Guest article by Chaplain (Colonel) Karen Meeker, Eighth Army Command Chaplain, and Chaplain (Major) Eric Dean, Eighth Army Deputy Command Chaplain
The global pandemic of 2020-2021 has had far reaching and sometimes unexpected effects. In the U.S. Army, this has led chaplains to hold in tandem three inextricably connected but distinct issues: the U.S. Constitution, the local community, and the cultural dynamics of the country. Similar to the set of Borromean rings depicted above, these three must be kept in relative balance with one another, adjusting as a whole – and not independently – in proportion to the risk. What follows is the development of this approach along with five maxims to guide decisions for safely providing religious support especially to soldiers and their families stationed overseas during a pandemic.
Maxim number one: make every effort to enable safe opportunities for the divine human connection.
The first aspect of the trifecta of considerations is religious support to the military community, which is comprised of soldiers, family members, Department of the Army civilians, retirees, host nation employees, and contractors. Military life is challenging for soldiers and families as members balance the demands of frequent moves, deployments, separations, and real-world missions in defense of freedom. Early studies from 2020 show an increase in substance abuse, depression, loneliness, sexual assault, prolonged grief disorder, and divorce as the pandemic continues to limit options for connection, hope, and support.[i] While Department of the Army provides a myriad of support services, there is only one that specifically builds a spiritual core to mitigate corrosive conditions and behaviors – Army Garrison Chapels. Dr. Lisa Miller of Columbia University demonstrates in her research how a strong spiritual core builds a protective factor which allows soldiers to withstand the rigors of military life.[ii] Hence, maxim number one: make every effort to enable safe opportunities for the divine human connection.
Maxim number two: seek temporary dispensations from proper religious authorities for religious practices and obligations so that congregations and communities can be safeguarded.
Some argued that keeping chapels open posed too great a health risk to the force. Churches in the U.S. and in parts of Asia were in the headlines with reports of being “hotspots.”[iii] By highlighting churches while underreporting other hotspots, such as nightclubs[iv], sporting events[v], universities[vi], or businesses[vii], a false correlation emerged between religious gatherings and COVID-19 super-spreader events. Since forward deployed locations must remain ready to fight at a moment’s notice, any threat to readiness is dealt with immediately and definitively. To maintain a high state of readiness during the pandemic, varying levels of health protection measures were implemented, to include orders to “shelter in place.” Under these conditions everything closed on military installations except for “life, health, and safety.” Commissaries, gyms, and hospitals remained open while chapels were closed due to perceived risk associated with religious gatherings, limiting religious expression to virtual services only. One Department of Defense Endorser echoed what several large religious organizations require of their congregants, “Virtual presence is never a substitute for physical presence.”[viii] A soldier from the 3rd Infantry Division put it this way, “My faith is important to me. Watching on a screen from my barracks room does not compare to being in worship. This [being in chapel] keeps me focused.” Maxim number two: seek temporary dispensations from proper religious authorities for religious practices and obligations so that congregations and communities can be safeguarded. Maxim number three: if gyms are open, chapels with high health protection measures should be open as well.
Maxim number three: if gyms are open, chapels with high health protection measures should be open as well.
The second consideration to hold in balance is the cultural dynamic which requires chaplains to think about not only the faith community in the chapel facility, but also anyone who could be listening and watching via a social media platform. In one situation, an Army garrison overseas offered both “in person” and online religious services. Some citizens of the host nation took offense since its government closed all in person worship. Typically what goes on at Army chapels in foreign countries is not known to the public, but because of the pandemic, most services were livestreaming worship on the internet. The world, including the host nation, could be watching. To mitigate the impact on host nation relations, chapels framed their “online view” to the chancel area. Congregations and choirs were excluded from the camera’s view so military members in the congregation could maintain their privacy. Maxim number four: only show the apse, bimah or mihrab area with religious leaders wearing masks and maintaining proper physical distancing. While not implying that health protection measures were relaxed “off camera,” the practice of focusing the “field of view” helped shape any potential misunderstandings in the digital space and protected the identity of those in worship. Similarly maxim number five was established in order to conduct a more disciplined approach to “online” presence: disseminate information about chapel services by using analog methods, such as contacting individuals directly rather than using public online postings. A key consideration for developing these maxims was the impact to the strategic relationship between the host nation and U.S. Armed Forces.
Maxim number four: only show the apse, bimah or mihrab area with religious leaders wearing masks and maintaining proper physical distancing.
