Religion and Military Policy

“Remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death.” James 5:20

While the fighter pilot environment causes a Christian to make reactive moral choices, what about a Christian fighter pilot who wants to exercise his faith? Can he actively witness to his fellow pilots? Can a Christian fighter pilot evangelize his fellow fighter pilots?

Prior to 2004 the Air Force had no official policy on most matters regarding religion other than prohibitions against discrimination. It was a vague but simple matter, then, for a Christian fighter pilot to live his life with wisdom, tact, and discretion. So long as he didn’t beat his fellow pilots about the head and shoulders with the Bible he would create no grounds for official complaints.

The religious culture in the Air Force has changed, however, as the military continues to address issues of perceived religious intolerance within its ranks. The impetus to the public debate on religion in the military has been the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In early 2005 the organization Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), headed by Barry Lynn, publicized claims of religious malfeasance at the Academy. [The text of the complaint is included as an attachment to the Air Forces report here.] The AU cited as religious favoritism the case of Head Coach Fisher DeBerry placing a banner on a wall that included a reference to the athletes being one team in “Jesus Christ.” Other allegations claimed that Christians were given preferential treatment, causing non-Christians to feel ostracized or mistreated. In one specific objection, the AU complained that during basic training a Protestant chaplain told cadets that if they were not “born again” that they would “burn in the fires of hell,” and then encouraged them to return to their squadrons and witness to their fellow cadets. In its report the AU’s primary concern was that leadership, in the form of military commanders and Academy faculty, had professed beliefs in a particular religion.

For example, every Christmas a religious organization had paid for an ad in the Academy paper that explicitly stated the superiority of Jesus. The ad was signed by various members of the Academy leadership—a move that had been approved by the Judge Advocate years earlier. The AU used this as an example of an instance where a subordinate would see his leadership advocate a specific belief and then feel that he, too, must advocate that belief to succeed (Attachment H, p56). The AU also cited as “evangelism” the case of an instructor who introduced himself to the class as a born-again Christian (Attachment H, p55-56). In another case, a senior officer at the Academy emailed a promotion for the National Day of Prayer, and the AU took offense that a person of such rank and authority would advocate a religious event to his subordinates. The Air Force formed a panel to visit the Academy and investigate these claims of religious intolerance, particularly the much publicized allegations that non-Christian cadets had been “harassed by evangelical Christians.”

Prior to the completion of the investigation, the Air Force leadership sent out a preliminary message entitled Respecting the Beliefs of All Airmen. The text was also published on the Fox News Channel on 26 May 2005. In the message the Air Force noted that “religious choice is a matter of individual conscience” and emphasized the need for mutual respect. Most of the message, though, was focused on discouraging the active advancement of personal religious beliefs within the Air Force.  The official message codified restrictions on perceived evangelism when it said that

…supervisors at every level must be particularly sensitive to the fact that subordinates can consider [their] public expressions of belief systems coercive. [Supervisors that use their] place at the podium as a platform for [their] personal beliefs can be perceived as misuse of office (sic). Where, when, and how [supervisors] espouse [their] beliefs is important.

The message also said that while disparaging remarks about a person’s religion were “obviously” wrong, “more subtle,” but also potentially wrong,

are other well-intentioned expressions of personal religious belief…. In no event should one’s expressions of personal belief be allowed to appear overbearing.

The Respecting message also addressed the use of government email systems, apparently as a result of religious content in email messages cited by the AU. The use of government email has long been restricted to “official use only,” but exceptions were included for morale purposes for those who had no choice but to use the government system—Academy cadets and forward deployed airmen were two obvious exceptions. The new message restricted not only cadet morale email but electronic messages Air Force wide:

The indiscriminate use of mass email address lists to send notices that may espouse a particular religious view, or to market a discrete religious event, is inappropriate.

“Indiscriminate mass emails” have been routinely used in the Air Force to communicate about everything from briefings to barbecues; this new rule banned the use of email for religious items like invitations to a church or Bible study. After this restriction was published, another minor scandal [link removed] erupted when the Cadet Wing Commander (the senior ranking cadet) sent a “farewell” email to the cadet wing; the message contained a 22 page attachment with quotes collected from sources as varied as Erma Bombeck and Gandhi. The quotations from Plato and George Patton garnered no attention, however—just the ones from Jesus and the Bible. The mere fact that “Air Force Cadet Sends Religious Email” (which itself was an exaggeration) was deemed newsworthy is an indication of the intense media scrutiny that Christianity in the military was receiving.

The Air Force Report

The official Air Force report on the religious climate at the Air Force Academy was released in June of 2005.  The panel found seven instances of potentially inappropriate religious conduct, which it forwarded to the Inspector General (IG). (The IG is in charge of most internal investigations in the military.) Otherwise, the panel indicated that though it investigated all claims (including those that had garnered so much media attention) it had been unable to substantiate allegations of overt religious discrimination. Academy cadets themselves contended that many of the perceived religious offenses were overstated in the media. (In fact, the cadets stated that they first heard of the ‘shocking environment of religious intolerance’ through the media (p31).)

