From the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC

Once upon a time, missionaries operated with a “convert the king, and you win the kingdom” mentality. That is, if you could convince the king of the rightness of your cause — Christianity, permission to dig a mine, or just selling a better mousetrap — the king would order all the subjects to follow suit. Your church would be filled with worshipers, your mine with workers, and your mousetrap shop with customers.

Some might have thought that those days were long gone, at least in the United States, but they’ve apparently never met Major General James E. Chambers of the United States Army. Let’s let Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation tell the story:

For the past several years, two U.S. Army posts in Virginia, Fort Eustis and Fort Lee, have been putting on a series of what are called Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness Concerts. As I’ve written in a number of other posts, “spiritual fitness” is just the military’s new term for promoting religion, particularly evangelical Christianity. And this concert series is no different.

On May 13, 2010, about eighty soldiers, stationed at Fort Eustis while attending a training course, were punished for opting out of attending one of these Christian concerts. The headliner at this concert was a Christian rock band called BarlowGirl, a band that describes itself as taking “an aggressive, almost warrior-like stance when it comes to spreading the gospel and serving God.”

Any doubt that this was an evangelical Christian event was cleared up by the Army post’s newspaper, the Fort Eustis Wheel, which ran an article after the concert that began:

“Following the Apostle Paul’s message to the Ephesians in the Bible, Christian rock music’s edgy, all-girl band BarlowGirl brought the armor of God to the warriors and families of Fort Eustis during another installment of the Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness Concert Series May 13 at Jacobs Theater.”

The punishment for choosing not to attend, according to one of the soldiers, was this:

We were to be on lock-down in the company (not released from duty), could not go anywhere on post (no PX, no library, etc). We were to go to strictly to the barracks and contact maintenance. If we were caught sitting in our rooms, in our beds, or having/handling electronics (cell phones, laptops, games) and doing anything other than maintenance, we would further have our weekend passes revoked and continue barracks maintenance for the entirety of the weekend.

Unbelievable. All that’s missing is “Soldier, I want you to drop and give me 10 Our Fathers.”

General Chambers took an oath when he became an officer, promising that he would “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same . . .” Reading Rodde’s story makes me wonder if he ever read that Constitution.

Military folks are quick to defend themselves from outside criticism with the aphorism “The military is not a democracy.” True — and it damn well isn’t a theocracy, either.

The constitution Chambers swore to support and defend include the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion, and prohibits the government — including the military — from taking steps to promote and establish an official faith above other belief systems. As a pastor, I find Chambers’ “spiritual fitness concerts” beyond appalling (but that’s another subject), and as an American, punishing a soldier for refusing religious indoctrination is beyond acceptable.

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that President Bush had nominated General Chambers to receive his second star in 2003. Current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ought to inquire as to whether Chambers is fit to continue wearing it, given his blatant disregard for the constitution he swore to defend.

And the soldiers who filed a complaint over this ought to be commended and promoted. They, at least, understand the constitution they have sworn to defend.

(photo h/t Dyanna)