The Christian Response
In 1996, an Air Force chaplain urged his congregation to participate in the “Project Life Postcard Campaign,” an attempt by the Catholic Church to persuade Congress to overturn President Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth abortion ban. Military leadership believed that such actions constituted “political lobbying,” so chaplains were prohibited from encouraging their congregations to participate. With the assistance of the Becket Fund, the chaplain sued and won in District Court in April of 1997. [Becket Fund report]
In 1999, an Air Force lieutenant trained as a missileer asked that he not be placed on alert with an officer of the opposite gender. (This would require him to be in the cramped quarters of a missile control center for days at a time with only the company of the other officer.) Because he felt that the potential for temptation would affect his commitment to his wife, he sought relief under Department of Defense regulations requiring religious accommodation. Several commanders accommodated him; eventually, one revoked the accommodation and gave him an “unprofessional” rating on his OPR. Fearing the OPR would unjustly hinder his career, the lieutenant appealed to a records correction board to have the OPR amended; they partially edited the “unsubstantiated” statements on the OPR. Eventually, the lieutenant sued the Air Force with the assistance of the Becket Fund. A year later (2003), the Air Force settled and removed the OPR and all references to it from his records. [Becket Fund report]
In late 2005 Navy Lieutenant (Chaplain) Gordon James Klingenschmitt, a 1991 USAFA graduate, went on a hunger strike near the White House to protest an effort to have him removed from the military for insisting on praying “in Jesus’ Name.” He said he would maintain his hunger strike until the President signed an executive order codifying the chaplain’s right to pray in accordance with his beliefs. After 16 days, the chaplain ended his strike when his commander wrote a letter stating he was permitted to pray in Jesus’ Name while in uniform. [Klingenschmitt personal website]
Today, two Air Force officers–a chaplain and an F-16 fighter pilot–have joined the defense of an ongoing lawsuit that has pitted the Air Force against Michael Weinstein, a 1977 US Air Force Academy graduate who claimed that his son had experienced the fruits of proselytizing evangelical Christian cadets and officers. According to the Alliance Defense Fund, the two joined the Air Force defense because if Weinstein prevailed, “their ability to share their faith and to candidly discuss religion…would be in jeopardy.” The fighter pilot stated that he felt he had the “right to discuss my faith without censorship or fear of retribution.” [ADF Report]
In the face of public scrutiny of religion in its ranks, it appears the military is slowly distancing itself from religion. The initial Air Force religious guidelines told officers they could not use public expressions of faith, advocate a particular belief system, use “well-intentioned” expressions of belief, or have religious content in their emails. While the first revision of those guidelines softened those stances, the potential that the Air Force could one day become anti-Christian now seems possible. Christian officers must not only assess their actions in the light of regulations but also consider the court of public opinion. An otherwise permissible action could still conceivably result in a detrimental news headline, official complaint, or Congressional investigation; even if a Christian was “acquitted” after a complaint, would the cost—to his professional career or personal witness—be worth it? If even chaplains are investigated for religious offense, what is a Christian fighter pilot to do if he desires to have an active witness for Christ?
Opinions vary on how and whether a Christian fighter pilot should react to restrictions on his religious expression. For many years a majority of American Christians watched their nation become increasingly secularized and did little to oppose it, either because they were opposed to Christian political action or felt that God would intervene if He really wanted to. Even in modern times some have argued that Christians shouldn’t “rock the boat” because they believe that the perceived cost is greater than the benefit. They believe that Christianity may lose face or that non-Christians will actually be driven away as a result of assertive Christian actions. Others believe that by doing nothing Christians are, in effect, acquiescing to the will of the secular opposition. Beginning in the late 1980s and culminating in the 1990s, Christianity came out of the political closet, giving birth to whole organizations and even inadvertently coining the phrase “the religious right.” In 1993 the belief that Christians were yielding to secularization was the impetus for the creation of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). The ADF is a faith-based legal entity founded by an array of Christian leaders in response to the ACLU, AU, and like-minded organizations that had for years used lawsuits as a weapon against Christianity. The founders of the ADF had decided that “nothing” was no longer a valid reaction to acts hostile toward Christianity.
