Military Paper: Religious Coercion vs Religious Expression

On the continuing theme of military papers discussing religion in the military comes Lt Col Jimmy M. Browning’s “Religious Expression or Religious Coercion: Commanders Caught in the Crossfire.”  LtCol Browning, a Colonel-select, was an Air War College student when he published the paper in February of this year.  He is also a USAF Chaplain.

The paper brings an interesting perspective to the “conflict” between those who believe in a right to religious expression and those who believe religious expression is de facto coercion in a military environment:

[The] Military Religion [sic] Freedom Foundation (MRFF) is one group that describes itself as a watchdog against religious coercion…These groups are especially leery of evangelical Christians.  In contrast, evangelical Chrisitians feel equally strong they are within their guaranteed First Amendment rights when they exercise their faith tenets of following Christ’s commandment of making disciples.  The result is a collision between religious coercion and religious expression.

He also noted the result of accusations — even unfounded ones — on the military culture:

The National Association of Evangelicals believes MRFF’s efforts are having a chilling effect on free exercise of religion and constitutionally-protected religious speech…Following a [commanders’ briefing] all questions from commanders related to their concerns about expressing anything spiritual as a military leader.  Additionally…many commanders [have a] growing hesitancy to express their faith or anything spiritual within a military setting.

Finally, Chaplain Browning makes an astute observation: To many critics, offense is coercion:

After careful analysis, the issue is not coercion but offense. For many, including MRFF, being offended becomes the standard to determine coercion.  With individual expression, the problem is someone will always be offended.  Religion creates passion for those who adhere to it as well as those who want nothing of it. (emphasis added)

At 17 pages the paper is a brief and interesting read.


  • I found Lt Col Browning’s paper very well written and informative. I’d like to offer this info from over 30 years of working/living USAF…

    When I entered the USAF in 1978 I barely heard a word about religion, gods, spirituality or the like. I was surrounded by post Viet Nam era vets, some just hanging on til retirement; they didn’t have a care in the world, they were home. It wasn’t until 1987 when in the UK I stumbled on a an Airman hell bent on converting the entire shop. Needless to say we butted heads on numerous occasions. I followed the chain of command and finally the senior chaplain was asked by the commander to help; he tried to convince the young lad that he was evangelizing / proselytizing and a clear violation of Military regulations. The Airman, of course, disagreed with the chaplain and hired a lawyer because he thought his rights were being violated. Care to guess what happened? Nothing at all. Big AF acquiesced and gave the Airman a job at the Chapel where he could evangelize all he wanted.

    Over the next 10 years I submitted six more religious evangelizing / proselytizing complaints thru the chain of command and NOTHING was ever done about them, 4 of which were against senior NCO’s and Commanders. In all cases, USAF said they did not see how blatant “in-my-face” evangelizing / proselytizing hurt me in any way or affected the mission.

    I’ve been retired from the USAF for 10 years now and continue to see blatant evangelizing / proselytizing violations all the time. Just a few months ago we had a room reserved for an official meeting. About 15 min in our 1 hr meeting a Colonel walked in and said he had the room reserved for weekly bible study and kicked us out…now here’s your sign.

    To this day our airmen are forced to sit at Military official events and listen to the chaplain pray…regardless if [they] everyone wants to listen to it or not. This, my good man, is unequivocally “coercion”!!

    I will gladly admit that religion and spiritual well-being has its place, but not at work…unless, of course, your “work” is at a place of worship. Now, MRFF is making this public and Mikey is blatantly in-your-face because the chain of command doesn’t work..he’s not lying or making this up. Yes, he can be a bit over zealous, but that’s his way of dealing with this very important problem.

    I don’t believe there will be a resolution to this problem despite the best intentions. Not to sound hopeless, but I’ve heard it all before and for a very long time. I think Mikey is making a dent…but he is fighting the establishment that has a lot on power, money and time.

  • Herschel Surdam

    No one can honestly believe that “religeous freedom” means being forced to listen to religeous ideas that you know are garbage. Nobody in the U.S. military should be coerced to endure this. It is a serious violation of our constitution. Of course, individuals in the military have the freedom to express their religeous views and the listener must have the freedom to tell them that their views are nonsense, if he so chooses. Religeous coercion is the opposite of religeous freedom. There is no such thing as the right to force your religeous views on someone else.