A Pluralistic Approach to Religion in the Military:

Accommodating Diversity, Utilizing Consensus, Motivating Sacrifice, and Encouraging Growth



A Paper for the 2007 Meeting of the International Symposium for Military Ethics

Dr. Erik Wingrove-Haugland, U.S. Coast Guard Academy



I. Introduction  


            The two clauses on religion contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution[1] set strict limits on the role of religion in the military.  On the one hand, the establishment clause forbids advocating one particular religion, or advocating religious over non-religious views; on the other hand, the free exercise clause requires the military to provide its members with opportunities to exercise their religion.  Taken together, these two clauses forbid proselytizing and require reasonable accommodation of diverse forms of religious expression. 

            This guidance, while excellent, focuses only on the ways in which various religions differ from each other; while the religions of the world differ from each other in fundamental ways, there are also significant areas of agreement between diverse religious perspectives.  These areas of agreement among religions, and between religious and secular philosophies, provide a second important role for religion in the military: religion can reinforce some of the values implicit in military service.  All military service presupposes a willingness to risk or sacrifice, which in turn is based on the assumption that individual members of the military see themselves as a part of something greater than themselves.  Religion can thus play a third important role in the military, by providing members of the military with a sense of being a part of something greater, and thus helping motivate a willingness to risk and sacrifice.  Furthermore, unlike nationalistic motivations for sacrifice, religious motivations set inherent limits upon the use of force, and are thus more likely to promote ethical behavior by members of the military.

            In order to accommodate religious diversity, reinforce military values common to all religions, and help motivate the willingness to sacrifice, military institutions should attempt to develop spiritual or cosmological awareness in its members.  The nature of this development, however, must be left up to each individual; the military must scrupulously avoid any sense of dictating a particular path of spiritual or cosmological development, which would amount to failing to accommodate religious diversity.  Promoting spiritual development will help members of the military develop an appreciation for religious diversity and a willingness to sacrifice for something greater, as well as helping reinforce those values the military seeks to promote which are also common to all religions.


II. Accommodating Religious Diversity

            Accommodating religious diversity is an absolute requirement for the military, which defines and limits whatever other role religion may play within the military.  The U.S. military is constitutionally required to accommodate religious diversity by the two clauses on religion contained in the First Amendment, which impose both negative restrictions and positive obligations upon the military.  The establishment clause, which forbids Congress from enacting a law respecting an establishment of religion, imposes a negative restriction by forbidding government officials from advocating one religion over another, or advocating religious over non-religious perspectives.  This is both a legal requirement and a moral requirement, based on the right to freedom of thought and expression.  This limitation becomes more important as the authority of government officials increases; the more authority a government official has over others, the more that official must scrupulously abstain from advocating a religious perspective to those over whom he or she has authority.  Since members of the military have more authority over their subordinates than any other government officials, and can order a subordinate to take an action which is likely to result in that person’s death, it is especially important for members of the military to avoid putting any pressure on individuals to adopt a religious perspective.  This is the rationale behind such policies as requiring that chaplains who lead prayers outside of chapel services lead only non-denominational prayers, and expecting chaplains to focus on providing religious services to those who want them, rather than on proselytizing and making converts.

On the other hand, the free exercise clause, which bans the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion, imposes a positive obligation upon the military; it requires the military to accommodate diverse religious practices.  While the military must not allow proselytizing, the military must also avoid the opposite extreme of failing to provide opportunities for religious expression.  Given the degree of control the military has over its members, failing to provide members of the military with opportunities to practice their chosen faith would amount to restricting them from freely exercising their religion.  There is legitimate debate over the limits of the right to the free exercise of religion, particularly when it conflicts with existing laws, as in the Native American use of peyote in religious ceremonies.  The existence of these debates, however, shows that we are so strongly committed to accommodating religious diversity that we will even consider allowing for the violation of laws in order to do so.

There are thus two dimensions to the requirement of accommodating religious diversity, corresponding to two clauses of the First Amendment regarding religion: the first is negative, forbidding the military from promoting one religion over another or from promoting religious perspectives; the second is positive, requiring the military to provide opportunities for the free exercise of religion.  These two requirements trump all others; whatever role religion can have within the military must be consistent with both of these principles.

