Pulling Rank on Religion

Monday, August 13, 2007

THE PENTAGON'S inspector general has concluded that seven current or former military officers, including two major generals and the Pentagon chaplain, violated ethics rules when they appeared in uniform in a promotional and fundraising video for the evangelical group Christian Embassy. The report on Christian Embassy, an offshoot of Campus Crusade for Christ that recruits diplomats, government leaders and military officers, underscores the need for Pentagon officials, both uniformed and civilian, to be more careful about mixing religious activities with government duties.

Free exercise of religion doesn't stop at the entrance to the Pentagon or other government buildings; it's appropriate for Christian Embassy to hold prayer breakfasts and fellowship meetings at the Pentagon as long as other religious groups have similar opportunities. But especially in the military, with its emphasis on rank and discipline, those at senior levels need to ensure that their actions are not seen as a government endorsement of a particular religion.

The 47-page inspector general's report offers a vivid picture of how inappropriately intertwined Christian Embassy had become with Pentagon operations by the time the video, with its extensive scenes inside the Pentagon, was filmed in 2004. When Christian Embassy asked the chaplain at the time, Col. Ralph G. Benson, for help in gaining access to the Pentagon, Col. Benson obtained approval by "mischaracterizing the purpose and proponent of the video," the report found. His request said that a Christian Embassy film crew would be "filming various aspects of our ministry" and had "volunteered to help us on this project." In fact, Christian Embassy had approached Col. Benson for help.

Other officers appeared equally heedless of the separation of Christian Embassy and state, and the impropriety of appearing to use their official position to endorse a private enterprise. Maj. Gen. John J. Catton Jr. explained that he felt comfortable praising the group because it had effectively become a "quasi-federal entity." As the inspector general noted, Taco Bell has been selling food at the Pentagon for years, but "Maj. Gen. Catton's endorsement of Taco Bell under circumstances similar to those of the present video would be similarly improper."

The report offered an inkling of the mischief such activities can cause. "What's important to me in the context of our work here in the Pentagon is to get together with other believers and be encouraged," Maj. Gen. Peter U. Sutton says on the video. Maj. Gen. Sutton is now based in Turkey, where an article in a Turkish newspaper about the video described him as a member of a "radical fundamentalist sect." The article, Maj. Gen. Sutton told the inspector general, "caused his Turkish counterparts concern and a number of Turkish general officers asked him to explain his participation in the video."

What's important here is not policing appearances on an obscure video. It's getting government officials to understand how their actions may appear to those of a different faith or none at all.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company