorney Mikey Weinstein, demanded a Department of Defense investigation into the appearance of senior Air Force and Army officers in a fundraising film produced by Christian Embassy, a ministry affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ.

Now the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General has issued a report concluding that seven senior officers violated military regulations by appearing in the video. According to the report, released July 27, the officers were filmed during the duty day, in uniform and in identifiable Pentagon locations. Military regulations prohibit officers from endorsing a “non-Federal entity” while in uniform.

“Their remarks conferred approval of and support to Christian Embassy,” says the report, “and the remarks of some officers implied they spoke for a group of senior military leaders rather than just for themselves.”

The report is especially critical of former Pentagon Chaplain Col. Ralph Benson for granting Christian Embassy special Pentagon access — and “mischaracterizing” the purpose of the filming by saying it was to document the chaplain’s ministry rather than to promote Christian Embassy.

Reaction to the report falls along predictable ideological fault lines. Weinstein’s group, which advocates strict church-state separation, praises the findings but is disappointed that the report doesn’t call for immediate courts martial of the officers.

At the other end of the spectrum, the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian legal group representing two of the officers, rejects the findings as “incorrect as a matter of fact and as a matter of law.”

The backdrop to this dispute is an ongoing culture-war debate about the influence of evangelicals in the military. Two years ago, conflict erupted over allegations of improper proselytizing and religious discrimination by some officers at the Air Force Academy; more recently, a Navy chaplain faced disciplinary action for joining a Christian Right protest outside the White House while in uniform.

One side is convinced that parts of the military have an unconstitutional relationship with evangelical Christian groups. The other side rejects these charges as unwarranted attacks on the religious freedom of Christian officers.

Although I think Weinstein greatly exaggerates the problem (he told Time that “a Christian Taliban is running the military”), I do worry about how well the Pentagon brass understands their First Amendment obligations.

What’s most disturbing about the Christian Embassy report is not so much the officers’ participation in the video (most say they had no idea it would be used for fundraising), but rather a general’s description of Christian Embassy as a “quasi-Federal” entity. Comments like that — together with the actions of the Pentagon chaplain on behalf of Christian Embassy — suggest that some evangelical groups have become so much a part of Pentagon culture that they appear to have semi-official status and routinely receive special consideration.

There is nothing wrong or unconstitutional about religious groups volunteering to help provide religious services or activities for Pentagon personnel. But there is something wrong and dangerous about state-sponsored religion in the Pentagon or anywhere else.

Christian Embassy should have the same access to the Pentagon as any other religious group — no more, no less. On the level playing field created by the First Amendment, each group should get fair treatment. No group should be favored or promoted by the Pentagon chaplain or any other officer.

This constitutional arrangement not only guards the religious freedom of military personnel, but it also protects the freedom of religious groups themselves. Any short-term gains bestowed by favored-religion status are far outweighed by long-term loss of autonomy and authenticity suffered when any religion is embraced by the state.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

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