III. Utilizing Points of Religious Consensus to Reinforce Military Values

While the ban on promoting religious perspectives and the requirement to accommodate diverse religious practices take priority over any other principles regarding the role of religion in the military, religion has a significant role to play within the limits set by these principles; the role of religion in the military is not exhausted by the assertion that the military must refrain from proselytizing and must provide opportunities for diverse religious practices.  These two principles focus only on the diversity of religious perspectives, on the ways in which various religions differ from each other.  While the religions of the world differ from each other in fundamental ways, there are also significant areas of agreement between diverse religious perspectives.  Some of these areas of agreement are very general; for example, all religions in some way assert that our actions have eternal consequences.  Indeed, some perspectives that are not specifically religious, such as Paul Tillich’s notion of “ultimate concern,” also make this claim.[2]  Some areas of agreement between religions are more specific; for example, every religion and every major non-theological moral philosophy condemns and forbids lying. 

These areas of agreement reveal another appropriate use of religion within the military in general and in military training and education in particular: when all religions agree on a particular value or behavior which the military wishes to promote among its members, the military may appropriately use religion to reinforce that value while still respecting the diversity of religious views.  For example, each of the federal service academies has an honor code or honor concept which forbids lying; in our efforts to convince students not to lie, we may appropriately mention the bans on lying of each of the major religious traditions, as well as each of the major secular moral philosophies.  Reminding members of the military that their own religion calls on them to avoid lying will reinforce their commitment not to lie, and will thus help promote the values and behaviors that the military demands from its members.

Since this approach includes all of the different religious perspectives or secular philosophies which members of the military may hold, it is consistent with the principle of accommodating religious diversity.  We can talk about how all of the world’s religions condemn lying, and how secular moral theories also condemn lying, without advocating one religion over another or advocating religious over non-religious perspectives.  As long as we present each of these religious and secular frameworks as having an equal prima facie claim to legitimacy, the principle of accommodating religious diversity does not forbid us from using religion to reinforce the values that the military seeks to promote among its members when there is broad agreement on these values among the various religions of the world.

Of course, sometimes there is not a consensus among religions regarding the values that the military seeks to promote; sometimes one religion may be consistent with those values, while another religion may not.  In these cases, respecting the diversity of religious views involves using purely secular means to promote those values.  For example, some religions demand monogamy while others, such as Islam and fundamentalist Mormonism, do not; for this reason, anyone promoting monogamy within the military should use purely secular and legal arguments.  In a military context, the claim that one religion is consistent with a value or behavior the military seeks to promote, while another is not, amounts to advocating one religion over the other, and thus failing to accommodate the diversity of religious views.

Finally, sometimes there may be a religious consensus which opposes particular values or behaviors that the military is seeking to promote.  In particular, the world’s religions do not generally advocate nationalism; instead, most seek to undermine nationalistic sentiment and to replace it with a view in which sees every human being as equally important, regardless of nationality.  Religions generally oppose the use of force simply for the pursuit of nationalistic goals, as in wars of conquest.  If military values were based solely on nationalism, they would be in conflict with religious values.  If religious values were essentially pacifistic, they would also be in conflict with military values.  As I will argue in the next section, however, military values should not be based solely on nationalism, and religious values do not generally support complete pacifism; instead, religious values establish important limitations upon the influence of nationalism in the military, and help the military resist the tendency to engage in immoral actions that can sometimes result from the motivation of promoting national interests.


IV. Motivating a Willingness to Risk and Sacrifice

The military itself is based on the same assumption which is the foundation for all religions and all approaches to ethics: the assumption that each individual is a part of something greater.  Without this assumption, there is no justification for demanding that  individuals weigh their own interests against the interests of others, and sometimes sacrifice their own interests for the sake of others; there is no foundation for ethics.  Without this assumption, there is no rational basis for the military to ask individuals to risk their lives; if members of the military see themselves as isolated individuals whose self-interest trumps all other considerations, then Montesquieu is correct: a rational army would run away.[3]  In demanding that its members be willing to risk their own lives, and to sacrifice them if necessary, the military is presupposing that their members see themselves as a part of something greater than themselves.

In the immediate sense, servicemembers see themselves as a part of their unit.  The most immediate motivation to risk their lives rather than running away is that running away would jeopardize the lives of the other members of their unit; this is why unit cohesion is so important to the military.  But unit cohesion is not enough to motivate the members of a unit to commit themselves to performing a risky mission; after all, the most effective way to safeguard the lives of all members of the unit would be to convince them all to run away.  The members of a unit must see their unit as a part of something greater if they are to risk their lives for a mission. 

