by COL Jim Hougnon, USA (Ret.)
A common topic of discussion in military circles lately is how military Christians can demonstrate their faith. Senior officers in particular wonder if they have the right any longer to identify themselves as Christians. In fact, some critics argue that they may not. I think it is possible to do so without creating any coercion or appearance of coercion.
In 1991 I took command of a training battalion-the kind with 500 to 600 privates getting their first high-and-tight haircuts, and their introduction to the Army, sixty drill sergeants to give them that introduction, and a handful of officers and NCOs to support them.
When I introduced myself to the drill sergeants, I included with my hobbies, family, and interests the fact that I am a Christian. I said I wanted them to know what shapes my values and behavior.
I told them that, although I prayed that each of them would be a Christian because I believed that would be the best thing for them, that my judgment of them would be based on their performance and conduct alone. Their spiritual interests would have no weight in any decisions or fitness reports. Soon after, one of the drill sergeants put me to the test. He identified himself to me as a Christian, and it was obvious that he expected this to earn him special recognition.
Once we came to an understanding that I loved him as a brother but expected the same from him as from any other drill sergeant, we got along fine.
I know of one other drill sergeant who reacted to my statement. He was not a Christian, and he decided to watch me to see if I lived up to my words. That’s the scary part of identifying yourself as a Christian-you put yourself on display. This was one of our best NCOs. We eventually sent him to be an instructor at the drill sergeant academy, a reward for and testimony to his character and performance.
Three years later we had both moved on to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. When he heard that I was on post, he sought me out. He said, “Sir, I want you to know that I am a Christian. I accepted Jesus because of what you said to us on your first day in the battalion and how you backed it up with your life.”
He and I had never had a discussion about spiritual matters. We had a young chaplain in the battalion who did a wonderful job of ministry to soldiers. As a member of the staff, he attended our weekly meetings, and he asked if he could open them with prayer. I first asked the others who attended if any would be offended. After all, this was an official mandatory meeting. No one objected, so I told the chaplain that he could do that.
The one time that I prayed publicly while I commanded that battalion was on Thanksgiving Day. Our battalion cadre traditionally gathered with their families in the classroom before crossing the street to the dining facility together for the big meal.
Traditionally the chaplain prayed with the group before the meal. On this day when it came time to go, the chaplain had not arrived yet because of a special appointment. The command sergeant major, never wanting to hold things up necessarily, announced, “The chaplain isn’t here yet, so Colonel, you come on up and pray.” I did. Colonels obey command sergeants major if they are smart.
Although we had never discussed it, he knew I would be comfortable praying because of the testimony of my life. In each of my assignments, I followed the same script of identifying myself as a Christian as part of my introduction. I also made it a habit to let my actions demonstrate my faith rather than preach with words. It was no secret that I was involved with OCF and the chapel leadership. Occasionally I deemed it appropriate to be more vocal.
I had a civilian employee who was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. When we found out, I went to his office and closed the door for a private conversation. We discussed his treatment and prognosis. He had some questions about his benefits, some of which I could answer and some of which I had to promise to find out for him. At the end, I asked for his permission to pray for him. I said, “I know you are a Muslim, and as a Christian I would like to pray for you.” He happily agreed and we shared a wonderful time of prayer at the foot of the cross in his office. We both cried.
Was I coercive in my witness? Did I proselytize? I am sure some would say yes, but I don’t think so. Using common sense and sensitivity, it is possible to be an ambassador for Christ in uniform.