The Military Chaplain | Summer 2016
By Alan Dowd

The stories seem to be picking up in frequency: a Marine court-martialed because of a Bible verse on her office computer, a formal reprimand for an Army chaplain who talked about faith in Jesus during a suicide-prevention seminar, a threatened legal challenge against a “God Bless the Military” sign posted on a Marine base in Hawaii, a Navy chaplain reassigned for expressing his views on homosexuality, another chaplain stripped of his authority for refusing to allow the base chapel to be used for same-sex ceremonies, still another threatened with early retirement for sending an email discussing changes to the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, an Air Force cadet ordered to remove Bible verses from his personal whiteboard.

These stories remind us that U.S. troops don’t defend only our religious freedom; from time to time, they also have to defend their own religious freedom. 

America’s military is an exquisite reflection of the nation it defends, and this is a nation of many creeds. So, it’s no surprise that the military includes Christians of every denomination, Jews, Muslims, atheists, pagans and, like the general population, a growing percentage of so-called “Nones.”

Surveys of the U.S. military reveal that active-duty personnel self-identify as: 2.77 percent Adventist, 17.56 percent Baptist, 0.27 percent Brethren, 2.23 percent Congregational, 0.87 percent Eastern, 0.86 percent Episcopal, 0.99 percent Evangelical, 3.61 percent Humanist, 1.09 percent Jewish, 2.57 percent Lutheran, 3.7 percent Methodist, 1.3 percent Mormon, 0.45 percent Muslim, 0.4 percent Orthodox, 3.28 percent Other Christian, 6.54 percent Other Protestant, 1.18 percent Pagan, 2.89 percent Pentecostal/Charismatic, 1.68 percent Presbyterian, 20.11 percent Roman Catholic, and 25.5 percent No Religious Preference.

Add it all up, and at least 66 percent of the military is Christian. However, as Scott Taylor, an Air Force veteran who piloted F-15E fighter-bombers in peacetime and wartime, is quick to note, “I was a Christian serving in the U.S. military. I wasn’t serving in a Christian military.”

That’s an important distinction to keep in mind as we wrestle with this challenge of religious freedom inside the military.

There are no atheists in foxholes, as the old saying goes. Given that America’s military is waging a far-flung war on terrorist groups, digging in for Cold War II with a revisionist Russia, keeping the sea lanes open, guarding the 38th Parallel and bracing for what promises to be a dangerous dance with a rising China—all while serving as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense—our troops have unique and pressing spiritual-emotional needs. They wrestle with an unimaginable mix of fear and worry, adrenaline spikes and emotional lows, guilt and regret, physical hardship and family problems, mental anguish and nightmares. All of them serve an essential but terrible function in a world where might makes right. And some of them stare death in the face on a daily basis.

In short, serving in wartime has a way of shaking the soul and focusing the heart. “You are dealing with life and death,” Taylor explains. “When people realize they’re not in control of what comes next, it affects how they live and what they believe.” 

So, as they go to the front—“downrange” in military parlance—perhaps some troops are more open about their faith than in decades past. Some are more vocal, quite literally more evangelical. And that causes friction in the ranks. The military tries to address these internal faith challenges by striking a balance between the believer’s right to share his or her faith and the nonbeliever’s right to not feel harassed. Predictably, there are disagreements over where that balance is found.

“We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the un-churched,” said Gen. Cecil Richardson, retired Air Force Chief of Chaplains, in a New York Timesinterview.

While some contend that one man’s evangelizing is another’s proselytizing, there’s more than a semantic difference here: Proselytizing carries a connotation of recruiting and pressuring, whereas evangelizing—rooted in the Greek for “bringing good news”—carries a connotation of sharing and inviting. Christians—whether on the battlefront or the home-front—are called to follow the example set by Jesus. And it was always the latter. 

Jesus interacted with pagans and polytheists, politicians and priests. He talked—and listened—to Roman generals and governors, rich men and tax collectors, Jews and gentiles, Greeks and Samaritans, Sanhedrin officials and Syrophoenicians. He had the power to make all of them bow to Him, but He never did. Instead, He commended the centurion; allowed the rich young ruler to walk away; healed a foreigner’s daughter, a pagan’s servant, a synagogue leader’s child; and shared the good news with those who were willing to listen.

To expect Christians in the military to do less than this is to ask them to disobey their Lord. But to allow them to do more than this—to cross that line separating evangelizing from proselytizing—presents other problems.

A case in point came to light a decade ago at the Air Force Academy, where cadets were encouraged to see The Passion of the Christ and the football team posted a locker-room creed that included phrases such as “I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.”[i]The academy has since promulgated new guidelines to promote greater sensitivity and respect between religious groups.

“I’ve never thought the best way to share the Christian message is to shove it down someone’s throat,” says Brian Nicholson, who became a pastor after retiring from the Marine Corps. 

Lt. Col. Joe Hilbert, a long-time active-duty soldier, agrees: “I try to live my faith and hope they see Christ in my life.”

Pastor Nicholson and Lt. Col. Hilbert offer good advice—whether you wear a suit and tie, jeans or fatigues to work. After all, it comes straight from scripture. As Paul writes, we should lead “quiet lives” that “win the respect of outsiders.” Author Philip Yancey puts it this way: “Our respect in the world declines in proportion to how vigorously we attempt to force others to adopt our view.”

Testing Times

In designing our government, the Founders erected heavy bulwarks to safeguard religious liberty. The Constitution makes clear that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” So, the government cannot demand that a person confess, renounce or practice a certain faith in order to serve in the public sector, which, of course, includes the military.

Americans don’t want military personnel to feel that their service and/or advancement are dependent on espousing certain religious beliefs. To this point, the Air Force recently brought its oath of enlistment in line with its sister branches, dropping a requirement that all enlistees say “so help me God.” This seems reasonable: A person does not have to believe in God to serve honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces. Many atheists have done—and are doing—just that.

Of course, Americans don’t want military personnel to be prohibited from espousing religious beliefs, either. “For Americans, free speech and the free exercise of religion exist both inside and outside the military,” explains Chaplain Brig. Gen. Douglas Lee (U.S. Army Reserve-Ret.), who was a military chaplain for 31 years and currently serves as executive director of the Presbyterian and Reformed Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel. He notes that the First Amendment gives protection to military chaplains and enlisted personnel alike. Lee is concerned that “A culture of fear has come into the military since the changes made to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Christians in the military are not sure what they can say and when they can say it.”

That’s not healthy. After all, our troops are human beings with consciences and beliefs and opinions. We don’t want them to be turned into unfeeling, unthinking automatons. While every American—civilian or military—has a right not to believe in this god or that god or any god, we do not have a right not to ever hear about this god or that god or any god.

Atheists—especially those in the close quarters of the military—need to recognize that our Constitution does not guarantee freedom from religion, let alone freedom from religious people. And to paraphrase something Paul counseled, people of faith—especially those in the close quarters of the military—need to respect those whose faith is weak or nonexistent (Romans 14).

At a time when the military is more diverse than ever, finding the right balance is the challenge.

[i] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/22/AR2005062200598.html and http://www.cbsnews.com/news/air-force-sued-over-religion/.