Given the potential costs of both action and inaction, what should a Christian fighter pilot do? To quote the famous fighter pilot answer, “It depends.” Each situation will vary with respect to the facts, intent, severity, and other unique details of the situation. Firing off half-cocked (without knowing all the details) is the quickest way to making an embarrassing apology; a passionate response to an innocent misunderstanding is the second. A Christian should also calmly assess the degree of the restrictions and the repercussions; in short, is it worth it? Battles need to be chosen carefully. If a Christian is fully aware of the facts; is sure of the intent; and considers the severity significant; he should prayerfully consider taking action to react to the restrictions.
One course of action is disobedience. A Christian fighter pilot can view Air Force regulations as an affront to Christianity and choose to express his religion even in the face of policies that prohibit it. The advantage of such action is that those around the Christian will see him boldly living for Christ—there will be no doubt where his loyalties lie. Some may even respect the strength of his convictions and be drawn to God as a result. By boldly proclaiming his Christianity in the face of laws that say he cannot, the Christian will also prevent himself from feeling that he is ashamed of or denying Christ. It is also possible that the Air Force would change its policies as a result. The disadvantage of such a choice is that the disobedience of regulations might result in punishment and ultimately, if he persists, discharge from the military. The Christian would have his spirituality intact but he would be separated from the Air Force. If a Christian fighter pilot chooses to give up his wings and commission to say “I love Jesus” in protest, he may not be able to reach or influence other pilots—a unique and hard-to-reach community. Also, those same fighter pilots may view a Christian who disobeys regulations as hypocritical or as flaunting his religion in the face of authority—thus denigrating Christ to the very lost he hopes to reach. A Christian should carefully consider if violating the rules and getting punished is consistent with the values he wants to uphold.
An example of “Christian disobedience” occurred in Alabama in 2004 when Judge Roy Moore defied an order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from his courthouse. Many felt that Christians needed to take a stand against the erosion of their faith in the public arena. Even now, Christians are divided in their reactions to the outcome of that event in which Judge Moore was removed from the bench for his rebellion. Some are embarrassed by the actions of Christians who defied the law and “made fools of themselves” in a fruitless cause against the government; some are upset at the loss of a valuable Christian in the judicial system; others are proud that Christians made their voice heard and stood up for their beliefs. Christians on all sides can legitimately and morally defend their case.
The opposing course of action is for a Christian fighter pilot to obey even in the face of rules that restrict his religious expression. Christianity has been slowly removed from American culture over the decades, and there are many other professions where speaking boldly for Christ is already forbidden; faculty and administration members in public education are one well-known example. (I do not intend to imply that I agree with this policy in public education or elsewhere; I merely state it as fact.) Given the course of the military and public opinion, it is possible that Christianity will eventually be restricted in the military. If a Christian chooses to obey the regulations placed over him—even though they restrict his religious expression—he will be in position to reach and minister to a unique group of people. A Christian fighter pilot, then, truly would be a missionary to a “remote” world. If a Christian feels that God wants him to minister to the lost from within the fighter pilot community, then obedience may be the only option.
While the first course of action has many gratifying aspects—an almost aggressive defense of Christian freedoms in the Air Force—I think its shortcomings are significant. There are too many Biblical examples of God’s people living in ungodly conditions—without either rebelling or surrendering—to advocate disobeying those in authority. An American Christian fighter pilot is neither Peter nor John, and the Air Force is not the Sanhedrin ordering him not to speak the name of Christ—yet (Acts 4). A Christian must live within the rules of those in authority so long as they are not contrary to God’s word (Hebrews 13:17, Acts 4). Ultimately, though, only God can say that one course of action is more just than the other.
To accomplish its mission the Air Force can legally and legitimately enforce regulations that govern the conduct of its airmen. If every Christian makes a vociferous stand and is discharged, the removal of God from the military will be aided, not hindered. It is important to note, however, that submission does not imply inaction—I advocate obedience, not acquiescence. Complying with authority does not mean that a Christian shouldn’t work to prevent or change restrictions on his faith. After all, Christians participate in the political process, because if they don’t they can’t complain about the outcome. If military Christians remain silent and let organizations like the AU speak for them, can they then complain when their religious expression is restricted? Christians can have a voice, and, yes, even a dissenting one. Until Christians speak up, those in authority will continue to believe that the AU holds the majority opinion.
