During his talks at the Texas Renewal Project on April 3-4 in Austin, David Barton didn’t just mislead hundreds of pastors and their spouses about San Antonio’s new nondiscrimination ordinance or use the Bible to justify right-wing policies on taxation. He also repeated a favorite falsehood of the religious right about the U.S. military supposedly censoring Christian pastors. Barton told the pastors in Austin audience that military chaplains “can’t mention Jesus in a prayer”:
“The last two years the biggest debate has been over the rights of conscience. You see, two years ago when we did this… the issue was chaplains are being told, ‘You cannot use the word Jesus when you pray. We’ll tell you what words to pray, and you can’t use the word Jesus.’ Wait a minute. We’ve got chaplains for all faiths. We’ve got military chaplains that are Hindus, that are Buddhists, that are Muslims… Because whatever soldiers there want to be [garbled] according to their faith. About 88 percent of American soldiers are Christians, so 88 percent of our chaplains tend to be Christians, and that’s what they minister to. So you got Christian folks come to a Christian chaplain and have Christian chaplains who are saying, ‘hey, when you do your services, you can’t mention Jesus in a prayer.’ What? Where did this come from?”
Once again, Barton is twisting the truth. His distortions here are similar to claims from email spam and right-wing bloggers about the ACLU and others supposedly insisting that the military muzzle Christian pastors. But fact checkers have repeated debunked those claims as untrue. See here and here, for example.
In fact, military chaplains are not barred from mentioning or praying to Jesus at Christian services. Air Force chaplain James Bradfield is just one minister frustrated by the falsehoods Barton and others on the right have been pushing. As Bradfield suggests, military chaplains are often called on to speak at various events, not just church services, with audiences made up of people from various religious backgrounds (emphasis added):
It would surely be offensive if a large group of Christians were ordered to attend a meeting and the chaplain prayed in the name of Allah. If soldiers were ordered to be in a meeting, there should be a level playing field. The chaplain may pray, but not necessarily use the name of Jesus.
Soldiers that represent a variety of faith groups can still stand with their chaplains who might allude to Jesus by saying such things as ‘in the Name of the Almighty God, the God above all Gods, the God who loves.’
For the military to have a chaplain open a meeting in prayer is significant and positive. The commanders do not have to include this in the order of business. However, they do by custom ask chaplains to call on God for blessings of those present and the business at hand.
These meetings are very different from a worship service. Regulations do not and should not address corporate worship. The chaplain is there free to pray in whatever manner is appropriate. The chaplain that confuses these two opportunities is disrespecting non-Christians and probably alienates them from potential interaction.
Christians should be careful not to look foolish to the world by passing around inaccurate emails. Chaplains can pray in the name of Jesus, depending on the occasion.
So is Barton — who calls himself a historian — getting his “facts” from spam emails? Or did he really know the truth but chose to mislead hundreds of pastors anyway?
In either case, the reality is Christian chaplains can pray to Jesus at Christian services. They simply must respect non-Christians at events with an ostensibly secular purpose or a religiously diverse audience.
Imagine what Barton would say if a Muslim chaplain prayed to Allah or otherwise demonstrated his Islamic beliefs at an event attended by Christians. In fact, you don’t have to imagine. Barton was critical when Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who is Muslim, chose to take his oath of office by placing his hand on the Quran (Koran) instead of the Bible in 2007. A number of right-wing Christians criticized Ellison, and Barton laid the blame for the “controversy” at the congressman’s feet:
Ellison may not have the same beliefs as the Muslims who openly decry and even attack America; nevertheless, their behavior reflects on him. It is therefore understandable that citizens outside his district are highly concerned. This concern was heightened by the fact that Ellison himself publicly flaunted his abrogation of American precedent by making his swearing-in on the Koran a national issue. After all, the ceremonial swearing-in is always a private ceremony, and what he did there would not have been an issue; however, he chose to make that private ceremony a public demonstration in the face of all Americans. Did any of the other 434 Members make a national issue of what they would do in their private swearing-in? No, only Ellison; he therefore should not decry the national controversy that he created.
Furthermore, the religion of Islam, both past and present, has yet to demonstrate that it is friendly to a free government and a free people.
Of course, it wasn’t Ellison who made his oath a national issue — religious-righters like Barton did that. Moreover, Ellison is no more to blame for the murderous acts of Muslim terrorists than Barton is to blame for the murderous acts of Christian terrorists in Ireland and other parts of the world. But Barton’s words give aid and comfort to bigots who see Ellison’s place in Congress as a threat simply because the congressman is Muslim. Moreover, his distortions are designed to rile up pastors and make it easier to persuade them to return home and drag their churches into partisan politics.