Skip to main content


Fade to gray

Proposed military guidelines could muzzle evangelical officers and chaplains

Shortly after Kevin Radman arrived at the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va., last summer, his sergeant instructor ensured that each member of the unit had access to a chapel service. "He did not ask how many people were religious, he asked what sort of religion you were," recalls Mr. Radman, now a second lieutenant. The sergeant needled the lone candidate who said he was an atheist. He'd better find God, he said, because "you need to find something to hold on to."

OCS is not exactly Bible camp. But for 2nd Lt. Radman, who expected and found a fair bit of "drinking, womanizing, and swearing," he also discovered "good people" at OCS. "They firmly believe in helping people," he said. "Integrity and honesty are huge. They're very aware of those virtues." He figures that the Marine Corps "wants you to have religion because they're asking you to kill people and so they want you to have moral principles," he says. "They recognize that people need an internal [compass], something to help them through this stuff."

Five of 35 classmates, 2nd Lt. Radman estimates, attend a Bible study and "talk about God on the weekdays." There is no hard line between official business and personal interaction, he says, but clearly "you can't be proselytizing [subordinates] here. This is your job. But if you're just a genuine guy trying to share what you believe, then that's OK. Between peers you can say whatever you want."

Traditionally an American military officer can make three kinds of statements about faith and religion: "I believe" is acceptable and "you will" is not, particularly to subordinates.

In the huge gray area in the middle are things that imply "you should." This gray area is important because, since Vietnam, religion has become a widely accepted part of everyday military life and conversation. This shift is partly the result of increasing numbers of evangelical Christian chaplains and officers who see talking about their faith as both a central part of who they are and a right protected by the Constitution.

But the gray area could be shrinking. In the wake of a lawsuit over alleged religious intolerance at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, the Air Force is now considering new guidelines for public prayer and "sharing of faith" that some worry could be construed in ways that would muzzle outspoken evangelical chaplains and officers.

In the Vietnam era and for a decade after, the military was thoroughly secular and soldiers lived accordingly. The officers' clubs were "happening places," recalls retired Army Lt. Col. Greg Alderete, and there was a longstanding "culture of alcohol." Where he served in eastern Washington in the late 1970s, it was hot in the summer and you had to keep an eye on the fire extinguishers because the troops would use them to cool down beer smuggled to the field. Officers would wear their dress blues to official parties and make "the sacred grog," a punch bowl filled with whatever alcohol they happened to bring. "Pretty soon you'd have this toxic mix," he says, but by the time everyone got to the bottom no one noticed how it tasted.

Nobody in uniform talked about God, says Col. Scott Burner, an Army surgeon who served last year in Bagram, Afghanistan, but "the whole country was like that. People who didn't mind talking about Jesus in public were called 'Jesus freaks.'" In Hawaii, he recalls, almost everyone below the rank of sergeant used marijuana and adultery was winked at.

The atmosphere began changing as the top brass started to address discipline issues, especially the worst of the drinking, and the officers' clubs spiraled into decline. The cleanup was easier because evangelical churches in the South and heartland, among the few sources of support for the military during the Vietnam War, provided a good supply of recruits when the war-and the draft-ended. "Evangelical denominations were very supportive of the war; and mainline liberal denominations were very much against it," writes retired Louisiana State University history professor Anne C. Loveland in Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993. "That cemented this growing relationship between the military and evangelicals."

Meanwhile, the number and percentage of evangelical chaplains in the military started rising as chaplains became more pro-active in their ministry. Instead of waiting around base chapels for the soldiers to come to them, they started spending more time counseling troops in the field. In the Army it was called a "ministry of presence," says retired Col. Johnny Almond, a Baptist pastor who was a chaplain in the Army and Air Force. The practice spread. "Many chaplains also began recommending off-base civilian churches to those looking for familiar denominational settings," he says.

Some believe that this evangelical-style influence has improved the military. Journalist Robert Kaplan in his new book Imperial Grunts quotes Col. Tom Wilhem, a "liberal who voted for Al Gore in 2000," saying that "moral fundamentalism was the hidden hand that changed the military for the better. But you try to get someone to admit it! We never could have pulled off Macedonia or Bosnia with the old Vietnam Army. It lacked the discipline and talent to abide by the restrictive [rules of engagement] on a complex political-military battlefield." Moralistic zeal, he said, "reformed behavior, empowered junior leaders, and demanded better recruits."

