By Mike Berry, General Counsel
This week, I had the privilege of testifying at the House Armed Services Committee on the topic of “Extremism in the Armed Forces.” I must confess, however, that I was not quite sure what to expect. I seriously doubt anyone in Congress or military leadership disagrees with the notion that there is no place for true extremists in America’s military.
By “true extremists” I mean anyone who uses, threatens or advocates violence to achieve their objectives. But the threat of such extremism pales in comparison to the threat to our First Amendment rights that will result if we allow anti-extremism efforts to be weaponized against entire classes of people just because those in authority disapprove of their religious or political views.
When I joined the Marine Corps, I was thrust into a strange new environment in which I was surrounded by people who held attitudes, beliefs and ideologies very different from my own. Some even voiced disapproval of my lifestyle choices. My superiors reassured me this was a feature of military service, not a defect.
It became clear to me that America’s military is a melting pot of people from every racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and political background. But for the most part, what unites us is far greater than what divides us. We were proud Americans who personify the e pluribus unum—“out of many, one”—that adorns our Great Seal and our currency.
A truly diverse military is open and welcoming to all who meet the standards for service. Likewise, it rejects attempts to target a religious belief or worldview with which one disagrees.
Americans serve for many reasons. Some are motivated by patriotism, others by a sense of adventure, and still others by the promise of a rewarding career. But statistically speaking, one of the most common traits among service members is religious belief. According to available data, American males who identify as “highly religious” are among those most likely to join the military.
In recent years, however, mainstream religious belief or political persuasion have become collateral damage in the war on extremism.
For instance, Department of Defense (DoD) equal opportunity officials were in 2013 taught to provide the following message to service members with respect to extremism in the military:
Nowadays, instead of dressing in sheets or publicly espousing hate messages, many extremists will talk of individual liberties, states’ rights, and how to make the world a better place.
According to the DoD, the principles of federalism and civil liberty are akin to Klan meetings. The tragic irony is that those who believe in “individual liberties” and “making the world a better place” are often motivated by those very beliefs to risk life and limb in defense of our freedoms.
Another disturbing incident involved an unclassified slide from a U.S. Army Reserve training presentation, entitled “Religious Extremism,” which purported to identify religious extremist groups. Included among those listed were Al-Qaeda, Hamas and the Ku Klux Klan—groups that use or advocate violence to accomplish their objectives and are therefore rightly classified as extremists. But the slide also listed Evangelical Christianity and Catholicism, whose basic religious teachings—”Thou shalt not commit murder”—most assuredly are neither violent nor extreme.
The Pentagon cannot possibly believe that because Evangelical Christians and Catholics hold fast to millennia-old views on marriage and human sexuality, they should be labeled as “extremists” and deemed unfit to serve. Yet we lack clear definitions and guidance to know for certain.
On February 5, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a Stand-Down to Address Extremism in the Ranks—a worthy effort to remove “supremacists” and “extremists” from the services. But to date, the DoD has not defined those or other terms. Moreover, the DoD has yet to provide any assurance that Evangelical Christians and Catholics will not, once again, be labeled and targeted as extremists.
Evangelical Christianity and Catholicism might not be popular within the Pentagon, but to label their adherents “extremists” is wrong, and it undermines our national security. Combined, the two comprise a substantial majority of the force, and as stated above, their believers are the most likely candidates to serve in the future. To call them “extremists” is to declare them unwelcome, which will only hurt our recruiting and retention efforts. Rather than disqualify the religious, we should identify, recruit and retain those who are willing and able to serve, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Congress must hold the Department of Defense accountable to the constitutional rights of free speech and religious freedom for all Americans—including our service members. In the zeal to expel the extreme, our leaders must ensure that these bedrock principles of American virtue are not only protected, but cherished.
Note: This article was first published on Newsweek and is re-published here with permission. The article presents the main points of an op-ed published in Newsweek. This work was authored by Mike Berry. The full article can be found on the Newsweek website, here.