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Religious Expression or Religious Coercion: Commanders Caught in the Crossfire - Recommendations
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To counter this unconstitutional morphing within the military, the Chaplain Corps must engage at a strategic level and help commanders avoid any potential of religious coercion.


USAF Chaplain Corps’ Strategic Engagement
To mitigate the growing tension between religious coercion and religious expression, the Chaplain Corps must engage and communicate strategically. How? First, the Chaplain Corps should conduct an intensive internal look to see how it may have perpetuated the current climate of hostility toward religious expression. An honest self-assessment is a precondition as the Chaplain Corps distills any elements of truth from the inflammatory noise of MRFF’s accusations. If MRFF’s numbers of complaining personnel are accurate, some of these Airmen must be coming to chaplains. If they are, what are chaplains doing to confront these issues? Additionally, it may be possible to engage some of these watchdog groups to initiate dialogue, find common interests, critically review issues, gain better understanding, and discover useful approaches to mitigate these issues. While these partnerships may be difficult because of current polarization, the process may perpetuate an honest assessment on all sides.

Second, the Chaplain Corps needs to do a thorough analysis of the changing religious demographics. Using American Religious Identification Survey data,45 a religious demographic analysis may shed understanding on the growing emotional intensity of those who feel coerced. By better understanding these trends, the Chaplain Corps may need to adapt its approaches of religious accommodation within an increasingly secular military.46

Third, the Chaplain Corps must become even more proactive in supporting religious expression of all Airmen, especially commanders, while protecting against potential religious coercion. Chaplains must continue to be faithful to their faith tenets. Additionally, chaplains must continue to provide for those of like faith while respecting those of different or of no faith. Chaplains must build greater awareness of minority groups’ concerns and must ensure the institution continues to respect those of religious faith and those who hold a humanistic world view. Each chaplain must be a champion of promoting religious tolerance and respect at all levels.

Fourth, the Chaplain Corps must help find a balance between the freedom of religious expression and speech of the individual and the complex needs of the organization. The answer is not to restrict all religious expression to avoid any offense. Instead, any message of religious expression must be shaped by respect, tolerance, community, dialogue, and collaboration. In the struggle, all should learn from each other’s worldview, values, and culture. The key is respectful dialogue.

Fifth, the Chaplain Corps must continue to develop both internal and external strategic messages at the USAF and DOD level to bring clarity to these complex religious issues for the public, Airmen, and commanders. the Chaplain Corps can become even more active in defining and articulating key issues rather than letting watchdog groups potentially shape public perception and military policy. These messages must be clear, consistent, and repeated in a multitude of media and social networking outlets.  the Chaplain Corps must carefully engage the extremist’s views to counterbalance their effects by working with astute media organizations and outlets. Major General (retired) Jack Catton suggested the following strategic messages:

  • The U.S. has a rich faith heritage in the military that must not be abandoned.

  • Faith is a critical part of the warfighters’ ethos. Faith is not something you do, faith is who you are; therefore, DOD leadership should continue to go to great lengths to meet and support the spiritual needs of military members of all faiths.

  • The military respects all faith expressions. An individual’s faith is vitally important as it defines who the person is, how he or she will act (especially in difficult times), and who the individual will become. As such, it is OK to tell people who you are, just don’t tell them who to be.

  • To suggest that military men and women should risk their own lives to protect American freedoms and forfeit their own religious freedom is absurd!47

Given the analysis and strategic engagement, the Chaplain Corps must continue to support commanders; these guidelines may help.

Guidelines for Commanders
Without question, the USAF is a secular organization. Its mission is to fly, fight and win... in air, space and cyberspace.48 Obviously, commanders have huge responsibilities to lead their teams to accomplish the USAF’s mission. It is not the USAF’s mission to proselytize, intimidate, or coerce religiously; however, all Airmen take an oath to support and defend the Constitution which includes the individual’s First Amendment protection of free exercise of religion.49 Therefore, the USAF must continue to affirm, uphold, and value Airmen’s spirituality without defining it.50 The USAF must support policy that respects all religious dialogue and expression. Therefore, the USAF and DOD must absolutely avoid a “do no-offense” perspective regarding religious expression. The goal is not to constrain religious expression by commanders, chaplains, and any Airmen. The goal is to encourage healthy, respectful, and tolerant expressions within the military culture.51 The USAF and Department of Defense must continue to support spiritual fitness even if the culture grows more secular and even more hostile to religion.

