In Defense of Our Defenders

The branches of the United States military comprise members of myriad faiths and religious traditions. As such, they face the interesting challenge of preserving religious freedom within their institutions while protecting religious liberty for all. This week, Cornerstone asks: What challenges do religious military personnel face in practicing their faith? What policies ensure religious freedom within the military? Are these policies effective? Can they be improved? Why is religious freedom in the military important?

By: Daniel Briggs

The United States military is at a breaking point. Years of fighting terrorism overseas have taken a toll; from mental health and substance abuse to suicide, service members face myriad battles. If that were not enough, in recent years many are confronted with the very real prospect of unemployment due to massive layoffs

Many people, including our servicemen and women, turn to their faith during difficult times in war and in peace. At this critical juncture, religious freedom must flourish within the military. Instead, those sacrificing to protect our freedom are increasingly uncertain whether their freedom will be sustained as our cultural and political battles rage.

How can our military be vulnerable to losing the freedoms it is charged to defend? 

Our military is consistently the most respected public institution in America. Why? Because of its size and strength? No, it must be more than that. Despots and dictators command fear but not respect or admiration, certainly not from the right people or for the right reasons. The American public supports our military because of what it represents, and significantly, how it conducts itself. Each military department has core values it instills in its members. The Army’s are loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. The Air Force keeps it simple with “integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.” The Navy focuses on honor, courage, and commitment. The Marines have the most famous motto of all: “semper fidelis,” always faithful. A value is more than what we do; it is how we do what we do, a standard of behavior. Imbued with these values, military members know that they do not put on the uniform to perform a job; they perform a mission. And they perform the mission admirably, under great pressure, and at great cost to themselves, their families, and their loved ones.

So, it is ironic that such a strong institution is so vulnerable. But given the esteem in which it is held, the military is the perfect vehicle to effectuate change throughout society. After all, the argument goes, if this person can die for our country, how can we deny him/her [insert desired social agenda item]? And since the military is a controlled environment, social engineering is easier to accomplish. Political appointees carry out the priorities of those who appointed them. At times, service members who dare to dissent are told to get on board or get out. The end result: a domino effect across the rest of society and a chilling effect within the military for those who find their beliefs now disfavored.

If the military seeks true diversity, it must be genuine in its pursuit.

The military has one objective: “accomplish the mission.” Taken to its logical limit, this view prescribes absolute uniformity and proscribes anything that detracts from the mission. But beyond the uniform, military members are anything but uniform. Senior leadership recognizes this and calls for diversity and inclusion, which is all well and good. But Orwell comes to mind when “all [beliefs] are created equal, but some [beliefs] are more equal than others.”

In his published remarks at a LGBT Pride Month ceremony, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said, “The Department of Defense has made a lasting commitment to living the values we defend” (emphasis supplied). It is commendable for the Defense Department to commit, theoretically and rhetorically, to living the values it defends, but does its commitment encompass all values beyond those currently favored? What of the inestimable value of religious freedom, rooted in the First Amendment?

Increasingly, only one view of diversity and one view of inclusion are allowed, to the exclusion of an increasingly marginalized religious majority. Believe whatever you want to believe, these service members are told, but do not act on those beliefs if it might offend others. And if someone is offended, your beliefs may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

All beliefs are equal, but our beliefs are more equal than yours.

It’s about more than religion.

This must be said: the debate surrounding religious freedom is about more than religion. It encompasses far more than where one spends a Sunday morning. It’s about one’s identity, beliefs, words, and actions. It includes not only the freedom to act but also the freedom to not act. It is a serious attack on religious freedom to compel someone to act in violation of his or her sincerely held religious beliefs. From bakers to florists to photographers to nurses to t-shirt makers, absolutely no one should be compelled to render unto Caesar that which belongs solely to God.

The same is true in the military. Yes, it is a unique institution, not a debate society. The mission must be accomplished. But service members cannot be forced to check their faith at the door. Indeed, in such difficult times as these, their religious freedom is more precious than ever before and must be defended. Service members must be free to credit God for career accomplishments. They must continue to be highlighted for their humanitarian efforts. Chaplains must be free to counsel in accordance with the tenets of their faith. Gate guards must be free to simply tell those they meet to “have a blessed day” without fear of reprisal.

As others have said in
this forum
, “religious liberty and freedom of conscience are not government grants, handed out to the deserving. [They] are inalienable rights, granted by the Creator. . . we should render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar. Yet the conscience does not bear the image of Caesar, and cannot be swept [aside] by government fiat.”

As religious freedom in the military meets increasing resistance, there is great uncertainty as to what the future holds. But groups like Alliance Defending Freedom will continue to work aggressively to keep the legal door open so that people can live out their faith. Those who are willing to give all deserve nothing less. 

Daniel Briggs, Esq. serves as legal counsel and director of military affairs for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). 

This piece was originally authored on October 7, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.