Religion and the military: Source of comfort, point of controversy

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The first decade of the 21st century brought great challenges for the U.S. military, with forces engaged in first Afghanistan and then Iraq for most of that time. Religion has proven to be a source of both comfort and controversy for the troops as they grapple with these demands.

Religion emerges as a point of controversy in the armed forces in the realms of expression and accommodation, both in day-to-day military life and in the service academies that train America’s military officers. Allegations of proselytizing at the Air Force Academy, for example, spawned an investigation in 2005 and led to recommendations dealing with religious boundaries and insensitivities. Similar situations have emerged more recently concerning religious pressure at the other service academies.

Individual cases within the military are also coming to the fore. While each is different, the cases raise the common question of how best to accommodate the expression of minority belief systems, from nonliturgical Christians to Wiccans to the nonreligious, a group that is growing in society and the military.

Efforts to address these needs and conflicts present a rich vein of story possibilities. ReligionLink guides reporters to the background and sources for tackling the subject.


Why it matters

The military is an important social institution that reflects societal changes. As religious diversity increases in the country, the need to balance free religious expression with accommodation of differences will grow more pressing inside as well as outside the military. Moreover, whatever happens in the military also has consequences for the rest of society; when soldiers come home, they bring their experiences, for better and for worse, back with them.

Angles for reporters

Stories about the military are easy to localize but hard to report. Many of these stories are under the radar, because media access to the military is limited. You’ll likely be routed through public affairs for clearance to speak to anyone on active duty. On the other hand, military and veterans facilities are numerous and widespread. Here are some angles:

  • What kind of spiritual support is available in your community for military members and their families?
  • If your community is religiously diverse, is that reflected and accommodated at any local veterans or military facilities?
  • How are congregations responding to local veterans?
  • Talk to active-duty military families about the spiritual resources they are using while their loved ones are away.
  • If you have a veterans medical facility, what are chaplains seeing among the veterans they work with?
  • If you have local residents attending the service academies, what has been their experience of the religious climate there?
  • Some congregations include clergy who are members of the armed forces reserves. Reliance on reserves during the protracted conflicts in the Middle East has taken away some clergy for periods of time. These clergy have a unique perspective on issues of war and peace.
  • Check with local non-Christian religious groups. Are there families among them with members in the military? What has been the experience of those service members?

Documents & reports

  • Department of Defense Instruction Number 1300:17

    Read the U.S. Department of Defense Directive 1300.17, which governs the accommodation of religious practices in the military services.

  • “America’s Military Population”

    Read a 2004 report that includes religious preferences in the military (see Page 25). The report found that service personnel were less likely than the general population to have a religious affiliation.

Articles & interviews

National sources

Service academies

  • U.S. Air Force Academy

    The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., trains officers for the Air Force. The academy had been involved in controversy over charges of proselytizing by evangelical Christians, prompting an investigation in 2005.

    Contact: 719 333-7731.
  • U.S. Military Academy

    The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., trains officers for the Army.

  • U.S. Naval Academy

    The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., trains officers for the Navy.

Note: Because military sources generally don’t talk to the media without prior clearance, call the Department of Defense public affairs office, 703-697-5135.

Chaplaincy offices

  • Armed Forces Chaplains Board

    The Armed Forces Chaplains Board makes recommendations to the secretary of defense and the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness on religious, ethical and moral matters for the military services and on policy matters, including protection of the free exercise of religion.

    Contact: 703-697-9015.
  • Navy Chaplain Corps

    The Navy Chaplain Corps maintains a list of Navy chaplain offices. Marine Corps chaplains are administered within the Navy chaplaincy.

    Contact: 703-614-4043.
  • Army Chaplain Center and School

    The Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, S.C., trains and supports Army chaplains and chaplain assistants. Training for chaplains in all branches of the armed services are located in this facility.

Chaplaincy related organizations/ programs

  • American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council

    The American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council serves Muslim military personnel and veterans. Executive director is Qaseem Ali Uqdah. Contact through the website.

  • Archdiocese for the Military Services USA

    The Archdiocese for the Military Services USA, which has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., includes 1.4 million Catholic military personnel and families. Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio heads the archdiocese.

  • Beyond the Yellow Ribbon

    Beyond the Yellow Ribbon is a Minnesota-based comprehensive program that creates awareness for the purpose of connecting service members and their families with community support, training, services and resources. Contact Chaplain Major Phillip Winn via the BYR website.

    Contact: 651-282-4291.
  • International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers

    The International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers in Greenville, S.C., endorses chaplains from evangelical religious groups.

    Contact: 864-268-8707.
  • Maryland National Guard

    The Maryland National Guard works with a network of churches to support guard members and their families during and after active service.

    Contact: 410-576-6124.
  • Military Chaplains’ Association of the United States of America

    The Military Chaplains’ Association of the United States of America serves as the professional organization for chaplains of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Department of Veterans Affairs and Civil Air Patrol and includes members of all faith groups.

  • National Association of Veterans Affairs Chaplains

    The National Association of Veterans Affairs Chaplains is the professional association for veterans affairs chaplains. Chaplain Stephen Brandow, a Catholic priest, of the VA Medical Center in Alexandria, La., is president.

