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A question of faith
Religious bias and coercion undermine military leadership and trust

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008

Competent leadership is fundamental to military effectiveness. Although there are countless definitions of leadership, the simple truth is that leadership is merely influencing others to act in concert toward achieving a goal that they might not have achieved on their own. The art of leadership speaks to a leader’s ability to appropriately influence subordinate behavior in a given situation. To do so, leaders can invoke several forms power: legitimate, reward, coercive, expert and referent.

Although there is a time and place for rewards, punishment and a rank-based system for giving orders, the most effective units are traditionally those with leaders who rely less on sticks and carrots and more on the transformational aspects of leadership. When leaders rely on expert and referent power to influence subordinate behavior, research indicates, their units exhibit greater levels of morale and cohesion, which leads to increased levels of mutual trust.

Leaders who possess knowledge viewed to be relevant and valued by others have license to exercise power over others who yield to their expertise. One of the more recent and impassioned calls for increased expertise within the ranks of senior leadership was put forth by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling on these pages [“A Failure in Generalship,” May]. Regardless of whether one agrees with his claims, it is hard to contest his basic premise that expertise matters greatly in a prescriptive approach to positively influencing follower behavior to achieve a common goal.

But even more so than expert power, it is likely that referent power has the greatest potential for developing the necessary dependent relationship between a leader and his followers. Referent power is the cornucopia of values, expectations, training, education and life experience that is attractive to followers. To the extent that a follower places value on a particular leader because of who the leader is, the leader has referent power over the follower. To influence followers, leaders have only their knowledge and intuition on which to rely to guide them — both largely determined by their education and life experiences. When encountering a situation in which the leader has neither training nor experience, he tends to rely on his value system — those ideals from which his beliefs and actions flow. In many cases, these values are manifest in the type of individual whom the armed services attracts and are consistent with the core values of the various military institutions.

We refer to the internalization of these values as character. Most would agree that character is paramount to the military leader. Men and women of high character have an advantage because followers typically respect those with high levels of character more so than those without. In terms of referent power, those with strong character often have more referent power over followers compared with those perceived to have lesser character, especially in organizations where culture revolves around articulated core values. It is important to note that it is not so much the actual measurable difference in comparing the character of different leaders but rather the follower’s perception of what sound character is within context of the organizational culture.

If having the right values yields high referent power to an individual, then we could conclude that if he is properly trained and competent (sufficient expert power) for the position of responsibility to which he is assigned (level of legitimate power), he has the potential to positively influence subordinate behavior. To the extent that he can build trust within his unit, he is poised to be an effective leader. But it also is important to note that referent power isn’t a possession to be obtained by a leader, but rather a dependency created by the follower. This is a monumental aspect for effective leaders to comprehend because of the great responsibility they have to satisfy the dependency in an appropriate fashion. The successful leader will note what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate in terms of their organizational — and constitutional — responsibilities as leaders.

So why do otherwise effective leaders fail? In the most ambiguous of situations, it is an individual’s character that informs her of how to behave in the course of influencing others. Particularly in situations that have ethical dimensions, possessing the “right values” and “right character” is of extreme importance so leaders may rely on “good judgment” at critical moments. In times of great crisis, it is unlikely that leaders will have had specific training on what course of action to take — particularly in the presence of ambiguity or when facing ethical dilemmas. It is at such times that leaders rely on their character and values to make the decisions they believe to be best. But from what are an individual’s ethical values derived? Again, education and experience; and for many, this is where religious training might enter the fray. Sometimes the best-intentioned people invoke behaviors based on tenets of their religion, even if unknowingly, because they fundamentally believe them to be the best course of action.

A classic example emerged during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Air Force Academy was working through a multitude of sexual harassment issues. Some argued that the genesis of the problems was a “failure of leadership,” and others claimed it was because the academy had lost sight of its values. Not long afterward, the “Bring Me Men” ramp was changed to the “Core Values” ramp and new leaders were inserted to bring the institution through the dark period by reinstating its values. From a power perspective, the institution placed importance on the need for its leaders to have relevant expertise and strong character to correct the issues at hand. More than anything, the institution needed a leader — an exemplar — with tremendous referent power to turn the tide and rebuild the trust within the organization. By bringing in commanders and staff who were regarded as exceptionally moral, the organizational climate that was claimed to be responsible for the sexual harassment scandals was “fixed,” but it was then replaced with another organizational climate that turned out to be conducive to religious intolerance.