How should a Christian fighter pilot respond to military restrictions on his faith? In no case should a fighter pilot compromise his Christian morals. If the law of man violates the law of God, Christians must follow the law of God. Assuming the restrictions limit the Christian but are not contrary to God’s word, a Christian fighter pilot has recourse while still following regulations.
Just as in cases of personal persecution, when faced with potentially discriminatory policies a Christian officer’s first course of action should always be to work within the system at the lowest level to correct the perceived wrong; this is counter to the current trend of running to the news media to publicize (rather than solve) a problem. In the Air Force, these systems include the chain of command, the Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) system, the Inspector General (IG), and the external Congressional complaint process. When those systems fail, the question becomes whether a Christian should take further action outside the system, whether through legal, political, or public information actions. Some have chosen to do so with varying degrees of success, whether by contacting their political representatives, seeking their own public office, or suing the military to change controversial policies. The legal and political systems can be legitimate and useful means to resolve the conflict between certain aspects of the military and religion; sometimes well-intentioned officials write poor regulations or misinterpret and misapply them. It may take a court of law or Congressional action to rectify the error. In any case, it should be done carefully.
One successful example occurred in 1996 when an Air Force chaplain urged his congregation to participate in the “Project Life Postcard Campaign,” an attempt by the Catholic Church to persuade Congress to overturn President Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth abortion ban. Military leadership believed that such actions constituted “political lobbying,” which is impermissible in uniform, so chaplains were prohibited from encouraging their congregations to participate. Because the perceived discrimination against religious freedom was institutional, the chaplain stepped out of internal systems and, with the assistance of the Becket Fund, sued and won in District Court.
Another positive example occurred in 1999 when an Air Force missileer asked that he not be placed on an alert crew with an officer of the opposite gender. (This would require him to be in the cramped quarters of a missile control center for days at a time with only the company of the other officer.) Because he felt that the potential for temptation would affect his commitment to his wife, he sought relief under Department of Defense regulations requiring religious accommodation. For some time several commanders accommodated him; eventually, one revoked the accommodation and gave him an “unprofessional” rating on his OPR. Fearing the OPR would unjustly hinder his career, the lieutenant appealed to a records correction board to have the OPR amended; they partially edited the “unsubstantiated” statements on the OPR but did not fully meet the request. After several years of working internal grievance processes, the lieutenant sued the Air Force with the assistance of the Becket Fund. The Air Force settled and removed the OPR and all references to it from his records.
Both the chaplain and the lieutenant missileer acted appropriately. The chaplain perceived an inappropriate religious restriction and took legitimate actions to ensure continued religious freedom for chapel congregations. The lieutenant missileer spent years exhausting the military complaint systems and moved outside of them when they failed. His actions were metered, thoughtful, and respectful. While he was undoubtedly frustrated, there is no record of him spitefully maligning the Air Force on the national news to achieve his goal. The same cannot be said in the case of a hunger-striking Navy Chaplain.
In late 2005 Navy Lieutenant (Chaplain) Gordon James Klingenschmitt, a 1991 Air Force Academy graduate, went on a hunger strike near the White House to protest an effort to have him removed from the military for insisting on praying “in Jesus’ Name.” He said he would maintain his hunger strike until the President signed an executive order codifying the chaplain’s right to pray in accordance with his beliefs. After 18 days, the chaplain ended his strike when his commander wrote a letter stating he was permitted to pray in Jesus’ Name while in uniform. Chaplain Klingenschmitt not only failed to work within the military system, he actually worked against it in an adversarial relationship with Navy representatives. His public statements and personal website have mocked, criticized, and vilified the Navy and his superiors. His actions have done nothing to support either his cause or Christianity. Due to his methods he has lost support from even those who may have been sympathetic to his cause.
Finally, the ongoing case of Weinstein v United States Air Force is unique because Christians are participating in military legal action when no personal wrong has been committed. In 2005 two Air Force officers—a chaplain and an F-16 fighter pilot—joined the Air Force defense in an ongoing lawsuit brought by Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 Air Force Academy graduate who claimed that his Jewish son experienced evangelical proselytizing by Christian cadets and officers at the Academy. According to the Alliance Defense Fund the two joined the Air Force defense because if Weinstein prevailed, “their ability to share their faith and to candidly discuss religion…would be in jeopardy.” The fighter pilot stated that he felt he had the “right to discuss my faith without censorship or fear of retribution.” The officers are attempting to influence the outcome of military policy even before it is created, just as politically active Christians have done in government. Such action is not only admirable but is also desirable if Christian officers want to avoid reactively defending themselves against policies that are hostile towards religion.
