The Fighting Faithful

Is there still a place for religion in a secular, modern military?

The Reverend John Foote is one of the most inspiring figures in Canadian military history. A chaplain with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, Foote was part of the disastrous 1942 Dieppe raid and spent that terrible day carrying the wounded back under fire and ministering to the dead and dying. Several times Foote refused evacuation back to the safety of the ships. Given a final offer when he knew the alternative was captivity or death, Foote said he would be needed in the prisoner-of-war camps, and he walked back up the beach and into captivity. For his heroism, he was awarded the ultimate distinction for valour, the Victoria Cross.

Chaplains are a familiar aspect of military culture and history, especially the great battles of the Second World War. But what is their role in the modern world of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers, where there are no fixed battle lines or even clear friends and foes? And in an increasingly secular and diverse society such as Canada, what is the place of religion in a modern military force?

Joanne Benham Rennick’s Religion in the Ranks: Belief and Religious Experience in the Canadian Forces explores these questions. Rennick argues persuasively that while traditional religious practice may be declining both in the military and in Canada as a whole, religious and spiritual beliefs are more relevant than ever in the current military environment, a world of baffling conflicts and continual deployments, where the mission is often unclear and post-traumatic stress disorder lingers long after the return.

If John Foote is an inspiring figure of his era, no one represents the new context better than Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire. Powerless to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide in his role as the local United Nations commander, Dallaire returned a shattered man, suffering from PTSD and ultimately attempting suicide before his rehabilitation. In the foreword to Religion in the Ranks, Dallaire writes that “it took religious language to explain my face-to-face encounter with evil.” The Canadian military increasingly encounters situations of great anomie and suffering where no one can be trusted and individuals like Dallaire are caught in a moral vacuum. For many, only religion can provide certainty and answers for what they have experienced.

The importance of religion in the ranks may be somewhat surprising since the military is still made up largely of young men, who tend to be the least religious demographic in society, and, as one chaplain notes, “soldiers are not typically emotionally needy people.” Rennick emphasizes the concept of “unlimited liability,” in which servicemen and women are ready to kill and to sacrifice their own lives, and the demands of military life, with long absences from home and constant readiness for action. She then documents how military personnel like Dallaire turn to religious language, resources and rituals to provide meaning and comfort in their stressful lives.

Yet religion is tricky in the modern military. Not only do most personnel consider themselves “spiritual” rather than traditionally religious, but the Forces are becoming ever more diverse. Statistics are not available, but the number of Muslims and Sikhs is growing, along with Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, pagans and even—seriously—Jedi Knights, and they join committed atheists, the generally agnostic, Jews and Catholics, Orthodox, mainstream Protestants and evangelical Christians. There are numerous difficulties in accommodating and respecting all perspectives, especially in military culture. Drawing a line between public roles and private faith is difficult on board ships where there is almost no private space, or in operational scenarios where every moment is intertwined with the mission at hand. And dietary restrictions, prayer times, turbans and hijabs present special difficulties in the standardized military world.

Hence Religion in the Ranks is less about the specific spiritual experiences of people like Dallaire, and more a sociological study focusing on how the military accommodates this diversity. Rennick focuses on two main themes—the interest in spirituality but not formal religion, and the increasing diversity of faiths in the Canadian Forces. She explores these primarily through interviews with military personnel, resulting in a rich collection of stories and quotations that form the bulk of the book.

Rennick first focuses on the Canadian Forces Chaplaincy, which in 2006 (her latest figures) had 185 members—184 Christians and one imam—and which had only recently discarded “Onward Christian Soldiers” as its official hymn. Yet the chaplaincy has evolved considerably, from parallel Catholic and Protestant structures into a single organization that takes pains to downplay denominational and religious divisions. While chaplains still hand out bibles and perform formal services, their key role is pastoral—to be there to listen in a “ministry of presence” for everyone regardless of belief. Rennick’s interviews emphasize over and over that chaplains provide a safe space for emotions in the rough and tough military world. One chaplain describes a typical situation for a “non-religious” soldier:

He had been in Bosnia and he had seen some pretty bad stuff. Then when we were in Afghanistan he saw something that brought it all back to him and he couldn’t get it out of his head. It had something to do with a dead child, and what he had seen in Bosnia, and the fact that he had kids at home about the same age. He was a really big, tough guy and he was just sitting with me weeping. He came to my office one day and he said, “Padre, I feel I can talk to you,” and he sat down and started telling me about all the horrors he had seen in Bosnia and how he felt so powerless—and still felt powerless even now—in the way he thought about it and expressed his anger and emotions.