Well-meaning people doing what they believed was best “fixed” sexual harassment at the cost of creating an entirely new problem. This was no more a “failure of leadership” than a brick is guilty of sinking. The real failure was likely not having sufficient organizational structures in place to preserve the wide-reaching expertise needed to collectively navigate the institution through its more challenging periods. As organizational expertise waned in light of excessive personnel turnover, the stress on the institution became too much to withstand. Not only did it become evident that policies, procedures and training were lacking, but more disturbingly, few individuals in the organization who could have directed and helped manage the change remained at the institution to recognize the deficiencies and make pre-emptive course corrections. Absent the sufficient relevant expertise, many leaders relied on their character to gain the trust and respect of their followers, while also doing what they could to strengthen the character of their followers. Whether intentional or not, a climate conducive to religious proselytization emerged.

Such examples are neither unique nor confined to the Air Force Academy or even the Air Force at large. Over the past several years, the popular press has reported on more than one general officer who has articulated his value system in a way that has created controversy. Appearing in uniform and speaking before a religious group in 2003, Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin claimed that Islamic extremists hated the U.S. because “we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christians ... and the enemy is a guy named Satan.” Upon investigation, it was revealed that these weren’t flippant comments made out of context.

Ten years earlier, the record showed that Boykin told an audience about a particular Army battle against a Muslim warlord in Somalia: “I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.” Last summer, the Defense Department Inspector General’s Office released a report finding that seven officers, including four generals, engaged in misconduct by allowing an evangelical Christian group to come into their Pentagon offices and film them in uniform using their official titles to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Clearly, the issue at hand is what the criteria should be for superiors who wish to expand their referent power to satisfy the dependencies created in their followers, particularly when one’s personal religious beliefs come into play.

In the writings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison manifested in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, which formed the basis of the First Amendment of the Constitution, two things are clear. First, they anticipated the tension between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause. The passionate and intense debate with regard to government’s role in religion (and vice versa) that was evidently common in their day is relatively unchanged more than two centuries later. And second, they apparently understood the need to frame the church-state debate in the simplest terms: There should “be a high wall” between the two.

Both men recognized that our individual civil rights should have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in chemistry or calculus. In Jefferson’s words, “believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”

Similarly, James Madison believed that “an alliance or coalition” between government and religion “cannot be too carefully guarded against.” “Every new and successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance,” he wrote. “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

The history books and legal archives are replete with supporting facts and court decisions, but the message is the same as Jefferson and Madison intended. The two shouldn’t mix, but when they do, beware.

Thus, the criteria for what a leader can and cannot do in terms of advocating religious beliefs in the capacity of his official position seems fairly clear. This is why every officer of the U.S. armed forces takes a single oath of allegiance to one thing: not to the president or to the nation generally, but to the U.S. Constitution. The liberty and freedoms for which our forefathers fought so valiantly depend on its survival and enforcement. However, as illustrated by the popular press stories alleging “religious misconduct” by senior leaders, it is clear that some individual leaders genuinely face a dilemma between upholding their constitutional oath and adhering to the mandates of their religious faith tradition.

This dilemma can probably be best understood by considering the unique challenges that evangelical faith traditions face in a military environment. On the one hand, members of the military live with the fact that they could be asked to surrender their lives at any moment. Those who see combat face life-and-death issues on a regular basis and are forced to grapple with the fundamental questions of existence in a way those they protect likely will never face.

This means that for many, if not most, in the military, religion is part and parcel of their original decision to serve, their loyalty to country and family, and their source of strength in times of great stress. Although patriotism and loyalty to the Constitution are the only common requirements for military service, it’s unrealistic to expect the spiritual beliefs of soldiers to vanish once they put on a uniform. Indeed, the explicit enforcement of such a requirement prior to enlistment would likely cause the armed forces to shrink to unacceptable levels. But a genuine danger exists for military organizations when their leaders cross the line of acceptable religious expression, particularly when on duty or while in uniform.

The fact that we observe instances of religious misconduct is telling, but not entirely surprising. For leaders who yearn to be increasingly effective, we should expect them to use all the tools available to them to gain the trust and respect of those under them. And it seems apparent from the noted examples that these leaders used the appeal of religious convictions to generate referent power among those around them. For those followers who share the religious convictions of the leader, the act of promoting one’s religiosity may very well increase the referent power of the leader dramatically, and in light of the religious demographics of the armed forces, such an act would likely appeal to the majority. But quite the opposite effect occurs with those in the minority when they are denied the trust and respect of their leader so that their perception, well-founded or not, is that they are regarded as second-class citizens, service members and human beings.


