On March 24, 2021, the House Armed Services Committee in full invited me to testify on the subject of “Extremism in the Armed Forces.” The hearing was a lively and robust discussion on how to define “extremism,” and how better to remove identified extremists from the military.
Inevitably, the issue arose of whether the Department of Defense (DoD) is capable of enforcing its prohibition against extremist conduct while ensuring service members and DoD civilian employees retain their First Amendment rights. The importance of getting this right cannot be overstated, because getting it wrong will have drastic national security consequences.
For decades, America’s military enjoyed near immunity from the growing cynicism with which the American people view our institutions. It annually ranks among the most admired and trusted institutions—far surpassing Congress, organized religion, and even the Supreme Court. But that Teflon-like shell is now showing signs of wear.
According to a recent survey, public confidence in the military has fallen 14 points—from 70% to 56%—since 2018. Many surmise that one of the main drivers of such a precipitous decline is the perceived politicization of the military.
If true, then efforts to combat purported extremism in the armed forces might only serve to add fuel to the fire.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared that 99.9% of America’s service members are not extremists. Nevertheless, the Secretary also directed each branch of the military to conduct a “stand down” to address the issue of extremism in the ranks. The result is a growing concern that the real target of such anti-extremism efforts are service members who hold views that are no longer fashionable in today’s military.
In 2013, the DoD was heavily criticized for producing training materials that labeled evangelical Christians and Catholics as extremists alongside designated terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and Hamas (see picture of slide at the end of my testimony).
If holding to conservative or orthodox religious views constitutes extremist ideology that must be purged from the military, then the DoD is going to have a recruiting and readiness crisis on its hands in the very near future.
According to DoD data, service members who identify as Christian comprise the largest religious group population—roughly 66%—within the military. Another study revealed that young American males who identify as “highly religious” are significantly more likely to join the military than their “non-religious” counterparts.
To label evangelical Christians, Catholics, or any service member of faith, as an extremist is to declare them unwelcome and unwanted. This, in turn, will result in lower recruiting and accession numbers. Compounding this dilemma is what many observe as a hemorrhaging of America’s best from its officer corps.
With America’s peer and near-peer adversaries growing in size and confidence by the day, we can ill afford to further erode the special trust and confidence our military has enjoyed for generations. Congress and DoD leadership should take immediate action to ensure our armed forces do not fall prey to partisan politics.