The 'Taliban' in Our Midst

05/22/2015 11:27 am ET | Updated May 22, 2016
U.S. Air Force photo by Jerry Saslav

Military officers who wear their religion on their sleeve are a danger to our country at any time, but especially after the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001.

Whether it's US Army Lieutenant General William G. Boykin telling his audience that "My God is bigger than his" in the close aftermath of that tragedy, or the more recent example of US Air Force Major General Craig Olson saying in uniform and in public -- and speaking in tones far more like a preacher than a military officer -- "I am a redeemed believer in Christ," these are dangerous men, making dangerous displays of religion.

Moreover, such displays occur in an environment where they are strictly prohibited by secular rules. These rules -- and in the case of the US Air Force, written regulations -- are in place for a reason.

First, they protect the Constitutional separation of church and state. No government representative should be seen advocating for any religion, period. We officers, when we take the oath of office, surrender for the duration of our service the privilege of publicly professing our religion, of "wearing it on our sleeve."

Second, these rules protect the good order and discipline of the military. Many religions -- and no religion at all -- exist throughout the ranks. To profess a particular religion from a leadership position is detrimental to that order and discipline. How might, for example, a Jewish soldier feel when his lieutenant professes his belief in Jesus before his platoon? A Muslim soldier? An atheist?

In addition, a flag officer (a general or admiral) must be doubly careful because so many men and women are influenced by or fall under the sway and power of his or her every word and deed. Sometimes it might be thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, as was the case when I served then-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Colin Powell -- who, incidentally, would never have worn his religion on his sleeve.

Third, and becoming increasingly relevant every day that passes, public professions of religion by military officers give groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, al-Nusra and other religious fanatics superb propaganda to use against our soldiers in the field and against us, as a nation. We, in effect, become no better than they, some sort of American taliban. As such, we excite more recruits, more followers, more zealots to their banners. We also grievously undermine our own cause, just as we undermine our own Constitution.

What US Air Force Major General Craig Olson did was particularly egregious. Not only does he display by his remarks the naivete of a twelve-year-old Boy Scout -- and thus call into immediate, serious question the billions of dollars and hundreds of young lives entrusted to his care and leadership -- he also repeatedly calls on a single religion, indeed seems almost entranced by that religion, in uniform, in public, and on, of all things, God TV, an international broadcast. As a soldier of 31 years myself, I found his exhortations discomfiting, dismaying, and dangerous. Frankly, I also found them flatly incredible: I had never heard such words uttered by a general officer in my life.

Should the USAF punish him? Clearly, he has violated law and regulation. There is no doubt about that. But should he be punished?

The USAF is understandably afraid of certain members of the US Congress, as are all the Services when it comes to presenting an overt challenge to what these members of Congress believe is "every Christian's right to profess his or her religion, no matter the circumstances."

Congress' constant dalliance with such pseudo-Christian organizations as James Dobson's Focus on the Family -- whose members most remind me of the people at the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee, who for the most part were hopelessly ignorant -- exacerbates this fear.

It was Dobson's wife's organization that sponsored the event during which Olson made his stunningly impassioned remarks. The event was camouflaged under the aegis of one Alabama Republican's name -- Congressman Robert Aderholt -- but everyone with any insight into Washington knows that Dobson was behind the entire event.

Aderholt certainly knew it, as his opening remarks at the event conveyed: "Thank you, Shirley [Mrs. Dobson], for your kind introduction and for this invitation to be here this morning."

So, if the Air Force were to punish Olson it might have to pay the piper with regard to any angst it might generate in the Congress, the provider of its funds. Of course, another way to say this is that the leadership of the US Air Force has no guts. It writes rules and its officers disobey them with impunity.

In any event, if no action is taken it's a dangerous game, playing with fire this way. A game that will get Americans killed in future. A game that undermines the very law we fight to protect. A game that destroys our truest values.

But it is an understandable game in a Washington peopled by hypocrites, Luddites, science-deniers, cowards, rabble-rousers, greedy, self-serving politicians, warmongers and, oh yes, military officers who wear their religion on their sleeve.

Top photo of Maj. Gen. Craig Olson by Jerry Saslav for U.S. Air Force.

Lawrence Wilkerson is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. He was chief of staff to U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell from 2002-2005 and General Powell's speechwriter from 1989-1993.