Fighting for Religious Freedom in the Military

Military prayer

July is the month that Americans celebrate their freedoms and the men and women who risk their lives to protect these God-given rights. Among the most important is religious freedom—the freedom to think, believe and act according to ones deeply held beliefs.

This year, as we were gearing up for our star-spangled festivities, I learned that violence is escalating in Iraq, and if a full-blown civil war hasn’t technically begun, it’s certainly looming. As my thoughts turned to my brother, wondering if he would be deployed again, I realized just how important religious freedom is for those who are serving our country.

War is ugly. And our men and women in uniform are exposed to the horrors, atrocities and brutality of these conflicts. These are the times, when they are staring death in the face, when many people rely upon their faith and their God to help see them through. I can only imagine how fervent and heart-felt are the prayers of those who are confronting the enemy, hoping to live and return home safely to their families. Their prayers possibly are matched only in intensity by the loved ones they leave behind.

Unfortunately, Americans are fighting another war—on faith and religious freedom. Other, more popular, so-called “liberties” are taking the place of our foundational freedom—the freedom to think, believe and act according to our own beliefs. The military is no exception to this conflict.

Although soldiers sacrifice some of their privileges and comforts to serve our country, they should not have to sacrifice their religious freedom. As we celebrate America’s Founding Fathers and the birth of our nation, it’s important to remember the importance they placed on freedom of religion, and why it’s still essential today—especially in the military.


Religious Freedom and the Birth of Our Nation

Washington praying at Valley Forge

Religious freedom played a vital role in the history of the United States. Many of the first American colonists came to the New World to escape religious persecution. After the 13 fledgling colonies won their independence, the Framers of the Constitution worked diligently to create a form of government that would allow this people to flourish—and they knew that would include protecting religious freedom. John Adams, one of America’s Founding Fathers, said (John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles F. Adams, 1854.):

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.

Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (with the First Presidency, the governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), said:

“Do you think that mere chance placed the freedom to worship according to individual conscience among the first freedoms specified in the Bill of Rights—freedoms that are destined to flourish together or perish separately?

“The Founding Fathers understood this country’s spiritual heritage. They frequently declared that God’s hand was upon this nation…. While they were influenced by history and their accumulated knowledge, the single most influential reference source for their work on the Constitution was the Holy Bible.”

George Washington is a towering example of what it means to be a great soldier in a republic. Washington was extremely disciplined and deeply religious. These traits were not merely coincidental. Rather, they were self-reinforcing.

James Madison, often called the Father of the U.S. Constitution, said (Russ Walton, Biblical Principles of Importance to Godly Christians, New Hampshire: Plymouth Foundation, 1984, p. 361.):

“We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of the government—far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”

And so they created a government that would foster and support religious freedom. Elder Ballard said:

“The Founding Fathers … wrote in the First Amendment that the government cannot impede the free exercise of religion. They wrote that the church and the state were to be separate, independent entities, not to eliminate morality and God’s law but to make sure that the power of government could never be used to silence religious expression or to persecute religious practice.”

George Washington said (Maxims of Washington, New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1894, pp. 370–71.):

If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution, framed in the convention where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it.

Our Founding Fathers never intended for religion to be relegated to “just on Sundays at church.” They knew that obedience to religious teachings and principles had to be part of our everyday lives for this system of government to function properly. Elder Ballard said:

“The framers of the Constitution probably assumed that religious freedom would establish religion as a watchdog over government, and believed that free churches would inevitably stand and speak against immoral and corrupt legislation. … To remove the influence of religion from public policy simply because some are uncomfortable with any degree of moral restraint is like the passenger on a sinking ship who removes his life jacket because it is restrictive and uncomfortable.”

Instead of jumping on the “you can’t legislate morality” bandwagon, we need to look at the good that religion does in all aspects of life. And, in turn, we can see the fundamental importance that it plays in military life.


Religion in the Military


Religion Inspire Principles


Religious teachings offer us a moral compass to guide us throughout our lives. We learn from the Bible that we are our brother’s keepers, that we must stand for truth and right and protect others to the best of our ability. Little wonder, then, that the Founding Fathers worked so hard to preserve religious freedom for the people. Aren’t these many of the same characteristics we find in those who are serving our country? A statement from the Family Research Council reads:

“Military life is hard and dangerous. It requires a level of focus and endurance— physical, mental, and spiritual— that simply is not required of many other occupations. Consequently, one would expect that those who pursue a military life must attain to a higher level of self-discipline than their civilian counterparts.

“In this, as in many areas of life, George Washington is a towering example of what it means to be a great soldier in a republic. Washington was extremely disciplined and deeply religious. These traits were not merely coincidental. Rather, they were self-reinforcing. So it is with members of the modern Armed Forces. Religious conviction is not merely an add-on belief; it is like a strand in a rope that complements the others while greatly increasing strength.”

Those who are serving our country—especially in times of war— must have strength of character. They must hold themselves to a higher standard of accountability because they are representing the American people. And our faith helps us to define and strengthen our character. Elder Richard G. Scott, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said:

Faith and character are intimately related. Faith in the power of obedience to the commandments of God will forge strength of character available to you in times of urgent need. Such character is not developed in moments of great challenge or temptation. That is when it is intended to be used. … Faith and character interact to strengthen one another. Character is woven patiently from threads of applied principle, doctrine, and obedience.