Today, observes Dan Henk, who teaches leadership and ethics at the U.S. Air War College on Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, "the standards of ethical behavior in the military are very tough, and if you're not a believer, they're tough to appreciate." The "servant leadership" emphasis in officer training resonates strongly with evangelicals, he adds. Explicitly Christian values are reinforced by organizations such as Officers' Christian Fellowship, which has hundreds of groups meeting around the world. Motto: "Christian officers exercising biblical leadership to build up a godly military."

That atmosphere could change in the wake of controversy that prompted the Air Force to release proposed guidelines that have attracted national media attention. Last spring a chaplain and officers at the Air Force Academy were accused of fostering an intolerant atmosphere. Among the offenses was a message at a mandatory chapel that urged cadets to evangelize and warned of the "fires of hell," and a locker room banner, put up by the football coach, promoting "Team Jesus Christ" (see "Attack formation," May 7).

An investigation last summer found no religious discrimination but led to a mandatory campus program to teach religious tolerance, "Respecting the Spiritual Values of People." The Air Force also withdrew from use a code of ethics for chaplains (not official policy but distributed during chaplain training) that included the statement: "I will not actively proselytize from other religious bodies. However, I retain the right to instruct and/or evangelize those who are not affiliated."

In early October an Air Force veteran filed a lawsuit against the Air Force alleging that his two sons attending the academy had suffered "severe, systemic, and pervasive" religious discrimination and anti-Jewish slurs from other cadets. His lawsuit demanded a new policy forbidding any Air Force member to "evangelize, proselytize, or in any related way attempt to involuntarily convert, pressure, exhort, or persuade a fellow member to accept their own religious beliefs while on duty."

In response to the controversy, the Air Force has released a draft of guidelines proposing that public prayer should not be included in official settings such as staff or office meetings, classes or sports events. A "brief, nonsectarian prayer" would be acceptable in "non-routine" military ceremonies, and chaplains must also be "as sensitive to those who do not welcome offerings of faith as they are generous in sharing their faith with those who do." Individuals sharing their faith, especially with subordinates, should be "sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official expressions."

Lt. Bryan Austring, a Navy Reserve chaplain, is not terribly worried about the guidelines. He believes that most evangelical chaplains are already sensitive to people of other faiths. When he was stationed with his Seabee battalion last January, only two people addressed all the men every day: the commanding officer and Lt. Austring, at a 5 a.m. assembly. "I had a whole smorgasbord of guys in there," he says, so his topics were things like relationships and values. Lt. Austring would prefer to speak freely, but says those generic talks led to many other chances to share the gospel, and he could always conduct voluntary worship services as he pleased. "I've got this unique opportunity to get paid by the government to wear the uniform and represent the gospel of Jesus Christ. The question is, how do I use it wisely?"

But many evangelical officers and chaplains are deeply concerned about the proposed policy. Officers sometimes informally discuss issues involving religion with their men, particularly in wartime or in times of personal crisis, points out Mr. Henk. A written policy requiring "sensitivity" could allow one easily offended subordinate or superior to force discipline against an officer who was simply trying to live out his faith.

U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) charges that for the last several years some senior chaplains have already reprimanded chaplains who pray "in Jesus' name" outside voluntary worship services. One Army chaplain described in a letter to the congressman how in preparation for a memorial service for an evangelical soldier, a senior chaplain "lectured a few of us that under no circumstances would we present a sermon that pointed the mourners toward Jesus Christ for comfort. In fact, he raged over the fact that some chaplains had been turning memorial services into 'come to Jesus meetings.'"

Mr. Jones says such restrictions violate soldiers' First Amendment rights. "There is a movement in society and in the military to deny and stifle the Judeo-Christian principles this nation was founded upon," he says, adding that he would prefer a policy that allows all chaplains-Christian, Jewish, or Muslim-to pray according to their conscience in any context.

Mr. Jones sent a letter, signed by 70 congressional colleagues, to President Bush requesting an executive order to protect the "constitutional right of military chaplains to pray according to their faith" regardless of the context. The call for "nonsectarian prayer," according to the letter, "is merely a euphemism declaring that prayers will be acceptable only so long as they censor Christian beliefs." If the guidelines are implemented at the Air Force, Mr. Jones believes, "they may well be implemented throughout the entire Department of Defense."

-Stefanie Hausner is a journalism student at Patrick Henry College

Stefanie Hausner

Stefanie Hausner