Many of the “offended” cadets said that accommodation, not discrimination, was the problem; i.e., Jewish and Muslim cadets had difficulty celebrating their faiths on Fridays and Saturdays due to classes and mandatory training events, while Christians did not have the same problem on Sundays. The investigative team even asserted the need for young military officer candidates to be given the opportunity for spiritual development (p7-8). In response to the AU complaint about the chaplain’s ‘hell-fire and brimstone’ sermon, the report noted that chaplains are, by regulation, expressly allowed to preach their denominational beliefs (p11). The investigators’ report also documented that the media frenzy and official inquiries caused by the accusations had created an uncomfortable environment for Christians at the Academy, who now felt that their every movement was being monitored and critiqued. The report stated that because of the public scrutiny cadets were concerned that many would begin to wholly steer clear of spiritual topics to avoid being accused of religious insensitivity, to the detriment of open dialogue (p33). 

As a result of the public attention given to religious tolerance in the Air Force, the Chief of Staff General John Jumper wrote a “Sight Picture,” published on 28 June 2005, which reaffirmed that “the expression of personal preferences to subordinates, especially in a professional setting or at mandatory events, is inappropriate.” General Jumper repeated earlier statements that the religious tolerance issue was one of mutual respect and justified the regulation of religious expression by noting that “disagreement detracts from teamwork.” The Chief closed his letter by saying that “there will be more specific guidance about expressions of personal religious beliefs. This guidance will emphasize mutual respect and the wingman culture fundamental to all Airmen.”

The “more specific guidance” was released in late August of 2005 when the Air Force published an interim version of religious “guidelines” governing acceptable religious conduct in the Air Force. Public prayer was specifically banned, except in “extraordinary” cases and in circumstances of deep military tradition (p2). With respect to the “individual sharing of religious faith,” superiors were “cautioned” that their ideas might be perceived as official policy, which would be inconsistent with the Constitution’s establishment clause.  The guidelines diluted the restriction on email, stating that the current rules for use of government computers applied equally to all matters, including religious ones. The guidelines specifically stated that “nothing in this guidance should be understood to limit voluntary, peer to peer discussions” (p2).

The “guidelines” produced in August were advertised as “interim” and open for revision. Immediately following their release the public backlash from religious groups was significant; most claimed that the steps taken to “protect” those offended came at the cost of religious personnel’s free exercise. In February of 2006 the Air Force released “revised” interim guidelines that addressed that criticism by specifically emphasizing officers’ Constitutional rights of free exercise. Public prayer was still not to be a part of “routine business;” in cases where prayer might be “appropriate,” it was to be “non-denominational” and “inclusive.”  The previous email restrictions were removed, with the guidelines again noting that the same rules applied to all email content and emphasizing that chaplains’ programs would get the same “communications support as would comparable staff activities.”

The Military and Religion

The recent Air Force guidelines are only the latest event in a long history of the interaction between the military and religion. The military’s relationship with religion has always been somewhat unique, given that it is a government organization with a significant number of sanctioned religious personnel. The military profession often forces men and women to face their own mortality and thus, through religious representatives, provides them the ability to answer life’s eternal questions. Historians and social scientists have recorded the fact that, by self-description, members of the US military are more “religious” than their civilian counterparts. This may be because devoted religious persons—and Christians in particular—are often drawn to public service to contribute to a “greater good.” Generally speaking, Christians are often good soldiers, sailors, and airmen because they have already “given their life” for something greater than themselves. Their religion teaches them to have an unselfish spirit and to serve others rather than seek greatness for themselves. They understand commitment and sacrifice because the devotion they have to their faith is often invisible and unrewarding—not unlike the allegiance they pledge to their country. It is true, too, that the military has tended to favor Judeo-Christian religions—primarily because Judeo-Christian values have dominated the American culture. Other religions have entered the chaplaincy only in very recent years.

The recent media frenzy generated at the Academy has placed Christians in a defensive position, forcing them to second-guess actions that were not previously considered inappropriate. An example is the investigation of a chaplain for advocating his doctrinal religious beliefs. As noted by the Air Force panel, it is the chaplain’s job to advocate his religion. That is no more “intolerant” than the Muslim chaplain proclaiming the superiority of Muhammad or the Jewish chaplain saying that Jesus was not the Messiah. It is not offensive—it is the reasonably expected outcome.

Another example of conduct not previously thought improper is an officer expressing his personal religious beliefs. Such actions are not without precedent, and examples of military professionals expressing their beliefs extend from the Continental Army to the present day. In one famous example of religion in the military, General George Patton ordered his chaplain to write a prayer and then used vital wartime resources to deliver it to 250,000 soldiers—with “the approval, the encouragement, and the enthusiastic support of the Third United States Army Commander.” Patton was not charged with religious discrimination. (It is also noteworthy that Patton believed the prayer worked, as he got exactly what he asked for—clear weather.) One particularly famous superior officer has recently boldly expressed his personal beliefs: President George W. Bush. In fact, every modern President (Democrat and Republican) has used his position of authority and “place behind the podium” to express religious beliefs. Some spoke not only of but also to God in front of their countrymen and servicemen.  None were reprimanded for being religiously intolerant toward the hundreds of thousands of military subordinates of whom they were Commander-in-Chief.

