Worshiping in a secular military

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7).

My understanding of Psalm 20:7 has changed since Missionary Howard Mohlke chose it to be my confirmation passage. I see that passage differently after six years of active duty as a United States Marine. King David was talking about two of the most effective and powerful weapons of his time. Today’s “chariots and horses” take the form of advanced jets and accurate weapons, but the temptation that Psalm 20 alludes to has not diminished.

The armies of Old Testament Israel had the advantage of having God as the head of their military organization. Our service members don’t have that advantage in a nation which separates church and state. Our nation values the qualities that our Christian men and women bring to the Armed Forces, but it will remain a secular organization.

The military provides for the religious needs of its service members through military chaplains from major religious denominations. This does not meet the needs of WELS service members who can only practice their faith fully through clergy of their own fellowship, particularly the reception of Holy Communion. The Department of Defense accounts for this situation through the regulation DoDI 1300.17: Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services. This regulation directs the services to approve requests for religious accommodation “when accommodation would not adversely affect mission accomplishment, including military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health, and safety, or any other military requirement.” In most circumstances WELS members can request religious services and the military will have to approve the request or be in violation of the law.

A request for religious services during basic training is an example of a good situation to use this right. The WELS National Civilian Chaplain to the military can help to prepare the religious accommodation request in advance and will connect the service member with a WELS pastor in the area who can serve them. In basic training this request will go to the drill sergeant/drill instructor. If the military member is already at their permanent duty station the request will go to their unit chaplain. In both cases, a military chaplain will be responsible for helping enable the request because, in addition to their religious duties, chaplains are responsible for ensuring that military members can worship according to their religion. When making the request, the military member will have to explain that the WELS is an Armed Forces-recognized “distinctive religious group” and it is not appropriate for them to receive services from Lutheran ministers who are not WELS.

The military can deny a request due to military necessity, such as the impracticality of bringing a WELS pastor onto an active battlefield or to a secret base. They will, however, work through the unit chaplain to provide access to appropriate religious materials or an opportunity to call or Skype a WELS minister.

Today’s “chariots and horses” are powerful, and our military is perhaps the strongest earthly army ever to exist, but I rejoice daily that our nation protects my right to take King David’s advice and trust in the name of the Lord my God instead.

For more information on how to request religious services while in uniform, contact Pastor Paul Ziemer, the WELS National Civilian Chaplain, at military@wels.net.

Adam Lawrenz is a member of the Military Services Committee and serves in uniform in the United States Marine Corps Reserve.