Leaders’ statements in the form of mere platitudes about respect, dignity and teamwork in the face of such facts are insufficient to reinstate referent power. Instead, a direct and forceful affirmation of military service is required: All men and women in uniform operate under the same presumption of high ethical standards, loyalty, patriotism and integrity, regardless of professed religious belief or lack thereof. To help eliminate the evident lack of trust created by the events over the past few years of pervasive religiosity, we would like to see all officers in positions of command publicly attest to the truth of the statement below. We call it the “Oath of Equal Character” (previously published in The Humanist, September). We believe that a public affirmation of this oath would go a long way toward removing any doubts followers may have about how they might be viewed. And for every leader who utters it forthrightly and honestly, it would go a long way toward building on the foundation by which they wield referent power over all those in their command.

The Oath of Equal Character

(Note: We have written the oath from a Christian’s perspective but would expect “Muslim,” “Jew,” “atheist,” “Buddhist,” “Hindu,” “Wiccan,” “nontheist” or any other chosen identification to be used as applicable.)

“I am a <Christian>. I will not use my position to influence individuals or the chain of command to adopt <Christianity>, because I believe that soldiers who are not <Christians> are just as trustworthy, honorable and good as those who are. Their standards are as high as mine. Their integrity is beyond reproach. They will not lie, cheat or steal, and they will not fail when called upon to serve. I trust them completely and without reservation. They can trust me in exactly the same way.”

It does no good to say, as some clearly will, that the above states the obvious. Our interaction with military members from non-evangelical, nonmajority faith traditions tells us that they believe their character is impugned on a regular basis because of their differing belief systems. If something like the statement above had been articulated clearly and forcefully from the senior leaders under fire, the religious climate of many subunits of the armed forces would be very different — and better — today.

Consider, for example, how the following situations might have been different had the Oath of Equal Character been involved:

å In 2004, fliers promoting Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” were placed on tables at the Air Force Academy’s dining facility during the mandatory lunch formation.

å PowerPoint slides were shown at mandatory briefings routinely promoting organizationally endorsed Bible studies or “Thoughts for the Day” from the Christian New Testament, even in the presence of allied international officers who do not share these beliefs.

å What if, instead of asserting the “right to evangelize the unchurched” — as the Air Force chaplaincy did in a July 12, 2005, New York Times article — the Air Force chaplaincy had publicly endorsed the Oath of Equal Character?

It is imperative for leaders to prescriptively consider their own actions and estimate their effect on those that they intend to influence in a proper manner. Leaders who attempt to increase their influence over subordinates by promoting their religiosity risk destroying trust within the rank and file over whom they preside and, more disturbingly, risk abdicating their Oath of Allegiance. Even if being a good leader is independent of being a good follower, it is of paramount importance for leaders to continually get inside the hearts and minds of their subordinates, shed their biases and perspectives, and instead genuinely attempt to see the world through the eyes of those who yearn to be dependent upon them for the wisdom, guidance and support to do what is required to remain the most effective fighting force in defense of our nation’s freedom. As leaders foster dependencies among their followers, it also is paramount that such power not be abused.

Our armed forces have grappled with racial and gender discrimination over the decades and continue to strive to provide every military member the equal opportunity to succeed. But in the face of different belief systems, we must recognize the need to maintain the plurality of belief systems within our organizations and refrain from taking any actions that might adversely influence followers to believe differently than they may otherwise and independently choose.

The only permissible discrimination in the armed forces is in the ability to do a job. There can be no other. Beliefs remain a right and a privilege, and freedom of conscience is among the oldest and most precious freedoms enshrined in the history of America’s founding. But as members of the armed forces, we have all taken an Oath of Allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. Those who believe that those who don’t share their religious beliefs are less likely to have good character should leave the military and seek another career. Exercising referent power over followers by using one’s faith tradition in the capacity of a governmental official is subversive to our constitutional values

BARRY S. FAGIN is a professor at the Air Force Academy.

LT. COL. JAMES E. PARCO is associate professor, Department of Strategy and Leadership, at the Air Force Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.