Last November, Travis Weber of the Family Research Council—a certified hate group and brainchild of Tony Perkins—testified before Congress about “hostility towards religious belief and its expression in the military.” Weber’s testimony drew largely from “Clear and Present Danger: The Threat to Religious Liberty in the Military,” a report authorized by the FRC. “Clear and Present Danger” is essentially a Gish Gallop through a dizzying compilation of overblown or inaccurate claims, each of which attempts to paint Christians in the military as a persecuted minority. Any marginally intelligent person could guess that the report is puerile piffle. But debunking all 61 claims seemed too exhausting to fall within the realm of human possibility.
I’m pleased to report, however, that somebody has gone and done it—and the results are both amusing and infuriating. In a 41-page response to the FRC, which will be released widely later this week, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State meticulously deflates or disproves each claim in “Clear and Present Danger.” The result gives us a glimpse into the mindset of far-right religious extremists today and a deeper understanding of how the rallying cry of “religious liberty” can be used to quash free speech, equal protection, and actual free exercise of religion.
Perhaps the most notable hypocrisy of “Clear and Present Danger” is its vision of free speech. The FRC report repeatedly castigates outside commentators who dare to criticize the military for pushing Christianity on troops, implying that such censure somehow violates troops’ religious liberty. It also suggests that military personnel who criticize anti-gay activists in their own private correspondence are, in fact, threatening religious freedom within the military. Meanwhile, “Clear and Present Danger” vigorously supports the rights of anti-gay activists to criticize gay people, both publicly and privately.
Two specific instances of this selective zeal for free speech are particularly illuminating. In 2012, Tech. Sgt. Layne Wilson of the Utah Air National Guard sent an email to the chaplain’s office complaining that a superior officer married his husband in the Cadet Chapel. Wilson wrote:
This is wrong on so many levels. If they wanted to get married in a hotel that is one thing. Our base chapels are a place of worship and this is a mockery to God and our military core values. I have proudly served 27 years and this is a slap in the face to us who have put our lives on the line for this country. I hope sir that you will take appropriate action so this does not happen again.
Wilson was reprimanded for “fail[ing] to render the proper respect to a commissioned officer,” according to the Air National Guard. This makes sense: The military is rigidly hierarchical and consistently requires all officers to show respect for their superiors. Disparaging a commissioned officer for “mock[ing] God and our military core values” does not constitute respect.
Yet the FRC (and Todd Starnes of Fox News) believe that Wilson’s reprimand constituted a violation of his religious liberty. Does that mean the FRC takes a principled stand in favor of total free expression for all service members? Of course not. In another potion of “Clear and Present Danger,” the FRC lambastes Lt. Col. Jack Rich for condemning anti-gay groups (like the FRC) in an unofficial, internal email. Rich had described such organizations as “domestic hate groups,” noting that they “do not share our Army Values.” This exercise of pro-gay free speech apparently qualifies as a threat to religious liberty. Meanwhile, Wilson’s exercise of anti-gay free speech was a laudable act of constitutionally protected courage.
You probably didn’t need a 41-page brief to know that “Clear and Present Danger” is almost entirely composed of twaddle. But it’s heartening to see Americans United hold the vile FRC to its half-truths and hypocrisies. Republicans in Congress seem to value to group’s analysis of “religious liberty” in America today. So long as fringe groups like the FRC are being taken seriously by anybody, we should remember just how toxically deceptive and noxiously prejudiced this group really is.