Standing on stage on Sept. 16 in a Washington hotel ballroom at the Pray Vote Stand Summit, Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., vowed to expunge “wokeism” from the U.S. military. The audience, largely evangelical attendees, responded with raucous applause.
“‘Wokeism’ will eat our country inside-out if we let it, and we’ve got to stop it from taking over and transforming the military,” Banks said, standing in front of a backdrop adorned with the words, “De-Woking the Pentagon.”
“I’ve made that my top mission in Congress.”
Hosted by the Family Research Council, an evangelical activist organization known for its staunch opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights, the event was headlined by a discussion on “returning the military’s focus to its mission.” Alongside Banks, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel, two retired military officials vehemently denounced the Pentagon’s efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI.
Opposition to the Pentagon’s DEI efforts has spiked among select conservative lawmakers since 2020, when Congress first expanded such programs and mandated the Defense Department’s hiring of a chief diversity officer, said Liz Yates, a researcher with the advocacy group Human Rights First.
Attempts by some lawmakers to dismantle the military’s DEI programs has reached a flash point as the House and Senate struggle to come to terms on the Fiscal Year 2024 Defense Department Appropriations Act, which Congress must pass annually to determine military spending.
In response to growing opposition, Human Rights First and 37 other advocacy organizations sent a letter to House and Senate leaders Wednesday, urging them to strike 22 proposals from this year’s bill, each of which target the military’s DEI and anti-extremism initiatives.
Eighteen of those proposals were included in the House-passed version, with the rest coming from the Senate. In total, Congress considered 56 proposals for provisions and amendments to DEI efforts. Lawmakers from both chambers still need to convene to negotiate differences between the two bills.
“[W]e write to express grave concerns about dangerous provisions included in the House and Senate-passed versions,” the letter states. “These provisions threaten the health and welfare of service members and their families, undermine diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts in the military, and harm recruitment, retention, and force readiness.”
Minority Veterans of America, Protect Our Defenders, Service Women’s Action Network, Vet Voice Foundation and Veterans for American Ideals are among the groups that endorsed the letter, which argues that the proposed cuts would yield a “very severe rollback” of critical support for service members, according to Yates.
Human Rights First started tracking congressional efforts to rein in the military’s DEI initiatives this summer, when the organization reported that lawmakers had introduced 16 bills targeting such programs during the current congressional session — double the previous iteration.
If approved, the proposals would eliminate the Pentagon’s chief diversity officer and cut pay and staff from the military’s DEI offices. Also prohibited would be training on critical race theory, a term used to describe the idea that racism is systemic in U.S. institutions.
Additional proposals include the elimination of Pride flags on DoD grounds, gender pronouns on official correspondence, and books that mention gender identity in schools operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity.
Proposals to curb funding and staff, meanwhile, would negatively affect the collection of data about diversity in the armed forces, Yates argued, adding that such action could ruin efforts to determine the demographic makeup of service academies, officer training schools and the Senior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. That data, she said, is vital to understanding inequities in the services.
“These are dangerous. It’s not just messaging — these can have serious impacts,” Yates said. “If they’re going to do everything they can to defund DEI, that means data collection is not going to happen.”
Some GOP lawmakers argue the proposals address items hurting the Pentagon’s recruitment efforts. On stage at the Pray Vote Stand Summit, Banks told a story of a teenage boy who wanted to join the Marine Corps but was concerned about being condemned for his conservative background.
“I believe that ‘wokeism’ is driving people away who would have formerly wanted to serve in our military,” Banks said.
Little evidence exists, meanwhile, that DEI initiatives are a root cause for recruiting shortfalls. The Pentagon’s Inspector General reported earlier this year that the majority of would-be recruits are not enlisting because of fear of death in combat, having grown up hearing about casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is also increased competition between the military and the private sector for top talent, and private companies, on average, offer higher pay, the report states.
As GOP lawmakers continue to accuse President Joe Biden of politicizing the Pentagon, advocacy organizations and political analysts contend that recent conservative messaging suggesting the armed forces are too “woke” is the actual factor eroding public confidence in the military.
“There is very little evidence of ‘wokeness’ in the military, but there is a lot of evidence of the concern of ‘wokeness’ in the military,” said Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor and author of a book on civil-military relations. “We’ve reached the point where the concern is greater than the reality. No one has presented evidence that is commensurate with the amount of energy that is being devoted to it.”
House Democrats argued this week that the chamber’s version of the defense appropriations bill was one reason the party voted with ultra-conservative lawmakers to remove Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as House speaker. Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said in a letter Tuesday that McCarthy allowed the bill to become a “right-wing wish list full of highly partisan poison pills.”
Debates over the House’s defense appropriations bill offer just one example of lawmakers being less willing to compromise, Feaver said. Additionally, the tendency of lawmakers to push through an increasing number of proposals on the annual defense appropriations bill, rather than debate them as stand-alone legislation, is making Congress ineffective, he argued.
“The more we layer onto the defense budget all of our most divisive ‘culture war’ issues, the more we risk not having an appropriations bill and just having a continuing resolution,” Feaver said. “Congress has the authority to decide these issues, and if it wants to be seized with these issues, that’s what Congress gets to do.
“But to spend all of the congressional energy on these issues and fail to address military modernization and the mission-focused parts of the budget — Congress will have misallocated its energies.”
Editorial Fellow Jaime Moore-Carrillo contributed to this report.
Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She's reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.