Army War College Publishes Paper on Religious Hostility

The US Army War College published a monograph on the core topic of the US military’s “evolving culture of hostility toward religious presence and expression.”  The authors were Don Snider, a Senior Fellow in the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic (CAPE) at West Point and an Adjunct Research Professor in the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, and retired US Army Col Alex Shine of the War College.

The paper, entitled “A Soldier’s Morality, Religion, and Our Professional Ethic: Does the Army’s Culture Facilitate Integration, Character Development, and Trust in the Profession?“, is clearly meant to be academic, but at 30 pages makes for a fairly easy – and worthwhile – read.

The authors focus on the influence of changing social values on ethics within the US military, as demonstrated in the increasing secularism in American society that is essentially hostile to religion: 

Another such issue has now arisen and is strongly, and not favorably, influencing military cultures — a culture of hostility toward religion and its correct expressions within the military…

In a somewhat ironic turn, the paper notes that an institutional hostility toward religion may make US troops who have a religious faith hide their beliefs, essentially forcing them to “hide who they are” to serve – an argument normally made by “progressive” social groups:

Service cultures have become increasingly hostile to the correct expressions of religion, perhaps to the point that soldiers of faith are now intimidated into privatizing their beliefs, and thus serving hypocritically as someone other than who they really are.

As examples of “hostility to religious expression” in the US military, the authors cite Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz’s 2011 memo on religious neutrality (discussed here), the 2011 Walter Reed policy that reportedly banned Bibles (discussed here), the May 2013 DoD statement that service members could ‘evangelize but not proselytize’ (discussed here), the June 2013 NDAA amendment protecting religious expression and President Obama’s objection to it (discussed here and here).

(The authors’ citation of General Schwartz’s memo is particularly interesting, because the text at issue from that memo was codified in AFI 1-1, and the text was used to justify the forced removal of a Bible verse at the US Air Force Academy in March, just one month before this monograph was published. As a result of public outcry, the Air Force is reportedly considering revising the policy.)

The authors highlight a fascinating (and important) point not noted by many other observers: Current junior leaders are seeing how senior military leaders are treating issues of religious liberty. Today’s current junior leaders will be tomorrow’s senior leaders:

If junior leaders [misconstrue] their obligations to senior officers and lack the experiences to see the value to the profession of a rich array of personal beliefs (even those that may lead to conflict between soldiers), then they will be more likely to establish in the future their own command climates wherein religion and its influences on character development are not encouraged and perhaps not even welcomed.

In other words, perceptions of hostility toward religion today may breed institutional hostility toward religion tomorrow.

The authors highlight the Army concept of the holistic leader, one whose character – which is based upon their total identity – is reflected in their lives both on and off duty. In other words, personal morality cannot be separated from professional conduct in authentic leadership. The paper notes that “clashes” between personal morality and a service member’s professional responsibility have been rare, until recently. Specifically citing the issues surrounding the repeal of the policy known as “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the authors say [emphasis original]

In establishing an officially sponsored “Gay Pride” month with related publicity and public functions, the DoD is requiring (or at least strongly encouraging) those soldiers who object on moral grounds to homosexual practices to not just accommodate gay soldiers, but to join in the institutional endorsement and celebration of homosexual behavior. That, many soldiers of religious faith cannot in good conscience do, and we argue they should not be asked to do so.

In other words, the US military went beyond simply permitting open homosexuals to serve to endorsing and celebrating homosexual (as well as bisexual and transgender) behavior. The “accommodation” is arguably a neutral position that can be justified regardless of religious or moral belief; “celebration” is more difficult to describe as “neutral.”

The authors do a good job of debunking the “legalist view,” which basically states all service members should “park their personal morality at the door when they take their oath.”  The authors also make a good point about “military necessity,” noting it needs to

go beyond current social and cultural trends or the fear that one Soldier’s beliefs may be in conflict with the beliefs or practices of another Soldier.

The paper makes recommendations for Soldiers of faith as well as for the US military as an institution.  The authors say the current cultural controversies within the services provide the opportunity to set an example for society: promote the value of the meritocracy.

Soldiers work together, treat each other with dignity and respect, openly express their deeply held views, and, regardless of differences, evaluate each others’ performances based on the certifications and other standards of the profession, not on their views about ideas and practices not directly related to those duties. This is pluralism, multi-culturalism, and diversity rightly leveraged for military effectiveness!

In order to do so, however, the military needs to

rid the profession’s culture of any real or perceived hostility or intimidation towards religion and its correct expression… In most all cases, [service members] should be free to express and apply their religious faith and the moral convictions that spring from that faith.

The very readable and articulate paper can also be read here (PDF).