Beyond joining in on a lawsuit, however, there is currently no system in place through which younger officers can provide inputs or feedback to military leadership on such topics. Christian fighter pilots can still use the chain of command, though experientially it does little to benefit a line airman attempting to influence Department of Defense level policy. Also, any officer still has a legitimate right to communicate with his congressmen (to encourage legislative action) to influence both the American political scene and US military leadership. (Information on how to contact your government representatives can be found on the Links page.)
When internal remedies fail or the religious restriction is systemic or institutionalized, legal, political, and public action may be an effective way to reverse the restriction. The potential costs of action are high, as are the costs of inaction. Christian officers should work to influence leadership decisions regarding the religious environment in the military, but they must use caution, respect, wisdom, prayer, and the counsel of others to guide them.
There will continue to be challenges to the relationship between the military and Christianity—challenges which Christian fighter pilots and other military Christians may face best from within the military. Even now there is a renewed call to end the US Naval Academy noon meal prayer, just as such prayer is now restricted in the Air Force. The Navy has also posted new regulations similar to the revised Air Force religious guidelines. Within the limitations of acceptable military conduct, Christians can and should work to influence the military leadership’s decisions that restrict religious expression.
The question remains: can a Christian fighter pilot evangelize? While proactive Christianity is essential, a Christian fighter pilot must approach active evangelism in a professional setting with caution.
The authority of an officer provides immense influence over subordinates; the potential for improper influence is the reason that the military restricts superiors from certain actions. Just as a Christian would understandably be bothered by a commander that lauded the benefits of the Wiccan cult from the stage at an official event, those with other beliefs would justifiably be offended at a Christian commander delivering a sermon in the same scenario. A Christian superior must understand that in today’s military, the idea of an officer—in a position of responsibility, authority, and control—evangelizing a subordinate is unpalatable. If someone hears that a superior professionally counseled an overtly Christian belief, then they could potentially lodge a legitimate complaint on religious grounds. Regardless of the outcome of such a complaint, by exposing himself to an indefensible accusation a Christian endangers his career and professional character. While that may be a price well paid for saving a soul, there will be an entire unit of other souls watching as that Christian is chastised or removed from his position.
If it is a step a Christian pilot chooses to take, he must realize that there are legitimate military repercussions for his actions. Given the number of other unofficial means with which he can communicate the same information, I believe the potential cost outweighs the gain. Referring the subordinate to a chaplain is always an option, and it is also possible to associate with the subordinate at the chapel, church, or a Bible study; by his presence in those places the subordinate voluntarily exposes himself to naturally expected religious topics. Even in such a setting, given the politically sensitive atmosphere surrounding Christianity, when a Christian pilot has the opportunity to actively witness to a direct subordinate he should walk carefully and seek the counsel of the military chaplain or fellow military Christians. If a Christian fighter pilot wants to actively evangelize within his professional setting, he should work closely with the chaplains who should be intimately familiar with the rules, restrictions, and requirements.
There are two distinct, important points here: evangelism from positions of authority, and the potential for legitimate religious complaints. I stressed the first because while evangelism from positions of authority is justifiably inappropriate, this does not mean that a superior cannot evangelize—he can, but he must do so in a manner separate from his authority. That is, leading a Bible study in his home would be appropriate; sermonizing at a mandatory official function would not. Even while in his position of authority, I personally do not believe it is inappropriate for a superior to mention his religious beliefs. I believe he can thank God, describe himself as a “father, husband, and Christian,” and say “God bless you” without undue influence on his subordinates. My second point of emphasis was that a Christian officer should be wary of taking actions that would open him up to legitimate complaints. Any person can lodge a complaint about any action; if a Christian lives his life trying to avoid all complaints he will avoid all risk and therefore miss all opportunity. If actions are prohibited by regulations, then a Christian fighter pilot should be averse to break those rules; on the other hand, he should wisely and boldly take Christian actions that are not prohibited by regulation. Some people may still complain, but if the conduct is in accordance with regulations then there will be no grounds for sanction.
