The Fort Hood shootings have raised questions again about how the military should handle the personal religious beliefs of its soldiers, whether they are evangelical Christians, Muslims, Wiccans, and so on. What is the proper role of religion -- and personal religious belief -- in the U.S. armed forces? Should a particular religious affiliation disqualify someone from active military service? How far should the military go to accommodate personal religious beliefs and practices?
The heart of this question is “can I trust a person of another faith to cover my back in battle”? Is there something in their religious text, in their beliefs or their practice that will prevent them from doing their job in battle? Or, in the reverse, if I know the soldier goes to the same church as me can I trust him more? In short, is he loyal first to his faith or to his country?
The answer is: neither, he’s loyal to his buddy.
Snappy recruiting slogans aside, long standing research has proven that in the heat of a firefight there is no such thing as an Army of One and that is intentional. From the day they are recruited, soldiers are trained to be part of a team. Over the course of their training they are subjected to rigors and abuses, sacrifice and exhaustion, and they emerge as a cohesive unit bonded by that transformational experience. They are “brothers in arms.” When this team is deployed, when they are under fire, they see not “a Jewish person” or “a Republican” being fired on, but a guy they’ve bled and sweat with, a guy they are committed to, a guy they can count on and who is counting on them.
And that’s a good thing because in that moment, they are no longer soldiers whose individuality has been sublimated to the needs of the unit and who are meticulously machined into interchangeable uniformity. In that moment, they are Human.
There’s nothing new in this. We all know that the path to tolerance and acceptance is paved one friendship at a time. When we move from generalizations to personal relationships, we recover our humanity. My children recently saw television footage of a raid on what the voice-over said was “the house of a Muslim.” The mother and children in that home were terrified and crying and my own children responded in kind. “That could be Fakhra,” they said referring to a family friend of ours, “those could be her sons.”
We ask ourselves to what degree we should make accommodations for religious freedom in our military. The answer is “as far as possible.” This is our military, after all. It goes into foreign countries under our flag, it should represent our beliefs, including, literally at the top of the list, religious freedom. Because it is right, because it is humane, because an awful lot of the time it is what these brave men and women are fighting for.
There is a responsibility that comes with being created in “the image of God.” It is a responsibility to be righteous and go to war to protect the weak and preserve the good. It is a responsibility to be faithful, to look deeply at our motivation to be sure it stems from our beliefs. But most critically of all, it requires compassion: love for our fellow man and sacrifice for him if need be. It is in that sacrifice that we can finally “be all we can be.”