The military can no longer assume that its members are motivated mainly by patriotism, by a powerful emotional connection to their nation.  Nations can no longer assume that all their citizens, or even all their soldiers and sailors, have an intuitive belief that their own nation is superior to all other nations, or an intuitive sense that their own nation’s interests are inherently more important than the interests of other nations.  The military also cannot count on its members being convinced of the justice and importance of the conflict in which they are fighting, or the mission they are performing.[4]  The military is too diverse a group to be able to assume that all members of the military support the decision to engage in a particular conflict.  The military thus cannot assume that its members are motivated to risk and sacrifice either by patriotism in general or by support for a particular conflict or operation.

Religion provides many members of the military with a sense of being a part of a greater whole, and thus with a willingness to risk their lives for something greater than themselves.  The military should not attempt to undermine this sense, since doing so may undermine the willingness to risk one’s life which is an essential part of military service.  Instead, the military should build upon whatever sense of being a part of a greater whole their individual members have, whether based on a religious perspective or a non-religious perspective.  Members of the military need not all have the same motivation for being willing to risk their lives; they do not all need to see themselves and their unit as part of the same greater whole.  But each member of the military must see himself or herself as a part of something greater.  Whether or not they see that greater whole as involving religion matters less than whether they see themselves as a part of a greater whole, for the sake of which they are willing to risk and sacrifice.

While a religiously based sense of seeing oneself as a part of a greater whole may be an adequate basis for a servicemember’s general willingness to risk and sacrifice, however, it must not serve as a motivation for the willingness to engage in a particular conflict.  The military must actively avoid promoting the belief that the justice of a particular conflict is based on religion.  The idea that God is on our side and our opponents are agents of the devil has often been used as a motivation for military action in the past; history has shown us that such an idea promotes immoral behavior among members of the military by encouraging them to see opponents as less than fully human and thus as undeserving of humane treatment.  Furthermore, this motivation would contradict both Just War Theory’s claim that a just war must aim at a just peace and Clausewitz’s claim that wars must aim at achieving political goals; if members of the military see their opponents as agents of the devil, or as less than human, they will not be willing to make peace, or to stop fighting once a political goal is achieved.  History provides many lessons in the problems that arise during and after a military conflict from the tendency to demonize the enemy.

In addition, the sense of belonging to something greater which religion promotes cuts both ways when it comes to the military.  On the one hand, it motivates a willingness to risk and sacrifice one’s interests and even one’s life.  On the other hand, it promotes a sense of oneness with others which may undermine the willingness to harm or kill others.  This sense of oneness with others initially seems to be contradictory to military values, which presuppose a willingness to harm or kill others.  If the sense of oneness promoted by religion is inconsistent with the use of force, then religious values are essentially pacifistic, and are inconsistent with military values.

None of the major religions of the world, however, is completely pacifistic; every major religion justifies the use of force under certain circumstances.  Furthermore, since members of small pacifistic religious groups such as Quakers or Mennonites are very unlikely to volunteer for military service, a volunteer military is justified in assuming that its members are not part of a pacifistic religion.  While all of the world’s major religions allow for the use of force in some circumstances, however, they tend to impose very strong restrictions upon the use of military force, and to justify using force only in rare circumstances.  These religious restrictions upon the use of military force provide an important check upon nationalistic motivations; they reinforce moral restrictions on the use of force and help to prevent members of the military from believing that the use of military force is justified whenever it is in our national interest, or that there are no limits on the amount of force that may be used in pursuing nationalistic goals. 

In this sense, it is preferable for members of the military to have religious foundations, rather than nationalistic foundations, for the view of themselves as a part of something greater.  Nationalism is inherently exclusivist; it encourages people to believe that only the interests and citizens of their own nation matter, while the interests and citizens of other nations do not.  For this reason, nationalistic motivations are incompatible with the idea of inherent restrictions upon the treatment of citizens of other nations.  At most, they are compatible with the view that rules of war are based on a contractual agreement with other nations, which supports the erroneous conclusion that violating the rules of war is justified whenever the enemy violates them first.