The Direction

The relationship between the military and religion is changing, however. Truthfully, the environment within the military hasn’t changed as much as the world outside of it. The American culture is gradually shifting towards one that is strictly secular. Religious absolutes are increasingly considered an affront, and prayer is often considered more offensive than profanity. In particular, public criticism of Christianity has recently become popular; this may be in part a backlash to the overt religious expression that occurred in the emotional aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001. In many respects the American culture is even becoming anti-Christian, with people desiring freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion.

Though the investigation at the Air Force Academy resulted in little substantiation of claims of religious intolerance, the Air Force initially took a decidedly defensive posture and reacted primarily to the critics, rather than asserting the virtues of the Academy’s spiritual environment. The glut of negative news coverage and the Air Force’s initial reactions effectively initiated the regulation of religious expression. In particular, though not codified in the newest religious “guidelines,” the vague Respecting statement that “well-intentioned expressions” of religious preference are as wrong as epithets could be interpreted as a restriction on any religious expression. Several voices, in addition to those of the “oppressed cadets,” have been raised cautioning against swinging the pendulum to the other extreme and restricting legitimate religious expression. Unfortunately, the possibility that the pendulum will swing even further is likely given that some in authority do not appear to comprehend the full impact of their words and actions. In the US House of Representatives, a Republican from Texas, Mike Conaway, noted that he was a Christian and that in his faith he was “instructed to go and tell.” He said that if he did that at the Academy, then he “could be accused of abusive and coercive proselytizing and be charged” (CR page H4766). Representative David Obey, a Democrat from Wisconsin, disagreed:

No one is objecting to anyone trying to talk about religion. What they are objecting to is the malicious and mean-spirited attacking of other people for the religious views that they do or do not hold.

Unfortunately, it is increasingly likely that Rep. Conaway will be proven correct. Congress may not object to merely talking about religion, but the initial reaction from the Air Force was to do that very thing.

The military’s primary spoken reason for creating rules governing religious expression has been “supporting unity.” This was echoed in Congress by Democratic Representative Steve Israel of New York who called it an issue of “military readiness” because religion was “dividing people who need to be united.” While the military does have a reputation of breaking individuals down to form a cohesive unit, the goal has never been a homogenous force in the vein of Star Wars’ clone army. (The Army’s most recent recruiting slogan has even been An Army of One.) A Marine from the back woods of Louisiana may have personal differences with one from New York; a soldier from a houseful of siblings may not get along well with one who grew up as an only child; a Republican sailor may have ideological disagreements with one who is a Democrat. In each case the military allows the members to have their differences; it merely requires that they work together as professionals regardless.

The Air Force, too, has long been composed of airmen from a variety of religions, backgrounds, countries, and cultures. The Air Force has thrived not only on the unity of its forces but also on their diversity. To say religious differences “detract from teamwork” unjustly vilifies the role of faith in the military. True, two religious military members may have a disagreement, but there are any number of other things over which to disagree, including money, politics, philosophy, and ideology—and yet differing opinions in those areas are not restricted from expression. One religious action group quipped that the perception of pervasive Christianity at the Air Force Academy would detract from readiness; they claimed that non-Christian but otherwise qualified individuals would be discouraged from joining, which would deny the Air Force a valuable resource. Given that greater than 85% of the Air Force Academy classifies itself as Christian (as well as 80% of the Air Force as a whole), to enact regulations that are arguably hostile to Christianity would seem to have the potential for a far greater impact on military readiness (Report, p5). Additionally, such policies fail to acknowledge the good that religion, and in particular evangelical Christianity, does for the Air Force. Christianity breeds moral people of selfless character, honor, commitment, and perseverance. To restrict the people who contribute so positively to the Air Force can only be a detriment to the military as a whole.

On the surface, the intent of the Air Force leadership to control religious expression has merit. In attempting to justify the new policies, another pilot gave me this example: Imagine how you, as a devout Christian, would feel if your commander introduced himself as a Jew and that the majority of pilots in your unit were also Jewish. I admitted that it could potentially be an awkward situation. My question to him, though, was equally rational and attempted to follow the path of the policy to its logical conclusion: how “protected” did I need to be? If I saw my Jewish commander walk out of a Sabbath service, I could be just as uncomfortable as if he’d announced it from his position of authority. Does that mean my commander should not be allowed to attend religious services to protect me from potential discomfort? Even if he was prevented from attending religious services, I could still find out that he had a religious belief by a variety of other means. To foster a “religiously tolerant” atmosphere, should my commander be required to have no religious beliefs? If so, wouldn’t Air Force policy then favor those with no religion over those without?

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