Military Rules Spark Debate over Expressions of Faith

November 5, 2006

Author: Larry Gordon

Source: The Dallas Morning News/Los Angeles Times

When Lt. Cmdr. John Dickens, a Navy chaplain at Camp Pendleton in California, was assigned to offer a prayer at a change of command ceremony recently, he knew the parameters of his invocation.

He asked for God's blessing on the outgoing Marine officer and for God's help in providing guidance to the new battalion commander. But Cmdr. Dickens, a United Methodist chaplain who recently served in Iraq, was careful not to specifically mention Jesus Christ the way he frequently does during his Sunday services for Protestant troops.

His goal, he said, was to lend a spiritual tone to the otherwise secular occasion, without alienating non-Christian Marines and sailors who were required to attend.

"When you begin to pray in a way that shows a clear affinity to a faith group, that could knock out a lot of people who could otherwise feel included in a prayer that refers to God in a way that all can acknowledge," he explained. "You may wind up doing greater harm in the name of religion than good."

The distinction between his prayer language at public military events and at voluntary church services on base or in the field follows Navy tradition and recent policy.

But those customs are at the heart of a debate about a chaplain's liberty to express his own faith in a secular setting and whether phrases such as "praying in Jesus' name" could offend others and cause divisions in the military ranks.