Religious motivations, on the other hand, are not inherently exclusivist; they generally encourage people to believe that all human beings matter, and to see the rules of war as inherent restrictions upon how human beings are to be treated.  Of course, while religious motivations are not inherently exclusivist, they certain can be exclusivist, and they have been exclusivist in the past; history reveals many examples of the tendency to believe that only the members of one’s own religion matter, while members of other religions do not.  In the past century, however, the major religions of the world have all tended to become more universalist and less exclusivist; the ecumenical and interfaith movements are evidence of the decline in the view that only the members of one’s own religion matter.  While some Christians and many Muslims still hold this exclusivist view, there is little doubt that it has significantly declined during the past century.  While nationalistic motivations are inherently exclusivist, religious motivations are not inherently exclusivist and have become less so in the past century; religions are tending towards the view that all human beings matter, and that we are all equally important in the eyes of God.  While this religious perspective is not completely incompatible with the use of military force, it places significant inherent restrictions upon when such force can be used and how it should be used, while a nationalistic perspective does not.

In the West, the dominant set of restrictions upon the use of military force has been Just War Theory.  While Just War Theory has evolved into a predominantly secular moral framework for the evaluation of war, it is important to remember that it originated within a religious context.    Just War Theory evolved out of the rejection of both complete pacifism, as practiced by early Christians, and of the view that wars are justified whenever they are in the interests of the government, which had been the dominant view of the Roman empire.  The fact that Just War Theory is consistent with the secular moral frameworks that have evolved since its origin should not obscure its religious origin or the ongoing influence of religion on Just War Theory.  While Michael Walzer has recently developed an extremely influential version of Just War Theory which is based on purely secular arguments,[5] Paul Christopher has developed another influential approach to Just War Theory which is explicitly religious.  Christopher derives Just War Theory from our “Good Samaritan” responsibilities, arguing that the responsibility to aid someone who has been harmed entails a responsibility to prevent harm, even if harm can only be prevented through the use of force; this in turn entails the responsibility to plan for actions that prevent harm through the responsible use of force.[6]  These arguments are clearly religious, based on the assumption that the Good Samaritan responsibility to help others is more fundamental than our right to self-defense, since it is not based on self-interest.  There is no reason why the military should ignore such religious approaches to Just War Theory, which are just as legitimate as purely secular approaches, and which may be more persuasive to some people.

In the Islamic world, the doctrine of jihad has traditionally played the same role as Just War Theory has played in the West.  Throughout the history of Islam, jihad has not only been a call to war, but also a call to practice war in a humane manner.[7]  Jihad is clearly a religious doctrine; while its jus ad bellum criteria are somewhat less restrictive than those of Just War Theory in that they allow for wars to be fought for purely religious reasons, its jus in bello criteria have historically been somewhat more restrictive than those of Just War Theory, forbidding not only the killing of non-combatants but also the destruction of the environment.  Only recently have Muslim extremists convinced a small but significant number of Muslims that jihad justifies actions, such as suicide bombings and the killing of non-combatants, which are clearly contradictory to the historical tradition of jihad.[8]  Mainstream Muslim religious leaders have unanimously denounced such practices, and called for a return to the traditional view of jihad as not only a justification for the use of force, but also a set of limits on the use of force.  Needless to say, such a return would be a very positive development within Islam.

Religious values thus promote the willingness to risk and sacrifice while simultaneously promoting relatively strict limits on the willingness to use force.  This is a very valuable contribution, because in general these two influences tend to be opposed to each other.  For many people, the risk of personal injury or death serves as an important restriction on the use of force against others; removing that restriction can also undermine the effort to place limits on the use of force.  Religion can make a significant contribution here by promoting the willingness to risk and sacrifice while at the same time promoting strict inherent limitations upon the use of force.


V. Promoting Spiritual Growth

            Whether or not it is appropriate for military institutions to attempt to develop spirituality in their members depends, of course, on what is meant by the terms “spirituality” and “develop.”  If spirituality is equated with a particular religious perspective, or even with a religious perspective in general as opposed to a non-religious perspective, then the answer to this question is “no,” since promoting a particular religious perspective, or even religious perspectives in general over non-religious perspectives, violates the primary principle of accommodation of religious diversity.  Furthermore, promoting a particular religious perspective, or promoting religion in general, is likely to be counterproductive and detrimental to unit cohesion, since it is likely to be offensive to those who do not share the religious perspective being promoted, or at least to atheists and agnostics.  Such an effort would thus be counterproductive in that it would decrease unit cohesion and morale, as well as immoral, in that it would violate the fundamental right to freedom of religious thought and expression. 

