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Fade to gray

Military | Proposed military guidelines could muzzle evangelical officers and chaplains

Issue: "Comfort and joy," Dec. 24, 2005

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."

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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.

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