I sat at a round table at the Officers Club staring at a plate full of breakfast buffet. I looked again over at the entryway. Where’s Wishbone?
Wishbone was another pilot in our Marine detachment assigned to provide a static display for a weekend airshow. It wasn’t surprising that he might be late. He was drinking heavily the previous night, enough for us to cut him off and send him back to lodging before things got out of hand. Now it was 8 a.m., and late was gradually becoming UA (unauthorized absence).
A colonel walked over to our group. “Are you guys missing a Marine this morning?” He said a Marine was found passed out in a grass ditch on base and picked up by the military police. After some negotiation, he was released into the colonel’s custody and escorted back to his room to sleep it off. “He goes by Wishbone,” the colonel added.
I flashed back to the night before, sitting next to Wishbone on a barstool in that same Officers Club, staring at a glass half full of Diet Coke. Wishbone ordered another beer.
He turned to ask what I suspected others in the squadron also wanted to, but never did, “Why don’t you drink?” I was a teetotaler. I hadn’t always been that way. The fact that I didn’t drink was common knowledge to most in the squadron, and it was a stance I took with confidence since assuming a significant leadership role among the young officers.
Photo by TSgt Patrick O’Reilly, USAF
Integrating your faith and profession—even while in uniform—can be done. Though it’s seemingly otherwise, the law—and military policy in general—is on your side.
I stumbled through my explanation (I’m getting better!), attempting to convey a strong judgment against drunkenness without condemning drinking—and drinkers—in general. But I always carefully share one of the most significant faith-based reasons my wife and I decided not to drink: so that others might not stumble because of our actions (Romans 14:13).
After hearing my explanation, he looked down at his glass, as if he wanted to do something with my revelation. But something was holding him back. Then something seemed to snap inside him. He looked up and smiled, “I just love to drink.” The watershed had collapsed, but I had done my duty: living out my faith in word and action so that others might see the light, and be curious.
Living out an active faith while serving on active duty is important, yet challenging when you don’t know your rights. It’s even more important for those enthusiastic about evangelism and apologetics to know what can and can’t be done while on active duty. And while it may seem otherwise, the law—and military policy in general—is on your side.
What You Can Do
As stated in the “Religious Liberty Protection Kit for the U.S. Military” from First Liberty Institute, “Under most circumstances a service member’s religious expression—including evangelism or proselytizing—is protected by the First Amendment.” And for the most part, “the military cannot restrict off-duty religious expression,” such as leading a Bible study in your barracks room after working hours.
On-duty religious expression can only be restricted if the military “can demonstrate that the restriction furthers a compelling governmental interest by the least restrictive means.” So unless keeping a Bible on your work desk interferes with the mission, readiness, good order and discipline, or health (and it doesn’t), your freedom to do so should not be restricted.
If your sincerely held religious belief requires you to enact (or refrain from) a physical act of expression of that belief, and a military policy, practice, or duty will substantially burden your exercise of religion, then you may request an accommodation, such as growing a beard, wearing specific apparel, or observing the Sabbath.
Policy states that these accommodations will be approved as long as the requests don’t interfere with the mission, readiness, etc. But a request for accommodation is not a guarantee that it will be granted. Compliance with the policy, practice, or duty, is required unless and until approved.
Additional requirement: the act (or refraining from) must be specifically commanded by the doctrine of your faith—and not based on your interpretation alone—and must be conducted in good faith. An appeals court deemed that while Scripture is a central part of the Christian faith, there are no doctrinal commands to post Bible verses in public view at the workplace, such as the Marine who refused to remove Scripture references—which were perceived as adversarial in undertone—from a cubicle wall.
Unless keeping a Bible on your work desk interferes with the mission, readiness, good order and discipline, or health (and it doesn’t), your freedom to do so should not be restricted.
What You Can’t Do
Some circumstances require care. Those in senior rank or position to the listener should “avoid the appearance of coercion or official government endorsement of” religion. It’s okay for a commander during his change-of-command speech to credit Jesus Christ for his successes. Or to explain it’s faith in Jesus Christ if an enlisted asks why you seem so centered. But don’t cross the line with a sermon to junior enlisted and suggest the only way their fitness reports will improve is if they repent and declare Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Your speech should be filled with truth, logic, and salt, but you may not let your feelings about other religions lead to discrimination and affect how you treat people professionally. Your respect for the person should always overpower your disagreement about their faith.
What You Should Do
Actions and presence (or absence) can speak volumes. You should find ways to be a Christ-like influence beyond inter-faith dialogue and Sunday services. Go out of your way to participate with your peers in sports and other extracurriculars, but make your absence obvious from social events centered around debauchery, such as where drunkenness is glorified.
Leaders must make their expectations clear and responses appropriate when lines are crossed. Nothing stifles a command climate faster than hypocrisy, but you must resist making allowances based on your own past mistakes. Leaders should lead with an ethic coming from a mind that’s continually conformed to Christ. Ask of your people what is good and right based on His moral law, not past misdeeds.
What You Must Do
You must pursue God and live out your faith while on active duty. It’s easy to get caught up in the cyclical training and deployment grind to where your faith comes out only on Sunday—if at all. Stay engaged. Find a spiritual battle buddy—someone to hold you accountable. Commit to a daily devotional. Be an example in both word and deed.
Because if you run into a Wishbone, it might be your word or deed that keeps them from snapping.
Major Jason Ladd, United States Marine Corps Reserve
Jason, a Marine who served for 14 years on active duty, is an apologist, entrepreneur, and author of One of the Few: A Marine Fighter Pilot’s Reconnaissance of the Christian Worldview. He writes about leadership, parenthood, and worldview development at jasonbladd.com/blog. He and his wife, Karry, have seven children.