            If, however, the term “spirituality” is taken in the broad sense, as referring to all varieties of what Tillich called “ultimate concern,” then we must answer “yes” to the question as to whether the military should attempt to develop its members’ sense of spirituality, with the added proviso that the specific path this development takes must be left up to the individual members of the military.  The military cannot and should not promote religion, but it can and should promote what John Dewey called “the religious,” which he distinguished from “religion.”  According to Dewey, “religion” always involves some kind of body of beliefs and practices and has some kind of institutional organization; “the religious,” on the other hand, involves no system of beliefs or practices and no institutional manifestation (Dewey, A Common Faith, pgs 9-10). 

            Military institutions should attempt to develop spirituality (in this broad sense of the term) among their members because spirituality cannot be separated from other aspects of life, and spiritual development thus cannot be separated from development in other aspects which are vital to success as a member of the military, such as intellectual, emotional, and social development.  Development in any one of these dimensions rarely occurs in isolation from the other dimensions; human beings tend to develop and mature along all of these dimensions simultaneously.  Members of the military will, in fact, develop spiritually during their time in the military, and that development will have an influence on their development in these other dimensions as well.  Since the military must be concerned with the overall development of its members, it must be concerned with their spiritual development.

            While the military can and should promote the development of spirituality in this broad sense of the term, however, it must not promote religious development in the narrow sense of the term.  Military institutions must scrupulously avoid any sense of dictating a particular path of spiritual development, or of placing restrictions on the paths of spiritual development available to its members; doing so would involve failing to accommodate religious diversity.  This means, for example, that chapel attendance should not be used as a metric for spiritual development.

Instead, military institutions should allow individual members to determine their own path of spiritual development, and should seek merely to assist them in moving along that path.  This will involve overcoming the tendency within the military to view development as a “one size fits all” matter, which occurs mainly through activities that people go through simply to “check the box.”  At the Coast Guard Academy, we have a system called GOLD, the Guide to Officer and Leadership Development, which is similar to CLDS at West Point; most Academies have some such system intended to promote and document the development of our students.  As a part of GOLD, each cadet is supposed to show their Academic Advisor an Individual Development Plan which outlines their goals in each of seven dimensions; along with military, academic, and physical dimensions, one of those dimensions used to be called “spiritual and intrinsic values”; it has since been shortened to simply “intrinsic values.”  Towards the end of the first year of the GOLD system, one of my 4/c advisees showed me his Individual Development Plan, which said his goal in the “spiritual and intrinsic values” dimension was to “increase attendance at chapel services.”  I asked him what his religious background was, and he said he was an atheist who was interested in Buddhism.  I asked him why he intended to increase his attendance at chapel services, and he said that was what the second-class cadet above him in the cadet chain of command had told him to write.  Since he had never attended a chapel service during his fourth class year, he figured he could go once during his third class year, twice during his second class year, and three times during his first class year, and this would allow him to get full credit for achieving his goal of increasing his attendance at chapel, while only having to attend six services over the next three years.

This is a good example of how the military should NOT promote spiritual development.  A “one size fits all” and “check the box” approach is a terrible model of human development in any dimension, but it is particularly inappropriate for spiritual development.  Instead, I loaned this cadet a copy of a book on Buddhism, and later at his request took him to a meeting of a local Buddhist meditation group.  While the military should attempt to promote spiritual development, it must ensure that each individual is allowed to determine what spiritual development involves; this in turn requires getting to know members of the military as individuals and learning about their own personal beliefs.  Only by doing so can we assist in their development as the unique human beings they are, while respecting the diversity of religious views that they hold.



[1]  - “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 

[2]  - See Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology Volume I (University of Chicago Press, Chicago IL, 1951), especially pgs 12-14 .  See also Tillich, Paul, the Courage to Be (Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 1952), pg 47.

3 – Quoted in Keegan,  J., The Face of Battle (New York: Viking, 1976).

[4]  - This is particularly important given recent polls showing that most of the troops in Iraq no longer support the Iraq war; see The Navy Times, 08 January 2007, pg 12.

[5]  -  See Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars, 3rd Edition (Basic Books, NewYork NY, 2000).

[6]  - See Christopher, Paul, The Ethics of War and Peace, 2nd Edition (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River NJ, 1999, pgs 39-40.

[7]  - See Kelsay, John, Islam and War (John Knox Press, Louisville KY, 1993).