Air Force General Lorenz on “Necessary” Prayer

US Air Force General Stephen R. Lorenz recently retired as the head of Air Education and Training Command.  (He is also a former Commandant of the US Air Force Academy.)  He frequently wrote commentaries alliteratively entitled “Lorenz on Leadership.”  On July 19th, the Air Force published his most recent article, in which he recounted a Chaplain’s run-in over pre-mission prayer:

As the troops were preparing to board the helicopters to an FOB that had recently been under attack, several Soldiers asked the chaplain if he could lead them in a prayer. A lieutenant colonel happened to be with the group and the chaplain, who was a captain, thought as a common courtesy he would ask the senior officer for permission to say a prayer for the troops about to enter combat. The lieutenant colonel replied to the chaplain that, “It would not be necessary” and walked away. The chaplain followed this senior officer’s guidance and did not lead the men in a prayer.

General Lorenz took the Lieutenant Colonel to task: 

What bothers me is that the leader appears to have ignored the spiritual needs of his troops…This leader lost a golden opportunity to show his troops that he cared so much about the mission and the people under his command that he respected their spiritual needs as they went into battle.

The result, Lorenz notes, was actually far more egregious:

He also lost an opportunity to stand up for the Constitution and our freedoms that the military fights so hard to protect. [emphasis added]

The Lieutenant Colonel impinged on the religious rights of his subordinates by effectively (even if unintentionally) preventing the pre-mission prayer.

Ironically, some claim the military allowing those prayers violates the Constitution.  Obviously, General Lorenz disagrees.

Earlier in the article General Lorenz had already made the point that it didn’t matter what the Lieutenant Colonel’s “own spiritual basis” was.  At the end of the article, he notes the need to respect diversity:

To be truly effective leaders, we must respect the diverse people we lead. Each one of them is different and that makes the units of our Armed Forces the strongest in the world today. We must be true to our own beliefs, but as leaders we also have a responsibility to the people we are sending in harm’s way.

And that is key.  Respecting diversity or religious freedom does not mean restricting it.  One does not have to endorse any specific religion to protect the rights of others to practice theirs, contrary to some critics’ claims.  There is a fine line to walk with regard to religion in the military, but in most cases the US military generally does an admirable job of protecting the religious freedoms of its troops.  This was not one of those cases.  Hopefully the Chaplain is more experienced now (as well as counseled by General Lorenz), and the Lieutenant Colonel somehow learns that its not all about him.

As an aside, the comments on the official Air Force site make for an interesting read, as they run the ideological spectrum themselves:

7/19/2011 4:09:09 PM ET
An adult talking to an imaginary friend would be considered by most to have a psychological problem. However call the imaginary friend God and all is well. 
Joe, Alabama

7/20/2011 9:24:47 AM ET
While I agree with the General on the importance of leaders meeting the religious needs of their troops, the PC police have made situations like this more prevelant. Unless he could confirm that all members on the helo were Christians and interested in a prayer session, the Lt Col ran the risk of getting called on the carpet later when the Buddist or athiest on the aircraft felt left out or preached to. The hypersensitivity to not offending anyone at the expense of taking care of the majority has led to this situation and it will only get worse.
Bob Black, Pentagon

7/20/2011 3:24:27 PM ET
The piece clearly states that ‘several Soldiers asked the chaplain if he could lead them in a prayer.’ The chaplain was not forcing participation on those who did not wish to participate…If anything the O-5 acted improperly as he abridged the rights of the Soldiers who DID ask for the prayer. He also prevented the chaplain from perfoming his military duty. Besides if only those desiring a prayer are involved, where’s the harm?

Read more at the Air Force site.


  • I had to read this and the original article several times and I think there is some information missing in these reports. Was there a specific reason given for the Lt Col to say “It would not be necessary?” They were, after all, preparing to board a helicopter to a FOB that was recently under attack. Would the delay to say a prayer cause the “mission” to be delayed? If the Lt Col was in-charge and everyone follows orders without question, why would this be any different? Could the troops have said a prayer to themselves or around the chaplain on the helo on the way to the FOB? Why was this an issue…is it because this General said it was and because he was there and knew the situation and he could make the judgment that the Lt Col did not support the DoD directive to allow a prayer before the mission? I’m sorry, I did not read any of that in the DoD directive, and I think the Lt Col had every right to do what he did…he was in charge and I’m sure he had to balance the request with a thousand others…I hope he continues to lead the troops the way he sees fit.

  • watchtower,

    There is always information missing, but the implication is that there was no obvious reason. Maybe there was a valid reason not given; maybe he made a one-time mistake; maybe the Lt.Col. was concerned about politically correctness; or maybe he is anti-religious. It’s the last two possibilities that is the concern. If religious people are being brought under the scope for advocating for religion in an official capacity (see the Bible study email from a few posts ago) then people in an official capacity should also be brought under the scope for denying religion. Same root problem-the Lt.Col. denied the right to worship.

    Props to the Chaplain who presumably handled the situation with grace.

    Chris Rodda,

  • Dealer —

    I can see your point…a wee bit, but how can we say the Lt Col categorically denied their right to worship (pray) when they could have done so on the way to the FOB, to themselves? I’m sure the Lt Col would not have said anything about this practice of the individuals “spiritual needs.” Where is it written that troops must have a “pre-mission prayer guarantee” with the chaplain, regardless if some of the troops asked?

    The presumption that this somehow lost an opportunity to stand up for the Constitution when there is no mention of praying in it at all, is ridiculous. However, we all know that ANYONE can pray/worship whenever they want to because we have FREEDOM of religion and we don’t necessarily need a chaplain to do so!

  • Watchtower,

    The Constitution allows free exercise of religion. That includes communal, voluntary prayer. The only exception is when it interferes with good order and discipline. The burden of proof is on you to provide the exception, which you can’t.

    I’d like to compare this to the legal system. I can represent myself in the court of law, but it would be illegal to force me to do so by myself. Imagine the consequences if my commander said that a lawyer “would not be necessary” before I went into an unknown situation.

    Freedom of religion = free access to people who facilitate that religion.

  • Dealer —

    Your comparison to the legal system is interesting but in this case I don’t believe it fits the circumstances. Given the fact that the troops were not denied there freedom to pray to themselves while on the way to the FOB indicates their right to “freedom of religion” was not violated by the Lt Col. After all, the Lt Col just told the chaplain that it would not be necessary to have a group prayer, for whatever the reason, and that is all. I don’t allow it in my office, why should he preparing for harms way…especially if, as the leader, he deemed it “not necessary?”

    Although cute, your “new definition” (or addendum) for “freedom of religion” is not a guarantee, right or directed by Military authorities. Free access to facilitators can be found at the chapel or chapel like tent (or corner sand dune) in austere locations.

    Lastly, if the person in charge finds overt religious activities (except maybe church) to interfere with good order and discipline no matter the circumstance then that is “proof” enough for me (discipline).

    Over and out!

  • watchtower,

    Granted, if the ranking officer finds religious activities against good order and discipline then yes, that is a valid reason to not have services. You didn’t provide proof that was occurring here.

    You are using the lack of information to assume there was a valid reason to deny 1st Amendment Rights. I say deny, because a commander who says something is ‘not necessary’ is giving an unspoken command to not do said action. Communal, voluntary prayer is squarely covered as free exercise of religion without problems of the establishment clause.

    Under what circumstances would it be permissible to deny a person the right of free exercise?