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Religion on Their Sleeve

An email received by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) a few days ago began:

“I have spent most of my life in and around the military as a dependent, active duty airmen, Guardsman and as a (USAF job title withheld). I've seen countless times where people in leadership roles use their position to advocate their faith, force group prayers, even force church attendance to young and impressionable troops at boot camp.”

Many emails that come in to MRFF express similar personal accounts of what the email writer has seen or experienced regarding the pushing or even forcing of religion on themselves or other military members. Why is this important? Because it explains why so many service members are very sensitive to what might seem like minor things to those on the outside.

A Bible on their commander’s desk; religious language in an official email; a superior inviting them to a Bible study or their church or opening staff meetings with a prayer. What these seemingly little things do is identify their superior as a Christian – and not just a Christian, but a Christian who wants to make sure that everyone else knows they’re a Christian.

Will they be retaliated against if they don’t join in their commander’s prayers or show up at their commander’s Bible study? How will this affect their career?

And that makes many service members, both non-Christian an even many Christians, uneasy. Will their commander or superior treat them differently if he or she finds out they’re not a Christian? Will he or she treat them as less than if they are Christian but not the right kind of Christian? Will they be retaliated against if they don’t join in their commander’s prayers or show up at their commander’s Bible study? How will this affect their career?

No service member should have to have these worries in a country that separates church and state. But many do.

So, let’s look at a couple of these seemingly little things that make so many service members uneasy.

Over the years, MRFF has successfully gotten several military units to change their unit’s patch after complaint’s from service members about the patch’s Christian supremacist imagery or slogans, and recently one such patch was reported to MRFF. This one didn’t come from a service member who was required to wear the patch, but was sent to MRFF by a very unlikely source – someone from one of the many fundamentalist Christian organizations that we’re usually at odds with, saying “we might agree on this one.”

What this normally adversarial person sent was a link to a video of a military combat training exercise a few weeks ago in which the US Marine Corps Forces Pacific and other military commands torpedoed an old out-of-service ship. They told us to look at the 0:23 mark in the video, writing “there's an ensign in the foreground with a shoulder patch directly facing the camera, which is a slightly stylized version of the ‘He>I’ meme that is a popular Christian bumper sticker/tee shirt logo, meaning that Christ is greater than I,” and said they were “a bit dumfounded” when they saw it. Here is a photo of the patch:

After some investigation, MRFF determined that the service member wearing this unmistakably Christian patch — literally wearing their religion on their sleeve — is not a Navy ensign but a Marine first lieutenant from the US Marine Corps Forces Pacific. Being an officer means that the Marine wearing this patch is the superior of all enlisted Marines under them. 

Marine uniform regulations for the flight suit uniform that the first lieutenant is wearing say (emphasis added):

“The flight suit will be worn with flight boots, green/black cushion—sole socks, green crew—neck undershirt, garrison cap, black leather nametags, and no more than two unit/squadron (CNO/CMC approved) patches. …”

So, a unit/squadron patch, according to regulations, must be approved by the Chief of Naval Operations or the Commandant of the Marine Corps, but in MRFF’s experience we have found that such patches aren’t always approved at this level. Unit and squadron commanders often allow patches that aren’t properly approved, and this “He>I” Christian slogan was probably not approved at the high level that regulations dictate. But it was approved by somebody in the chain of command, unless this first lieutenant is the sole Marine in his unit or squadron wearing a completely unauthorized patch.

MRFF is currently trying to get to the bottom of this, but the point for the purposes of this piece is the effect this blatantly Christian message on the arm of a military officer has on others in their unit. It sends them the clear message that someone in their chain of command is a Christian of the variety that feel the need to advertise their religion on the uniforms of their unit. What does this mean? It means that anyone in this unit who has a complaint about religious proselytizing or bullying will be afraid to take that complaint to their chain of command, knowing that someone in that chain of command is the person who approved this sort of Christian advertising for their unit’s patch. This is a big reason that so many service members come to MRFF with their religious issues instead of taking them to their chain and going through military channels to resolve them.

Another good example of a seemingly minor issue that was recently brought to MRFF is that of the writer of the email quoted at the top of this piece. Here is their whole email:

From: (MRFF Client’s name and USAF job title withheld)
Date: September 8, 2021 at 12:19:28 PM MDT
To: Mikey Weinstein
Subject: Thanks Mikey

I have spent most of my life in and around the military as a dependent, active duty airmen, Guardsman and as a (USAF job title withheld). I've seen countless times where people in leadership roles use their position to advocate their faith, force group prayers, even force church attendance to young and impressionable troops at boot camp. 

For the past couple of years I have been receiving work related emails from a team chief in the unit I work at as a (USAF job title withheld) who placed the phrase "Have a Blessed Day" in his signature block. It bothered me quite a bit but I didn't think there was much I could do about it since the same emails are sent to everyone in the organization including the unit commander so I let it go. 

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Then I found the Military Religious Freedom Foundation through twitter and decided to make contact to see what my options were. Within an hour I received a reply from Mikey Weinstein asking me to call him personally for more details about the matter. I provided the details and within 24 hours Mikey had made phone calls to the team chiefs direct supervisor and has kept in contact with me to provide updates. 

