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Fade to gray

"Fade to gray" Continued...

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

Some believe that this evangelical-style influence has improved the military. Journalist Robert Kaplan in his new book Imperial Grunts quotes Col. Tom Wilhem, a "liberal who voted for Al Gore in 2000," saying that "moral fundamentalism was the hidden hand that changed the military for the better. But you try to get someone to admit it! We never could have pulled off Macedonia or Bosnia with the old Vietnam Army. It lacked the discipline and talent to abide by the restrictive [rules of engagement] on a complex political-military battlefield." Moralistic zeal, he said, "reformed behavior, empowered junior leaders, and demanded better recruits."

Today, observes Dan Henk, who teaches leadership and ethics at the U.S. Air War College on Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, "the standards of ethical behavior in the military are very tough, and if you're not a believer, they're tough to appreciate." The "servant leadership" emphasis in officer training resonates strongly with evangelicals, he adds. Explicitly Christian values are reinforced by organizations such as Officers' Christian Fellowship, which has hundreds of groups meeting around the world. Motto: "Christian officers exercising biblical leadership to build up a godly military."

That atmosphere could change in the wake of controversy that prompted the Air Force to release proposed guidelines that have attracted national media attention. Last spring a chaplain and officers at the Air Force Academy were accused of fostering an intolerant atmosphere. Among the offenses was a message at a mandatory chapel that urged cadets to evangelize and warned of the "fires of hell," and a locker room banner, put up by the football coach, promoting "Team Jesus Christ" (see "Attack formation," May 7).

An investigation last summer found no religious discrimination but led to a mandatory campus program to teach religious tolerance, "Respecting the Spiritual Values of People." The Air Force also withdrew from use a code of ethics for chaplains (not official policy but distributed during chaplain training) that included the statement: "I will not actively proselytize from other religious bodies. However, I retain the right to instruct and/or evangelize those who are not affiliated."

In early October an Air Force veteran filed a lawsuit against the Air Force alleging that his two sons attending the academy had suffered "severe, systemic, and pervasive" religious discrimination and anti-Jewish slurs from other cadets. His lawsuit demanded a new policy forbidding any Air Force member to "evangelize, proselytize, or in any related way attempt to involuntarily convert, pressure, exhort, or persuade a fellow member to accept their own religious beliefs while on duty."

In response to the controversy, the Air Force has released a draft of guidelines proposing that public prayer should not be included in official settings such as staff or office meetings, classes or sports events. A "brief, nonsectarian prayer" would be acceptable in "non-routine" military ceremonies, and chaplains must also be "as sensitive to those who do not welcome offerings of faith as they are generous in sharing their faith with those who do." Individuals sharing their faith, especially with subordinates, should be "sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official expressions."

Lt. Bryan Austring, a Navy Reserve chaplain, is not terribly worried about the guidelines. He believes that most evangelical chaplains are already sensitive to people of other faiths. When he was stationed with his Seabee battalion last January, only two people addressed all the men every day: the commanding officer and Lt. Austring, at a 5 a.m. assembly. "I had a whole smorgasbord of guys in there," he says, so his topics were things like relationships and values. Lt. Austring would prefer to speak freely, but says those generic talks led to many other chances to share the gospel, and he could always conduct voluntary worship services as he pleased. "I've got this unique opportunity to get paid by the government to wear the uniform and represent the gospel of Jesus Christ. The question is, how do I use it wisely?"

But many evangelical officers and chaplains are deeply concerned about the proposed policy. Officers sometimes informally discuss issues involving religion with their men, particularly in wartime or in times of personal crisis, points out Mr. Henk. A written policy requiring "sensitivity" could allow one easily offended subordinate or superior to force discipline against an officer who was simply trying to live out his faith.

U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) charges that for the last several years some senior chaplains have already reprimanded chaplains who pray "in Jesus' name" outside voluntary worship services. One Army chaplain described in a letter to the congressman how in preparation for a memorial service for an evangelical soldier, a senior chaplain "lectured a few of us that under no circumstances would we present a sermon that pointed the mourners toward Jesus Christ for comfort. In fact, he raged over the fact that some chaplains had been turning memorial services into 'come to Jesus meetings.'"

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