Given the issues discussed in this paper, commanders have a challenging responsibility to balance the establishment and free exercise clauses. Obviously, leaders who have command authority are held to a very high standard because of the sacred trust that comes with their position of leadership and responsibility. Commanders are held to a higher level of accountability to use wisely their authority in this sphere of religious influence. Commanders must carefully balance their own free exercise of religion and speech while guarding against any perception of religious coercion. To simply decree any and all religious expressions from commanders as inappropriate is to overreact. To diminish all concerns of those who feel coerced or offended is equally irresponsible. Commanders must continue to sense the power-gap between themselves and those they lead. They must avoid any action or appearance of favoritism based on religious affiliation.

How can commanders navigate these issues of religious coercion and religious expression? How can they be faithful to their own faith tenets while avoiding any perception of coercion?52 First, commanders must understand that some people see rank and they hear anything the person in authority says as direction. The higher the authority, the quicker Airmen prescribe any expression of faith as direction and thus possibly perceive coercion from the commander. Commanders must be consistent in support of both religious and non-religious expressions. They run a risk if others perceive them as Christian leaders instead of AF leaders, who happen to be Christian. This is not to deny what is ultimately important in their lives but to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God's.”53

Second, commanders can express their faith tenets in a context when it has no sense of commander direction. According to a very senior commander, when something good happens, one can say he or she is “blessed” instead of “lucky.” Or, during a promotion ceremony, one could express being “grateful to God.”

Third, commanders can always express their faith tenets and spirituality through their character, core values, authenticity, and integrity. Consistency in how a commander acts, talks, and leads does make an impression.

Fourth, commanders should anticipate the potential of becoming a target of a disgruntled person or of a watchdog group. If that happens, the commander should immediately pull together a cadre of professionals (Jags, Public Affairs, Chaplains) to help analyze and respond to the issue.

Fifth, commanders should make maximum use of the Chaplain’s office or the Wing organizational box (and not the commander’s personal email account) to send out official notices for anything that could be perceived as being religious.

Finally, commanders, as they are responsible for the spiritual fitness of their Airmen, should work very closely with the Wing Chaplain as spiritual needs are identified, resourced, and supported. As such, commanders should not fear attending or supporting events sponsored by the chapel. Additionally, a commander’s support for a public prayer is not an act of proselytizing but recognizes the importance of a long national tradition in acknowledging the Divine just as the U.S. currency included the official motto, “In God We Trust.” As such, commanders and the Department of Defense can support ceremonial prayer with its rich historical past as it has stood the constitutional test in litigation.54

The USAF is under growing scrutiny to determine if religious expression by commanders and chaplains is coercive. Watchdog groups, like MRFF, are increasingly using media and litigation to challenge religious expression within the military. While the USAF must carefully investigate all cases for legitimacy, the USAF and DOD must avoid over-reacting to the deafening noise of media and litigation pressures while carefully protecting religious expressions as protected by the Free Exercise and Speech clauses. Most importantly, the USAF and DOD must not confuse offense as coercion or undue influence. To create restrictive guidance or policy on the potential of offense does not offset the constitutional freedom of religious expression and speech. Using whether or not one was offended to determine religious coercion is a faulty, woefully deficient proposition and must be avoided. Finally, this paper proposed several recommendations for both the Chaplain Corps and commanders as too much is at stake to ignore these issues. Hopefully, this paper will bring creative dialogue among all those concerned and will result in even better solutions.

About the author: Chaplain (Colonel) Jimmy M. Browning is currently serving as the Deputy Commandant of the U.S. Air Force Chaplains' Corps College. Since his commissioning in 1989, he has served at sixteen different locations, including assignments as the Wing Chaplain at Beale Air Force Base, California and at Aviano Air Base, Italy. These assignments included deployments to England, Oman and Iraq. He also served on the Resource Division of the Chaplain Service Institute.

Chaplain Browning earned a Bachelor of Arts, Psychology, University of Texas, Arlington, Texas; a Master of Divinity and Doctorate of Ministry from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas; and a Master of Science in Mass Communication, Boston University. He earned thirteen individual and team honors or awards at the base, major command, and Air Force level. His most recent individual and team awards are the 2007 Military Chaplains Association Distinguished Service Award and the 2008 Best Chapel Team in the Air Force (the “Terence P. Finnegan” Award, Medium Size Category) respectively.

Last Updated on Monday, 11 July 2011 11:30