Questionable Mission

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Saturday, January 6, 2007

"THERE ARE over 25,000 Department of Defense leaders working in the rings and corridors of the Pentagon. Through Bible study, discipleship, prayer breakfasts, and outreach events, Christian Embassy is mustering these men and women into an intentional relationship with Jesus Christ," a narrator explains toward the start of a promotional video for Christian Embassy, an offshoot of Campus Crusade for Christ that focuses on diplomats, government leaders and military officers. As a uniformed Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack J. Catton Jr. explains, "I found a wonderful opportunity as a director on the joint staff, as I meet the people that come into my directorate, and I tell them right up front who Jack Catton is . . . and my first priority is my faith in God, then my family and then country. I share my faith because it describes who I am."

Free exercise of religion doesn't stop at the entrance to the Pentagon or other government buildings; it's a right of those who occupy the upper rungs of government service as well as those in lower ranks. But when those in senior positions are moved to share their religious views with colleagues and subordinates, the tension between the twin constitutional guarantees -- the mandate of free exercise of and the prohibition against government establishment of religion -- comes into play. That tension is heightened in the military, with its emphasis on rank and command. It's important that both uniformed and civilian military leaders, whatever their religious views, take care that others who don't share their beliefs don't feel coerced or excluded as a result.

The Christian Embassy video suggests that such sensitivity has not always been present. With its extensive, inside-the-Pentagon footage and interviews with senior officials and high-ranking officers in uniform, the video conveys a sense that the group's mission has been endorsed by the Pentagon; it carries no disclaimer. Robert Varney, the group's executive director, says the Pentagon chaplain's office gave permission for the filming and that it's no surprise that military officers, interviewed at work in the Pentagon, were in uniform. But following a complaint by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the video has been removed from Christian Embassy's Web site and the Pentagon is reviewing the matter. As it does so, it would be wise to consider not only whether the video and the Christian Embassy's other activities comply with the letter of Pentagon rules but also with the spirit of the Constitution its personnel are sworn to protect.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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