  • National Black Chaplains Association

    The National Black Chaplains Associationr was established in 1988 to help strengthen cultural diversity within Veterans Affairs. Michael L. McCoy is president.

  • National Chaplain Center

    The National Chaplain Center serves veterans’ hospitals and has its headquarters in Hampton, Va.

    Contact: 757-728-3180.
  • National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces

    The National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF) is a Virginia-based organization that recruits, endorses and provides oversight for chaplains in all branches of the military.

  • Strong Bonds

    Strong Bonds is a unit-based, chaplain-led program run by the U.S. Army which assists commanders in building individual resiliency by strengthening the Army family. The core mission of the Strong Bonds program is to increase individual soldier and family member readiness through relationship education and skills training. Contact Carleton W. Birch.

Other support groups

  • Cadence International

    Cadence International in Englewood, Colo., operates a variety of Christian ministries, including hospitality, for service members and their families. It operates on three continents, including locations in the United States. David Schroeder is president.

  • Coming Home Project

    The Coming Home Project in San Francisco was developed by clinical psychologist and Zen teacher Joseph Bobrow to support armed service members returning from combat and their families. Contact through their website.

  • International Conference of War Veterans Ministers

    The International Conference of War Veterans Ministers is an organization of veterans who are also ministers who provide pastoral care for veterans. Contact founder the Rev. Phil Salois from Newtonville, Mass.

  • Military Ministry

    Military Ministry is part of Campus Crusade for Christ International. It evangelizes and provides spiritual support to chaplains, members of the military and their families.

  • Operation So Help Me God Project

    Operation So Help Me God Project was founded by Brian Bohlman, a veteran and chaplain in the Air National Guard.

    Contact: 803-546-0343.
  • Christian Military Fellowship

    Christian Military Fellowship supports U.S. military personnel and their families worldwide.

  • Officer’s Christian Fellowship

    The Officer’s Christian Fellowship (OCF) serves active duty officers, enlisted personnel, guard and reserve members, academy and ROTC cadets/midshipmen, international military personnel, civilian employees of the military, retirees, widows, and their families. Contact through the website.

    Contact: 800-424-1984.

Rights groups

Legal experts

  • U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr.

    U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C., sponsored the failed “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005” which would have amended the IRS code to state that churches and other houses of worship will not lose their tax-exempt status because of the “content, preparation or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.”

    On July 18, 2008, Rep. Jones introduced a bill to protect the right of military chaplains to use prayers from their own faith traditions.

    Contact: 202-225-3415.
  • Michael F. Noone Jr.

    Michael F. Noone Jr. is Research Ordinary Professor in the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He was a judge advocate for 20 years in the Air Force and is frequently quoted on matters of military and the law.


Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Christopher J. Eberle

    Christopher J. Eberle is an assistant professor of philosophy at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He has written and spoken extensively on religion and culture, and can speak to issues of religious expression and diversity within the military.

  • Greg Epstein

    Greg Epstein serves as the humanist chaplain at Harvard University and is the author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe (2009). He holds master’s degrees in Judaic studies and theological studies and has been ordained as a humanist rabbi. The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard is “dedicated to building, educating, and nurturing a diverse community of Humanists, agnostics, atheists, and the non-religious at Harvard and beyond.”

    Read his July 25, 2008, essay (posted by the Newsweek/Washington Post site On Faith) about the need for more military chaplains for humanist and atheists.

  • Jonathan Shay

    Jonathan Shay is a Boston psychiatrist who specializes in combat trauma and is the author of Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. He won a 2007 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for his work.

    Contact: 617-248-1000.

In the South

  • Derek H. Davis

    Derek H. Davis is dean of the College of Humanities and the Graduate School at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. He is the author of publications on church and state issues and on religious freedom.

  • James M. Dunn

    James M. Dunn is vice president and chief investment officer at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs for 19 years and is frequently quoted on church-state issues.

  • Wilfred M. McClay

    Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he is also a professor of history. He is a widely published author on issues related to religion in America. He co-edited Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America. He is also a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and co-director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program.

  • Thomas R. McCoy

    Thomas R. McCoy is a professor of law emeritus at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He retired from the university in 2008 but continues to speak frequently on First Amendment issues and advises the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center.

  • Charles W. Sasser

    Charles W. Sasser is a former Green Beret and combat correspondent and author of the 2008 book God in the Foxhole, a collection of stories of members of the military who used their faith to persevere in combat. He lives in Chouteau, Okla.

In the Midwest

  • Dale R. Herspring

    Dale R. Herspring is a political science professor emeritus at Kansas State University in Manhattan. He is an expert on the military and society.

In the West

  • Alan E. Brownstein

    Alan E. Brownstein is a professor of constitutional law at the University of California, Davis. He is a nationally known expert on religious freedom issues and has written widely about religious land use issues and states’ rights.

  • Jesse H. Choper

    Jesse H. Choper is emeritus professor of public law at the University of California, Berkeley. He is an expert on church-state issues and U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding religion. He is the author of Securing Religious Liberty: Principles for Judicial Interpretation of the Religion Clauses. He was a law clerk for Chief Justice Earl Warren.

  • Mark David Hall

    Mark David Hall is a professor of political science at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. Publications include The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (2009); and The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding (2009).

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