The Pentagon Prevents a Poison Prayer

06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Christian dominionists are in high dudgeon at that most holy of government agencies, the Department of Defense. The Family Research Council says that the Pentagon's decision to rescind a speaking invitation to cleric Franklin Graham for early May's National Day of Prayer isn't mere discrimination, it rises to a constitutional violation of freedom of speech and religion.

"Almost nine years after 9-11, the Pentagon is the site of a new attack -- this time on religious freedom," Tony Perkin's Washington Update warns.

The reactionary organization's rhetoric isn't only cynical, it's repugnant. Notice how it conflates al Qaeda's attack on the Pentagon with the military's decision to disinvite Graham for his inflammatory rhetoric aimed at Islam in general, not jihadism in particular. Franklin Graham's broad denunciations of Islam, let's be honest, aren't surprising nor entirely untrue. But Graham's criticisms of Islam sound like a Goldman Sachs executive excoriating a three card monte dealer for defrauding him of his "hard-earned money." It's hypocrisy pretzeled into an inextricable knot only the worst case of cognitive dissonance could find comforting.

Yet Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council have the temerity to misrepresent the Pentagon's decision on Graham as an assault on their faith's inner core: Jesus Christ's gospel. In response to Pentagon spokesman Col. Tom Collins' claim that the United States has an "all-inclusive military," Perkins retorts, "But to be 'inclusive,' as the Pentagon defines it, is to exclude Christianity. Contrary to what Col. Collins says, this has nothing to do with tolerance and everything to do with the military's new hostility toward the Gospel."

In just two sentences, Perkins advances three serious fallacies. First, Christianity is not monolithic, but a broad religion with a multiplicity of sects. Most Catholics or mainline Protestants would find Perkin's Left Behind fantasies of Christ's bloody return to Earth ridiculous. Second, Perkin's argument that the Pentagon's decision to exclude Graham is really an indirect attack on the gospel is absurd. The whole National Day of Prayer event was the work of the National Day of Prayer Task Force. Reading Perkins' claim of Christian exclusion above, you'd think the task force would be some sanctimonious ecumenical organization calling for everyone to "co-exist." Not so. According to the task force's Web site:

The National Day of Prayer Task Force's mission is to communicate with every individual the need for personal repentance and prayer, mobilizing the Christian community to intercede for America and its leadership in the seven centers of power: Government, Military, Media, Business, Education, Church and Family.

It takes a lot of contempt for one's followers to talk of military discrimination against Christianity when the event the Pentagon is holding, unconstitutionally mind you, was organized by evangelical Christians. Worse, Perkins fails to disclose that the task force's chairwoman is Shirley Dobson, his boss's wife. Misdirection, apparently, is a missionary position.

Finally, it's impossible to exclude Christianity from the military because the U.S. military isn't only overwhelmingly Christian, it has a powerful, vocal evangelical faction of officers and chaplains historically supported by civilian evangelical organizations. And this faction's goal is simple: use their power to push their fundamentalism on a captive audience of subordinates. In the words of one such organization, Military Ministry, its mission is to help "Chaplains and Military personnel... bring lost soldiers closer to Christ, build them in their faith and send them out into the world as Government paid missionaries."

But at a more abstract level, the scandal over Graham should reinforce that only bad things can happen when the military embraces religion of any creed or sect. If the Pentagon's smart, it will listen to the distant voice of James Madison and be done entirely with national days of prayer and allowing clerics to council our service members. The author of our godless Constitution, one of Madison's greatest regrets was caving into political pressure as president and issuing prayer day proclamations during the War of 1812, writes Gary Wills. Years later he expressed his conviction that neither the state nor religion has the right to trample on either's terrain. In his "Detached Memoranda," Madison opined that both chaplains appointed to Congress and the military were unconstitutional. But he was never more eloquent than when he counciled his state of Virginia, where the Pentagon resides today, to not dilute its Statute for Religious Freedom. Only through the separation of church and state can religious liberty truly thrive, he wrote, because:

Every provision for them short of this principle, will be found to leave crevices at least thro' which bigotry may introduce persecution; a monster, that feeding & thriving on its own venom, gradually swells to a size and strength overwhelming all laws divine & human.

As Madison knew, the government shouldn't be "all-inclusive" of every faith, it should be faith neutral. Its mission isn't to protect god; its mission is to protect an individual's natural rights, most importantly freedom of conscience--the starting point of any worthwhile conviction. While the U.S. military certainly defends Rev. Graham's right to preach whatever bigoted belief he wants, it was right to pull back the microphone. If Perkins wants to provide the preacher with a pulpit, then let him do so. But don't demand it deserves the Pentagon's imprimatur.