The chaplain finishes with perhaps the most important point of all: “This was stuff he couldn’t tell anyone without risking his job and career opportunities.” Chaplains are ambiguous—embedded in the military, but not part of the chain of command. This ambiguity is key to their role.

Religion in the Ranks draws a sharp contrast between the safety and informality of chaplains and the bureaucratic formality of official military social workers and counsellors (although no social workers appear to have been interviewed to give their perspective). Whether at home on the base or joining a forward patrol in the rain, the ministry of presence is constant—even if the solutions are not. One chaplain says: “I used to try to solve everything for people—they would come to me with a problem and I’d try to ‘fix them.’ I was overwhelmed. Now I have learned how to move back a little—now I just listen and try to direct them to take control more.” Chaplains must earn respect and influence slowly, and most consider the ministry of presence very fulfilling, although Rennick finds some unable to relate fully to those of different faiths and “the relativization of their calling.”

The latter part of the book focuses on ordinary personnel, many of whom are indeed “spiritual, but not religious.” There is still interest in traditional religion in the Canadian Forces, but the faithful are a minority and their numbers difficult to measure. Chapel attendance may be inflated when it is the only social activity available. Otherwise non–observant soldiers may carry scripture or religious medals into battle as talismans. And one navy chaplain reports that bibles were very popular on her ship, but perhaps because there was nothing else to read. Generally though, Rennick finds personnel constructing their own spiritual frameworks, mirroring the non-threatening ministry of presence practised by most chaplains. And spiritual interest does appear high, especially in times of stress: “In a context where rockets are hitting the camp every night, it doesn’t seem so strange to discuss the ‘big issues’ of human existence.” But it is difficult to reconcile the privatized, do-it-yourself spirituality of late modernity with those who hold strong fixed beliefs. The Forces suffer the familiar problems of secular society—some of Rennick’s interviewees complain they cannot freely express their faith; others that they cannot escape religious trappings and attitudes. Gays and lesbians may feel especially vulnerable given the conservative attitudes of most religions.

The challenges grow with the proliferation of non-Christian faiths in the Forces, almost all unrepresented in the chaplain branch and posing their own cultural and ritual needs. The Forces do appear to be slowly adapting, but again, as in society as a whole, accommodation can be difficult. Uniforms have been adapted for Sikh turbans, but there is still no easy way to combine that head covering with helmets. Halal, kosher or vegetarian food is not always available, especially in forward areas. Muslim calls to prayer may not fit the training schedule, nor is there always space for a designated room. Rennick’s respondents generally report a willingness to accommodate diverse needs, although often only after some bewilderment and misunderstanding. Furthermore, many report their colleagues are genuinely curious about different religions, especially as the Canadian Forces are sent into diverse parts of the world.

One of the most interesting things Rennick finds is that some base their spirituality directly on their identity as military personnel, especially aboriginal peoples. One woman says, “I am a warrior. We are all warriors. All Aboriginals raised in Aboriginal spirituality are warriors.” This idea is not confined to traditional faiths; Rennick reports that a number of Canadian Forces personnel identify with the Jedi Knights. As fans of Star Wars know, the Jedi, although fictional, are warriors holding to a spiritual and moral code, and this resonates with some who reject traditional religious options. However, Rennick notes, “Jedi is not currently one of the options for religious self-identification in the CF.”

One area where Religion in the Ranks may fall short is in the discussion of evangelical Christians (16 percent of chaplains are Baptist or evangelical). There is no mention of the Military Christian Fellowship, an internationally linked lay evangelical organization that puts together its own bible studies and prayer groups. It does appear that evangelicals—both chaplains and others—are less comfortable with the do-it-yourself spirituality of others, but there is no specific focus on evangelicals in this book. There are, however, several abrasive quotes from a “fundamentalist,” presumably all the same person, that he was “persecuted” for calling homosexuality an abomination and wants no part of giving “equal time to all faiths.”  Some more balanced voices might have been helpful here.

It is hard not to feel touched by the stories of Religion in the Ranks. The spirituality expressed by both chaplains and personnel often appears vague and ambiguous, but so are many of the missions of the Canadian Forces in 2011. Rennick captures the sense of an evolving institution, grappling with changes in traditional spirituality and the growing diversity of faiths in Canada. In turn, the Forces are a microcosm of the challengesof religious pluralism and accommodation faced by Canadian society, challenges that will only increase.On the other hand, military personnel are brought together by a common vocation and sense of mission—a mission that for many can only be fully processed through religion. It turns out there are a few atheists in foxholes. But most military personnel, like most Canadians, are searching for something more.