The third consideration is the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the free exercise of religion. Over the past year, this aspect was repeatedly the last consideration and would have been left out altogether if not for a few who rallied for religious liberty and protection under the law. As one senior U.S. Army chaplain pondered, “Wait, you [DoD] are talking about medical exceptions, but forgot what the law and the U.S. Constitution require for religious exceptions and exemptions.” During the early days of the pandemic, the Department of the Army closed “in person” worship at military chapels. This decision was called into question by members of Congress who were concerned that Service Members’ right to free exercise of religion was being unduly restricted.[ix] The “Sherbert Test,”[x] which requires the government to demonstrate “compelling interest” in limiting religious practices and to do so in the least restrictive means, is reflected in Army policies and regulations:
The Army places a high value on the rights of its Soldiers to observe tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all; while protecting the civil liberties of its personnel to the greatest extent possible, consistent with its military requirements.[xi]
Maxim number five[:…] disseminate information about chapel services by using analog methods, such as contacting individuals directly rather than using public online postings.
The order to close “in person” chapel services was amended to allow commanders at the local level positioned around the world to decide how best to manage the health and protection of their units and organizations. Maxim number five: delegate authority to commanders in the field to act with prudent courage to fulfill their mission wherever they may be stationed around the world.
As COVID-19 endures, causing social, political, and economic uncertainties across the globe, America should expect that leaders of the U.S. Army are providing opportunities for soldiers and their families to exercise their faith. As commanders deliberate on how best to optimize military power, these three distinct but inextricably connected issues should be kept in relative balance: upholding the U.S. Constitution thus ensuring the wellness of the force while maintaining cultural sensitivities. Those who hold the three in tandem will model American values as they ensure that soldiers and family members are safe, ready, and spiritually resilient to defend our nation’s freedoms, while at the same time demonstrating good faith toward allies and partners. Those who do not hold these three in tandem, risk the overall health of the military community, thus effecting long-term readiness, litigation for violating the First Amendment, and possibly a diplomatic rift with the host nation, putting in jeopardy national and regional security.
What holds these three Borromean rings together? It is the soldier. More precisely it is the spirit of the soldier. If the core of the soldier is the spirit and the core of the Army is the soldier, then to care for the soldier’s spirit is to care for the Army. That is why religious support to the soldier, under all and any conditions, is of the utmost importance. That is why the Chaplain Corps of the United States Army stands ready to to provide religious services and spiritual support to all the members of the Army family anywhere, any time under all conditions. It is our sacred honor.
“The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.”
[i] Cherie Armour et al., “Understanding the longitudinal psychosocial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom; a methodological overview of The COVID-19 Psychological Wellbeing Study,” PsyArXiv Preprints, https://psyarxiv.com/9p4tv, last edited on 7 October 2020, accessed on 9 February 2021.
[ii] Lisa Miller, The Spiritual Child, (New York: Picador, 2016), 220-232. Dr. Miller identifies that adolescents who have a positive, active relationship to spirituality are 40 percent less likely to use and abuse substances, 60 percent less likely to be depressed as teenagers, 80 percent less likely to have dangerous or unprotected sex, and more likely to have positive markers for thriving and high levels of academic success.
[iv] Nadine Muller et al., “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 Outbreak Related to a Nightclub, Germany, 2020,” Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal, 2021;27(2):645-648, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/27/2/20-4443_article, last accessed on 15 February 2021.
[v] Joshua Robinson, “The Soccer Match that Kicked Off Italy’s Coronavirus Disaster,” The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-soccer-match-that-kicked-off-italys-coronavirus-disaster-11585752012, updated 1 April 2020, accessed on 15 February 2021.
[vi] Hannah Lu et al. “Are college campuses superspreaders? A data-driven modeling study,” Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10255842.2020.1869221, uploaded on 13 January 2021, accessed on 15 February 2021.
[vii] Farah Stockman and Kim Barker, “How a premier U.S. drug company became a virus ‘super-spreader,’” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/us/coronavirus-biogen-boston-superspreader.html, last updated 12 April 2020, accessed 15 February 2021.
[viii] The Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, “Letter to the Military Archdiocese for the Military Services,” May 7, 2020.
[ix] South Bay United Pentecostal Church, et al., v. Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, et al., 592 U.S._____(2021), (The Supreme Court of the United States of America). The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the need to ensure the free exercise of religion outweighed the risk posed by COVID-19. Specifically, the Supreme Court ruled that the State of California could not prevent its citizens from attending in-person religious services, however religious organizations are required to implement public health protection measures similar to other organizations, such as businesses, sports venues, etc.
[x] Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (U.S. 1963) incorporated into the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (Public Law 103-141).
[xi] Army Regulation 600-20, Army Command Policy, July 28, 2020, 5-6 . Accommodating religious practices. a. Policy. (1).