Muzzling Military Chaplains

All too often, we hear the secular world accusing Christians of trying to "impose our morality" on secular society. But recently our secular government imposed its morality on the church--and in the process shortchanged the religious rights of thousands of Christians. It all began last spring, when Congress passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, a measure that would have outlawed an abortion technique that amounts to infanticide. President Clinton vetoed the ban. Pro-life groups immediately swung into action, hoping to override the veto. Prominent among those groups was the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops distributed millions of postcards to Catholic dioceses all over the country--postcards asking federal lawmakers to override the presidential veto. Millions of parishioners across America signed these postcards and mailed them to their representatives. One diocese planning to take part in the campaign was the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA, which oversees military chaplains. That's when Big Brother stepped in. The Air Force forbade its chaplains from participating in the campaign, citing an opinion by the Air Force Judge Advocate General. Active duty military personnel, the opinion said, may not use their official authority to solicit votes for a particular issue. Nor may they participate in "partisan political campaigns." That's all well and good. But the chaplains weren't even allowed to tell their parishioners that a campaign was going on. And since when is partial-birth abortion a partisan issue? Republicans and Democrats alike voted by solid majorities to outlaw this gruesome procedure. As Archbishop Joseph Dimino put it, when it comes to abortion, "We are not discussing politics; we are discussing morality." Of course, we all understand the importance of keeping the military free of partisan political activity. But the Air Force went far beyond banning distribution of political literature. In effect, the Air Force--an arm of the government--dictated what the priests could and could not preach on Sunday morning. Someone ought to remind the Air Force that people of faith have been a crucial factor in every great social movement in America's history, from the abolition of slavery to outlawing child labor to fighting abortion. Generations of clergy have inspired Americans to fight against social evils. Both the First Amendment and our civil rights laws protect religious freedom--to make sure that the expression of our beliefs is not limited to Sunday morning, but has a role in our national moral debates. The gagging of military chaplains is a perfect example of how a powerful government can suppress the church--and how easily religious liberties can be trampled upon through a lack of vigilance. Members of the clergy must not be prohibited from proclaiming the moral teachings of their church--or from giving witness on the greatest moral issues of our day.


Chuck Colson


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