In addition to developing character, religious teachings and principles foster other traits that are important to military service: discipline, faith in the face of fearful circumstances, and courage to do what’s right. Each one illustrates the impact that religion—and one righteous soldier—can have on the military.


The Power of Obedience and Discipline


The military demands strict adherence to its principles and values. Indeed, it’s vital for them to obey direct orders, because it can mean the difference between life and death for many people. But understanding the power of obedience doesn’t just happen—it’s taught.

The Church of Jesus Christ and other faiths teach not only to be obedient, but why it’s so important. Rather than being drilled into their heads, it’s written on their hearts. Elder L. Tom Perry, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, said:

“Too often we think of obedience as the passive and thoughtless following of the orders or dictates of a higher authority. Actually, at its best, obedience is an emblem of our faith in the wisdom and power of the highest authority, even God. … Those who rely solely on themselves and follow only their own desires and self-inclinations are so limited when compared to those who follow God and tap into His insight, power, and gifts. It has been said that someone who is all wrapped up in himself or herself makes a very small package.”

Obedience to God’s commandments allows us to be free, unfettered from the sins of this life. Obedience also qualifies us for the blessings and protections of heaven. However, we must remember that the commandments of God are absolute, they don’t change. They aren’t a buffet from which we can pick and choose which ones we like. Obedience to God’s commandments also breeds self-discipline: the ability to do what’s right, no matter how difficult the task. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, taught the importance of “moral discipline.” He said:

“By ‘moral discipline,’ I mean self-discipline based on moral standards. Moral discipline is the consistent exercise of agency to choose the right because it is right, even when it is hard. It rejects the self-absorbed life in favor of developing character worthy of respect and true greatness through Christlike service (see Mark 10:42–45). The root of the word discipline is shared by the word disciple, suggesting to the mind the fact that conformity to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ is the ideal discipline that, coupled with His grace, forms a virtuous and morally excellent person.”

Obedience is an emblem of our faith in the wisdom and power of … God.

Obedience, discipline and moral values are important traits for society as well as for those who are in the military. Elder Christofferson said:

“The societies in which many of us live have for more than a generation failed to foster moral discipline. They have taught that truth is relative and that everyone decides for himself or herself what is right. Concepts such as sin and wrong have been condemned as ‘value judgments.’ … As a consequence, self-discipline has eroded and societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion. The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments. …

“In the end, it is only an internal moral compass in each individual that can effectively deal with the root causes as well as the symptoms of societal decay. Societies will struggle in vain to establish the common good until sin is denounced as sin and moral discipline takes its place in the pantheon of civic virtues.”

Our Founding Fathers knew that for a democratic society to function properly, its citizens needed to have an internal moral compass— and the self-discipline to follow it. They knew that American citizens had to be anchored to the commandments of God so they wouldn’t be tossed to and fro with the shifting winds of worldly ideas. Our nation will continue to struggle to establish the common good, if we can’t agree on what that is. Religious freedom allows each of us to anchor ourselves in our beliefs while at the same time allowing others the same freedom. We don’t have to agree, we just have to agree to be civil. The military, also, will struggle to establish a common good unless and until it fosters an atmosphere where religious freedom can thrive.


Faith and Courage in the Face of Danger



Putting our faith and trust in a Higher Power also helps us to have courage in the face of adversity and danger. Knowing that no matter what, we are in God’s hands, helps us to face whatever comes our way. President Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ, said:

The call for courage comes constantly to each of us. It has ever been so, and so shall it ever be. The battlefields of war witness acts of courage. Some are printed on pages of books or contained on rolls of film, while others are indelibly impressed on the human heart.

But the words of Moses ring as true today as they did back then: “Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid … : for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

Of this scripture, President Monson said:

“It is this sweet assurance that can guide you and me—in our time, in our day, in our lives. Of course we will face fear, experience ridicule, and meet opposition. Let us have the courage to defy the consensus, the courage to stand for principle. Courage, not compromise, brings the smile of God’s approval. Courage becomes a living and an attractive virtue when it is regarded not only as a willingness to die manfully, but as the determination to live decently. A moral coward is one who is afraid to do what he thinks is right because others will disapprove or laugh. Remember that all men have their fears, but those who face their fears with dignity have courage as well.”

Faith and courage in the face of opposition and danger are essential characteristics for those who are serving our country—and for the loved ones waiting anxiously for their return home. We strengthen our faith and courage as we obey the commandments of God and see the blessings that follow. We hold to this faith and courage as we wait and pray for those who are in harm’s way, sacrificing their own safety for the freedoms we enjoy. These are qualities that the military should support and uphold—not try to root out.

Courage, not compromise, brings the smile of God’s approval.

Those who enlist in the military sacrifice much—including some of their rights. My brother can’t even go out of town with his family without getting clearance to leave. He and his family have committed and are committed to the military. This is to be expected. But we can’t expect soldiers to stop being free-thinking people when they enlist. They must uphold the rigid military standards, but they should not have to compromise and hide their beliefs simply because their ideology may be unpopular with the trends of the world. The military needs men and women who are courageous, disciplined, faithful and principled. How can we foster these attributes in our soldiers if we suppress the religious beliefs and teachings that instill them?



Lisa Montague is a staff writer for the More Good Foundation. She graduated from Brigham Young University. And is currently raising four great kids with her husband in the mountains of Idaho. She loves spending time with her family, writing, skiing, and making quilts.