Americans United for Separation of Church and State has warned U.S. military officials not to promote a Christian evangelistic rally for military personnel sponsored by Billy Graham’s ministry.
Americans United took action in early August after learning that Bob Dees, executive director of the Military Ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ International, had sent e-mails to installation commanders nationwide informing them of a Sept. 9-11 “Serving God and Country” seminar in Asheville, N.C.
The event is sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, now run by Franklin Graham. According to promotional literature sent to the commanders, the event “will spiritually refresh you and equip you to share your faith in Jesus Christ with your brothers and sisters in arms.” Invitees include chaplains, non-chaplain officers and enlisted personnel.
In his letter to base commanders, Dees assumed a familiar relationship with the military leaders, writing, “We wholeheartedly recommend that you give it the widest possible distribution within your command…. This seminar is designed to provide assistance to chaplains and other military personnel who are followers of Jesus Christ to enable them more effectively serve their religious faith groups while serving their country….Your support in making this known to your chaplains for dissemination within your staff and subordinate units would be greatly appreciated.”
Dees, a retired major general in the Army and one of the speakers at the Graham event, signed the letter to the base commanders, “Your Partner in the Gospel.”
Promotional material for the event says other speakers will include U.S. Army General Officer Robert Van Antwerp addressing a plenary session on how “to lead and influence others with the character and life of Jesus Christ.” Navigators Area Representative David Coffield, a former Special Forces medic, is scheduled to speak at a workshop on “practical and appropriate ways to share Christ in the military.”
The prospect of military endorsement of an evangelism training event drew a strong protest from Americans United.
Said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “The military must never favor one faith over others. The Graham Ministries’ event is intended to teach Christian evangelism, and that’s not something the military should be involved in.”
In an Aug. 5 letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Americans United’s Lynn pointed out that the Constitution forbids government to promote religion.
“We are writing to inform you that promoting this Christian event to members of the military could convey an unconstitutional message of governmental endorsement of religion, and to therefore urge you to ensure that military leaders do not encourage members of the military or their spouses to attend the event or otherwise promote it in any way,” Lynn wrote. (Copies of the letter were sent to the base commanders, mostly Air Force officials, who had received Dees’ invitation.)
Lynn noted that the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has been accused of favoring evangelical Christianity. In light of this, he said, it is especially important that the military take steps to ensure religious neutrality and avoid promoting events such as the Graham seminar.
“It is particularly important,” Lynn advised Rumsfeld, “that it be made clear that there is no government sponsorship of this event, coming as it does on the heels of well-publicized complaints of religious preference and intolerance at the Air Force Academy. At this time, especially, the military must take appropriate steps to make it clear that it does not endorse or promote religion or sectarian events.”
Americans United says attempts like this to link the military to the Graham event only lend credence to charges that the military has a special relationship with evangelical Christianity.
In addition to the constitutional issues involved, AU said it would be highly inappropriate for the military to endorse a rally sponsored by Franklin Graham, a harsh and controversial critic of Islam, at a time when the nation is fighting a war in a Muslim region of the world.
In other news about religion in the military:
• A general who has been at the center of a religious bias controversy at the Air Force Academy has been quietly removed from a promotions list approved by the U.S. Senate.
Air Force Academy Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida has been accused of using his post to promote evangelical Christianity. In one case, Weida was scored for using Academy e-mail to proselytize cadets and encourage them to accept that “The Lord is in control. He has a plan…for every one of us.” He also is accused of using his official position to encourage evangelical cadets to try to convert their classmates.
In the middle of the controversy, the Pentagon announced that Weida’s name was on a list of generals being considered for promotion. Currently a one-star general, Weida would have been elevated to two stars, the rank of major general. Critics, including Americans United, charged that promoting Weida during an ongoing controversy sent the wrong message. When the final list was approved by the Senate in late July, Weida’s name was not on it.
Reportedly, the Air Force Inspector General’s Office is still investigating one charge against Weida and a promotion is inappropriate until that matter is resolved.