- (Photo: Reuters /Rick Wilking)
The Air Force recently suspended a military ethics course taught by chaplains because the training referenced the Bible and featured religious imagery.
Church and State separatists herald the decision as a victory for the U.S. Constitution. However, legal group Liberty Counsel argues that chaplains, by right of their office, are free to invoke religious themes in their trainings.
"Allowing chaplains to include Christian values and themes in ethics presentations does not violate the establishment clause. It's not even a mixing of church and state," asserted LC Founder Mathew Staver.
Rather, Staver said, "it's a violation of freedom of religion when the Air Force seeks to suspend this ethics course solely because it has some Christian themes that are being taught by chaplains."
Chaplains, he explained, are unique in that "their actual commission is from the religious institution [they represent]."
Chaplains are authorized to speak about the theology and teachings of their faith, stated Staver. Those who hinder chaplains from speaking from his or her faith do so to the detriment of the soldiers they serve.
"If we were to exclude [soldiers] from the choice of having [access to] chaplains and to Christian, Judeo-Christian messages and counseling, then we would literally be prohibiting them from exercising their religious beliefs and practices," he explained.
The non-profit organization Truthout reported the course taught at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was suspended in late July. Before the suspension, chaplains taught the course to first-week missile officers for over 20 years.
David Smith, a spokesperson for the Air Force's Air Education and Training Command, said the course has been halted so that training materials could be "given thorough scrutiny."
A PowerPoint presentation obtained from the course referenced scripture verses such as Hebrews 11 to show that people of faith can and have engaged in war, in a section entitled "War and Faith." The section also cited biblical figures including Abraham, Samson and David as religious figures that fought wars in a righteous manner. Additionally, a picture of a menorah was featured on a slide highlighting the Maccabees' revolt against their oppressors.
The course also taught ethical principles such as a "win at all costs will cost you." A nuclear ethics section encouraged trainees to consider the deadly power of nuclear weapons and ask such questions as "Can you imagine a set of circumstances that would warrant a nuclear launch from the U.S. knowing that it would kill thousands of non-combatants?"
Smith said of the materials, "Folks will be appointed to look at what we have and determine its utility and if they think it's useful to continue having an ethics course they will develop a new course."
Staver, meanwhile, believes that the military has wrongly allowed themselves to be influenced by secular group Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
MRFF founder Michael Weinstein told Truthout that over 30 missile officers contacted him to complain about the training. He told The Christian Post that 29 of the complainants were Protestant and Catholic who objected to the message that "war is part of the natural order of things."
"It comes across as Jesus loves nukes, nukes are good, it's inevitable, it's part of what we should be doing," said Weinstein.
He argues that any religious discussion about war should be done in voluntary, closed-door discussions, not a mandatory training.
Ultimately, Weinstein told CP that he threatened the military with a class-action lawsuit, and they relented.
He told Truthout the decision by the Air Force to pull the ethics course material is a "great victory for the constitution."
But Staver argued that Weinstein's position on religious separatism in the military is "inconsistent with our history; it's consistent with the First Amendment; it's contrary to freedom of conscious [and] freedom of religion and it is simply nonsensical."
He also lamented that the current administration would act on Weinstein's reports against the chaplain's training.
"We've got a president with an administration that is very hostile towards religion and has not been very accommodating to religion," he explained.
The Air Education and Training Command's spokesman said nothing of planned changes to the training, but noted that the command is taking a "good hard look" at it to ensure that the training curriculum reflects "views of modern society."