I have been a long time supporter of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, founded by Mikey Weinstein. While I've known him for years, I finally met the man today as he received an award from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. I've been a supporter of both organizations for many years now, and I was delighted to sit at a table with a retired two-star, one of my former wing commanders, who was also in attendance along with several other active duty and retired military professionals.
Mikey is a controversial figure and his aggressive style rubs some the wrong way. Be that as it may, keeping our military secular is an important endeavor in my view. What some might find interesting, however, is that I say that as somebody who does not agree that there is a wall of separation of church and state to be found in the First Amendment. I personally wish it was there, but I think it's important not to warp the text of our law to fit our wishes. The text has something to tell us, and it's not interested in what we might personally want. We must approach it with integrity. Of course reasonable people can disagree, and certainly do. Here is my take on it.
The First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;" After studying the history of the colonies and the States during the time of the founding, and the First Amendment, I have come to the conclusion that the Founders intended "an establishment of religion" to mean declaring an official religion of the United States. It did not mean a wall of separation. Chaplains opened up congressional meetings with prayer and, even after the amendment was ratified, Thomas Jefferson's home state of Virginia still had an official state church. There were other examples of religiosity in government that did not cause outrage. It should be remembered that this amendment only applied to the federal government and did not bind the States. That changed after the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified which then bound the individual States. Further, the word "establishment" suggests to me something concrete as to say something has been "established" like establishing a church, or establishing a business. Making religious speeches or hiring chaplains are acts of religion, but they don't in and of themselves establish anything, just as coming up with a business plan does not establish a business. I believe the Framers meant to keep Congress from passing a law to establish the United States as a Christian, or Lutheran, or Islamic nation.
So why do I support the work of the MRFF if I don't agree with the interpretation of the establishment clause? There are two reasons.
First, the Constitution in Article VI states:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to military service. When commanders and supervisors insert, or allow the insertion, of religious acts into the work environment, it becomes somewhat of a test. It may not be a multiple choice test, but supervisors and peers notice who is religious and who is not. People know this and will behave accordingly in order to not be seen as disrespectful or nonreligious. I have seen this behavior first hand and the fear is not unfounded. Some religious persuasions have a "with us or against us" ethic that can become damaging to the military institution. When mixed with the belief, held by some religious individuals, that American laws, to include our Constitution, are inferior to their perception of God's law, there then exists a potential for those in positions of authority to not follow the rules. In the extreme, this could threaten civilian control of our military. For that reason I agree with Mr. Weinstein's assessment that separation of church and military is a matter of national security. At the least, it is in my view, a matter of sound military policy.
While all military members enjoy the essential and bedrock American right to freely worship, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force recently reminded Air Force commanders that the government must maintain neutrality regarding religion. He sent out a memo several weeks ago stating as much, according to the Air Force Times. The Chief's memo can be read here.
The second reason I support the work of the MRFF is because mixing of the machinery of state with religion has an incredibly poor track record in human history, and the enemies we face and fight today have not very well learned that important lesson. They wish to establish theocracy, the antithesis to Article VI of our Constitution, and to destroy the liberty of conscience and the freedom of worship. It is dangerous to both government and religious institutions to mix the sacred and the profane. Just ask the American Baptist Roger Williams who founded the very first, First Baptist church in America, and who coined the phrase "wall of separation" in his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson.
I look forward to Mikey's continued fight to make our military stronger and more focused on winning our nation's wars.