Religious Freedom & the Military: An Ongoing History

Many argue against our stance on the basis that somehow our nation and our governing document, the Constitution, were founded on Christian principles. Because each member of our armed forces takes an oath to support and defend the Constitution, it’s important to understand its origin with respect to religion. Our founding fathers set up a government based on democratic principles, not religious principles. Our Constitution is secular. There is no mention of Christianity or any other religion.

There are however, two references to religion and both are exclusionary. Clause three article six in the body of the Constitution itself states very clearly that  “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.” The other reference is in the first Amendment that states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

It is important to note several things,

#1. the presidential oath of office, the only oath specified in the Constitution, does not contain the phrase “So help me, God” or show any requirement to swear on a bible.
#2. The pledge of allegiance written in 1892 did not contain, “under god.” until it was added by Congress in 1954 .
#3. Most significantly the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli, negotiated under President Washington, unanimously approved by the Senate and signed by President Adams, declares, “The government of the United States is not,in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

The founding fathers, many of whom were religious gentlemen, created a secular government for very specific reasons.

#1. They were very conscious of the pitfalls the church-state alliances had fostered in Europe, the reasons for many to depart and forge a new path in the new world.
#2. They looked back to our early American colonial period where some colonies officially established churches and taxed all citizens to support them regardless of weather they were members of the church or not.

Among the many things that make this country unique are the liberties guaranteed in our Constitution, including religious freedom. Because we live in this pluralistic society set up by our founders, people of all faiths or no faith are welcome and we as Americans enjoy more religious freedom than any other people in the world. Simply stated, our founders understood two very simple and important things:

#1. That the separation of church and state would allow all faiths to flourish.
#2. That in matters of religion our government would be set up to remain neutral.

All Americans have the right to worship as they see fit within the bounds of the law, but no one has the right to use the government , military, or power of the state to endorse or promote his or her religious beliefs or demand help in spreading sectarian messages. Given that, it is imperative that when military professionals take the oath to support and defend the Constitution, these democratic principles are what they are promising to protect.  On September 1, 2011 the Chief of Staff, General Norton A. Schwartz sent a memorandum for all commanders, the subject was “Maintaining Government Neutrality Regarding Religion.”  In this memo he states, ” Leaders at all levels must balance Constitutional protections for an individuals free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and its prohibition against governmental establishment of religion”. Further ” They must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal  religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion.” To do so, he states, ” Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartially and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order, and discipline. Thus the flagrant proselytizing of subordinates by superiors, non voluntary evangelizing of members by chaplains and public prayer in official, mandatory settings, outside of voluntary worship, are at the root of what the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is fighting against.

All branches of the United States military are afforded the same rights to religious freedom as are American civilians. However, members of the Armed Forces willingly surrender on a temporary basis certain free exercise rights when it impinges on military discipline and the successful completion of a military objective. This guarantee of religious freedom is codified for the Armed Forces in Title 10, United States Code (USC), sections 3073, 3547, 5142, and 8067. Free exercise of religious freedom for military personnel is further detailed in Department of Defense Directive (DODD) 1300.17, “Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services,” which describes the commander’s responsibility to provide for religious accommodation.

Codes and directives notwithstanding, the free exercise of religious freedom in the military has, by and large, followed the mores of American society in general. That is, as the understanding of free exercise expanded outside the military, so did it expand within the U.S. Armed Forces. This history of the growing embrace of religious pluralism can perhaps best be seen in the expansion of the Chaplaincy, whose role it is to provide for the free expression of religious belief by members of the Armed Forces.

For example, not until the war with Mexico in 1846 were Roman Catholics incorporated into the chaplaincy corps. Until then, only Protestants served as chaplains, a situation that put the United States at a propaganda disadvantage when fighting Catholic Mexico. In 1862, “Christian” was stricken from regulations governing the appointment of chaplains by recognized religious denominations to allow for the appointment of Jewish chaplains. This change was brought about as a result of a request made to President Abraham Lincoln by the Board of Delegates of American Israelites.

During World War II, Greek Orthodox chaplains were authorized to minister to members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and in 1987, the Department of Defense registered the Buddhist Churches of America as an ecclesiastical endorsing agency, thus opening the door for Buddhist chaplains. In 1993, the first Muslim chaplain was added by the Army – yet another sign of America’s growing religious diversity and the recognition that it is the Armed Forces’ Constitutional responsibility to meet the free expression needs of those in its ranks who hold minority religious views.

Religious freedom takes on an additional importance in the current international environment, where religious motivations are an increasing rationale for waging conflict. At a time when the United States is encouraging greater religious freedom in Muslim nations, it is imperative upon America to show by example that religious pluralism is a viable and preferred option. Any sign of hypocrisy in Unites States policy, official or otherwise, toward the free exercise of religion within the military makes it more difficult to convince others to follow our nation’s chosen path.

MRFF’s role is to ensure that our government does indeed adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution; that it leads by example. The next chapter in the never-ending struggle to expand religious freedom in the military is being written, and MRFF is playing a critical part in the effort. A watchdog’s role requires constant vigilance.

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