It is very refreshing to know there is an organization who takes on these types of cases to keep religion and the government separate. In this day and age it is not guaranteed that one is shielded from reprisals for stepping forward and doing the right thing. My name was kept out of the matter so I have no fear of reprisals for my actions.

Mikey is truly fighting the good fight for those of us who experience the forced indoctrination from christians who use their leadership roles to proselytize their beliefs. It may seem like a small thing to add "Have a blessed day" to an official email but as I was taught in the military, there is no such thing as a small potato when it comes to conflict of interest. There can be no leeway when it comes to freedom from religion in today's military. Thanks Mikey and keep up the good work, we need more like you.

Sincerely, (MRFF Client’s name withheld)

So, this team leader is signing their emails with “Have a blessed day.” No big deal, right? Wrong. It is a very big deal to the service member who contacted MRFF about these emails. That seemingly innocuous phrase is the signal to that service member that their team leader is a Christian who wants everyone receiving their emails to know that they’re a Christian. Not only is this detrimental to good order, morale, and discipline, but it is a clear violation of the Air Force’s regulations on official emails.

Air Force Handbook 33-337, also known as the "Tongue and Quill,” makes it very clear that no personal messages, religious or otherwise, are to be added to the signature block of any official email (emphasis added):

“Use appropriate closings. Official e-mail should close with “//SIGNED//” above the signature block to signify official Air Force information. Restrict the signature block to name, rank, service affiliation, duty title, organization name, phone numbers (DSN and/or commercial as appropriate) and social media contact information. Do not add slogans, quotes or other personalization to an official e-mail/social media signature block.”

MRFF is currently in communication with this team leader’s command to hopefully put a stop to these superfluous regulation-violating religious messages in their emails.

(UPDATE: Shortly after posting this piece, MRFF received word from one of our 13 clients at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska that the “blessed day” team leader did not add the religious phrase on an email he sent this morning, so it appears that MRFF was successful in putting a stop to this regulation-violating practice.)

In another recent example, a group of sailors came to MRFF because their unit leader was regularly unleashing a torrent of religious and political statements while the sailors were a captive audience in mandatory formations. The statements ranged from COVID vaccinations and masks being wrong because they're not "biblical" to America being a "Christian nation" to attacks on other religions. In this case, MRFF was successful in quickly getting this Christian supremacist unit leader reprimanded and removed.

But not all cases have a quick and successful outcome. Why? There are three main reasons.

The first is that those in the offender’s chain of command hold the same fundamentalist Christian of Christian nationalist views as the offender. 

The second is that the immediate commanders of the offenders, even if they agree with MRFF’s clients, are afraid of their own superiors in their chain of command.

These first two roadblocks are often overcome by MRFF’s going above the heads of the immediate commanders to commanders at a higher level.

The third reason, which is what this piece is about, is that many commanders just don’t get the effect that the seemingly minor issues have on many of those under their command. It’s just an email or a patch or a Bible on a desk. What harm is being done? Well, the harm is real. No service member should ever have to worry that they won’t be treated equally or fairly because they don’t hold the same religious or religio-political views as their superiors, which is exactly the effect these seemingly minor things have.

As MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein explains below, the above examples are but just a few of the types of manifestations of what is a systemic and long-standing problem in our military — a problem that is only being exacerbated by the current divisive political climate in which the religious divide is going hand in hand with the political divide:

“As is more than clearly demonstrated in this shocking piece by Chris Rodda, it is simply incontrovertible FACT that the U.S. military is SYSTEMICALLY overrun by unconstitutional, illicit, fundamentalist Christian nationalistic proselytizing. I emphasize the key word SYSTEMIC, as we confront this cancerous plague of virulently sectarian Christian proselytizing day in and day out here at MFFF. We have fought this scurrilous bigotry for nearly 2 decades now though 4 presidencies.

What is most nauseating to continually be forced to witness by MRFF staffers on a daily basis is the utter and craven cowardice of so many armed forces commanders. These military leaders often gleefully support the forced oppression of fundamentalist Christian proselytizing upon their own otherwise helpless subordinates in the organizations they command. Or, alternatively, they are shamefully cowed, intimidated, and bludgeoned into submission by their own commanders and colleagues into failing to stand up and comply with their sworn oaths to protect and defend the Constitution from same.

Now listen carefully please. We already HAVE powerfully specific DoD regulatory and criminal prohibitions in place to buttress the First Amendment’s No Establishment Clause mandate, and its legions of supporting caselaw. Nevertheless, these never-ending odious and noxious types of unconstitutional abuses, deliberately or negligently perpetrated to advance the cause of Christian supremacy, domination, triumphalism, and exclusivism in the U.S. military, are just as universally ubiquitous as gravity. Yes, GRAVITY!”

Chris Rodda Promo Image

Look, here’s the bottom line; our United States military refuses to acknowledge the simple basic American truth that, although the First Commandment says ‘You can have no other Gods but me’; the First Amendment CLEARLY states ‘OH YES YOU CAN!’”

Chris Rodda
Military Religious Freedom Foundation