There is little explicit guidance for a Christian living his faith proactively in the military. Ultimately, a Christian fighter pilot must use discernment and wisdom in his words and actions. The Gospel is offensive enough on its own; a Christian doesn’t need to be offensive, too. The climate of the Air Force has become one in which a Christian fighter pilot needs to be able to “stand up for Christ without standing on anyone’s foot.” Each personality will be drawn to—and respond to—the Gospel in a different way. There are those who will be won over by a silent witness and those that will wake up only when they’re physically shaken. Though they have a reputation for being thick-skinned, fighter pilots, as a generalization, have a personality that will instantly become defensive if their perfection is questioned. It’s not that they’re sensitive; they’re just right. Telling a fighter pilot he needs spiritual help is like telling Donald Trump that he needs financial advice; it’s incongruous to them.
A Christian fighter pilot must know military regulations and use wisdom in dealing with his fellow fighter pilots, but neither the recent media attention nor changes in regulations should cause him to question his boldness in living for Christ. Regardless of rules, government, or social culture, his strongest tool remains his personal witness and God-honoring life. Christianity is not outlawed. Speaking about personal beliefs in the Air Force is not completely forbidden; it merely requires discretion and knowledge of regulations. Bible studies have not been banned; they may just require more effort to form and advertise. Religiously oriented email might raise eyebrows, but there are other creative and approved ways to achieve the same objective. There are times when the Christian must vocally proclaim his faith, and there are times when his words will only point out his own hypocrisy or alienate him as a “Jesus freak” from those to whom he wants to witness. A Christian fighter pilot must seek God’s guidance and pray for discernment to know when those times are. Ultimately, it is by example—a successful, joyful Christian fighter pilot who has his life in order—that non-Christians will open up to the possibility that there really is more to this life.
While the challenges and risks of being an active Christian in the military may seem daunting, the potential price for not effectively living for Christ may be insurmountable. In the book Stories from a Soldier’s Heart, author Chuck Holton recounts a vivid example of the importance of living a proactive Christian life. He relates the story of Staff Sergeant (SSG) Jeff Strueker, a US Army Ranger who saw action in Somalia. SSG Strueker was a Christian living an active witness, and “it was no secret among his fellow soldiers that he was a follower of Christ” (p75). The positive impact of his ministry of presence soon became evident as the events that would make Mogadishu famous unfolded. As firefights and casualties mounted, the reality of combat set in and “men in [SSG Strueker’s] unit who had wanted nothing to do with God before were coming to him for answers…. They wanted to know what happened to their friends who died and what would happen to them if tomorrow it was their turn. Strueker and a Christian buddy spent the better part of the next forty-eight hours sitting on their bunks in the hangar while men lined up to talk to them about God” (p77).
SSG Strueker’s experience demonstrates the powerful impact of a Christian who is actively living his witness. SSG Strueker’s ministry of presence opened the door to witness to many as they struggled with faith, uncertainty, and death. The Christian fighter pilot must be willing and ready to speak up when God creates the opportunity; he may not know when that door will be opened, or when it will be locked forever. There is another significant detail to SSG Strueker’s story, however. Just prior to the amazing search for faith he saw in his unit, he was faced with the death of Dominick Pilla, a fellow Ranger with whom he had trained for months. Strueker was known in his unit as a Christian, “but as he stood looking at Pilla’s lifeless body, he realized that simply practicing his faith had not been enough” (emphasis added) (p75). While SSG Strueker had been living his witness, he wondered if by being more assertive—more proactive—he could have had a definitive impact on the soul of that lost soldier. His own perceived failure to reach Ranger Pilla so impacted him that he chose to become a US Army chaplain.
Christian fighter pilots are Christians in the fighter pilot world. The fighter pilot world has rules and laws that—so long as they do not conflict with those of God—the Christian must follow. If he decides that “it can’t be done,” then he has abandoned either his Christian mission or the fighter pilot world. If he believes that God has sent him into the fighter pilot world, then desertion is not an option. Christian fighter pilots must work diligently every day to find how God would have them achieve His purpose in the world in which He has placed them.