Friendly Fire: When Christian General Prays, All Hell Breaks Loose

A two-star Air Force general drew heavy fire for mentioning Christ at a National Day of Prayer event on May 7, when the shrewdly named Military Religious Freedom Foundation called for “Major General Craig S. Olson [to] be immediately, aggressively and very visibly brought to justice for his unforgivable crimes and transgressions via trial by General Courts Martial.”

MRFF’s May 13 letter to Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh (which copied the secretary of defense, secretary of the Air Force, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) also demanded that Olson and “all others who assisted him with his NDP [Task Force] speech of fundamentalist Christian supremacy be likewise investigated and punished to the full extent of military law.”

On May 21 an Air Force decision rebuffed MRFF’s specific allegations, but not the flawed logic of its ad hominem attack. Little wonder, then, that the group once again let slip the dogs of war, claiming that the Air Force’s separation of church and state is now “nothing more than smoke and debris,” and that “there are no boundaries. They’ve obliterated the boundaries. There’s nothing left of the regulation.”

Perhaps MRFF would feel differently if shown that subjecting its claims to the same level of scrutiny it applies to Olson’s remarks reveals the group to be shooting blanks.

Shooting Blanks

MRFF president Michael Weinstein called for Olson’s head on grounds that his speech (i) violated Air Force code concerning religious endorsement, thereby (ii) breaching the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, and (iii) provided the Islamic State with recruitment propaganda:

Oh, Mark, by the way, please take another good look at the controlling, new USAF regulation which is DIRECTLY on point here; Air Force Instruction 1-1, Section 2.12:

2.12. Balance of Free Exercise of Religion and Establishment Clause. Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for their own free exercise of religion, including individual expressions of religious beliefs, and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. They must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief, or absence of belief. (emphasis added [by Weinstein])

Allegedly, Olson violated this AF Instruction by saying, “I’m thankful that I’m a redeemed believer in Christ,” and by stating his belief that God has many times enabled him to accomplish his specific missions and to execute the Air Force mission, despite having never received training for certain tasks and earning poor marks at the Air Force Academy. Olson revealed a copy of his AFA transcript to the audience, calling it “exhibit A” that his success has resulted not from his academic prowess, but from taking opportunities God has put in his path.

Yet while video posted by MRFF leaves no doubt that Olson is a Christian, it disproves assertions that General Olson proselytized converts or prospective converts. He was not “disapproving of … any faith, belief, or absence of belief.” He did not suggest that anyone in the audience should convert to his beliefs, or even that Christians should continue in their beliefs. While Olson personally endorses Christianity, at no point in the footage is he “officially endorsing” the religion ex cathedra on behalf of his organization (C3I and Networks), Hanscom AFB, or the Air Force itself. The distinction matters, as even Weinstein bolded for emphasis the word “officially” in his letter to Welsh.

No Preferential Treatment in a Vacuum

As for “preferential treatment,” Olson obviously “prefers” Christianity. But “treatment” cannot occur in a vacuum without persons. “Treatment” cannot be conferred upon abstractions such as “faith, belief, or absence of belief,” any more than a B-2 Stealth Bomber can destroy ideas. So a logical reading of the Air Force Instruction prohibits preferential (ergo discriminatory) treatment of persons on account of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Where in the video does Olson treat certain persons preferentially, in contrast to other persons against whom he discriminates?

Perhaps MRFF presumes that Olson meant to extend preferential treatment to fellow believers, because he did not mention people of other faiths, even though the event sponsors and audience were primarily Christian. For that bit of thoughtcrime to stick, however, would require expunging from many servicemen their defining ability to give focused briefings on precise subjects to specific audiences.

As for Olson’s “Christianese”: neither his self-identification as one “redeemed by Christ” nor his dependence on God denotes religious exclusivity. Although orthodox Christian doctrine maintains such exclusivity, Olson did not broach the subject. Weinstein would have to run to Scripture to link claims of exclusivity to Olson, which is more than Olson did in his speech, and this still would not morph Weinstein’s assumption into a fact. For Weinstein to assume (correctly or not) that Olson believes Christianity a true religion to the exclusion of other religions is to impose MRFF’s own interpretation of Christian teaching upon Olson—in the same breath in which Weinstein accuses Olson of imposing his beliefs on others.

Let not MRFF object here, “But of course Olson believes these things.” Perhaps he does. If so, he did not voice them at NDPTF. And by Weinstein’s own argument, such beliefs are irrelevant to his career as a serviceman, to his keeping the letter of military code, and even to Weinstein’s own specious assault upon Olson for remarks that, upon strict scrutiny, technically qualify as nonsectarian.

Wet Powder

If MRFF’s silos are looking needlessly empty, we may attribute this to its camp’s confusion about which beliefs qualify as basically Christian. For instance, a Crooks & Liars writer (moniker “LeftOfCenter”) recently called the NDPTF event “another blatant attempt of Fundamentalist Christians who wish to hijack the military, which they’ve been attempting for decades.” Never mind that this claim overlooks that the Bible says nothing—nada, zilch, nihilo—encouraging Christ-followers to seize military control. (Unfortunately, the Koran says differently.) So LeftOfCenter, at least, is fundamentally confused about what can even constitute Christian fundamentalism. This would not warrant criticism had the writer not proceeded to skewer Olson with the Sword of Non Sequitur.

Even MRFF’s claim that Olson has aided ISIS by furnishing jihadists with fresh recruitment propaganda rings hollow, considering that Olson’s speech, although broadcast globally, was not a story the media cared about until MRFF made it one. Thus Weinstein has done more to offer Olson’s speech to international audiences than Olson or even organizer Shirley Dobson.

How Promotions Work

MRFF may have wet powder, but its bayonet still wounds. Sadly, many people and organizations who claim to decry discrimination, advocate for diversity, and promote equality are wreaking similar havoc upon civilian bakers, florists, photographers, and restaurateurs who are less overt about their beliefs than General Olson.

Civilians rise in the world for delivering quality products and services. Servicemen attain higher rank by leading and discharging their duties with honor, excellence, and uncommon merit. The United States military is one of the world’s great meritocracies.

Soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines are not promoted for their commonalities, but for their distinctions. Otherwise, all officers would be generals. It would be ludicrous to think that General Olson has risen through numerous rounds of strict, dispassionate evaluation because of traits, values, beliefs, and talents he shares in common with most people. The military has publicly recognized that Olson’s value as a serviceman lies in uniqueness a la Olson—not commonality a la Weinstein, MRFF, or Crooks & Liars.

Into the Wild Blue Wonder

If the U.S. military continues to dismiss spurious ad hominem attacks by small-minded interest groups, it will ward off diversions from its mission, better serving the taxpayer and the warfighter.

And as long as the U.S. military fends off unproductive distractions of petty tyrants, it can hope to remain one of the most diverse organizations on the planet, measuring diversity by the only metric that matters: merit.

M. Jennifer Reno contributed to this article.