On August 20, 2015 I had my 30th Anniversary for coming into the Army. That’s right. On August 20, 1985—at the age of 29, married with two children—I enlisted in the Army. Officer Candidate School, seminary, and a direct appointment as a chaplain followed over the next seven years. But from my days as a private, I was discouraged from practicing my faith.
No Holy Joes
My leaders said that the Army is no place for “Holy Joes,” i.e. people passionate about their religious faith. That’s because the Army was a hostile work environment for people of faith. The sea of profanity, vulgarity, dirty jokes, pornography, and the relentless pressure to be “one of the guys” (by going to the bar after work) forced the serious believer to be an outsider. Your only advocate in those days was the chaplain. There was never any true religious freedom, just a sort of “conditional religious tolerance.” The culture tolerated the practice of my faith as long as I didn’t offend anyone.
Since those days the military has changed. The need for designated drivers has relieved much of the cultural pressure to be “a drinking buddy.” With the military’s focus on preventing sexual harassment, a lot of the vulgarity has disappeared, as have the pervasive displays of pornography.
But the military remains a hostile work environment for people of devout faith. This is because much of what the Army once considered wrong it now considers right. As the military continues to shift from what was once considered the “Moral High Ground,” it leaves behind the devout. The shift makes quite conspicuous those “Holy Joes” who grounded their morality in their faith, which cannot change. You see, faith-based morality (a code of right and wrong) is rooted in the character of God and, therefore, will not fluctuate with the pulse of our culture.
Faith-based morality is like that stubborn little needle in a compass. It insists on always pointing to magnetic north, regardless of the direction we turn. The military tends to shift with the popular political mood of the country. However servicemembers who are passionate about their faith keep turning back in their hearts to that moral voice of God.
Sadly, faith-based morality is getting servicemembers—and civilians—in trouble. This is because people of faith do not practice a “weathervane morality,” one that turns with the changing winds of our popular culture. Only recently one of our Unit Ministry Teams was accused of discrimination because the chaplain was simply adhering to the dictates of his church. This is something the Army requires him to do (AR 165–1, 3–2, b, (5); 3-5, b; 6–14, b). I have two other chaplain friends who are currently being investigated for simply adhering to the tenets of their faith. Unfortunately, doing so offended someone. Every US citizen has the Constitutional right to the free exercise of their faith. But every day on the news we can read of these rights being curtailed. And this simply because their moral stand was offensive to someone. They refused to be a weathervane in their morality.
Although the First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees all Americans the right to the free exercise of their faith, yet religious freedom has fallen from the status of a right to “conditional tolerance.” We can only practice our faith as long as it offends no one. But should you offend someone, then they identify you as “the problem.” Then, you become vulnerable to disciplinary action or litigation.
So, which characterizes your morality, a weathervane or the magnetic needle? Do you simply turn with the breeze of popular culture? Or do you cling to the eternal truths rooted in God who never changes? The prophet Isaiah described faith-based morality in these terms, “Whenever you veer off to the right or to the left, your ears shall hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way you must go, walk in this direction’” (Isaiah 30:22).
Dear Father in heaven, I am constantly torn between the ever-changing direction of my culture and the straight and narrow path which You call me to follow. Help me to hear Your voice amidst all the clamor. Help me to follow You, for this world and all its pontifications are passing away, but the one who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:17). Amen.