Since the United States’ founding, American civil and military leadership have taken deliberate steps to meet the religious needs of the military and to prevent it from becoming a purely secular entity. The founders were no strangers to government provision of religious support to the military.
#1: President George Washington. Perhaps no individual had a greater influence in shaping our nation’s armed forces than George Washington, its first Commander-in-Chief. He made known his convictions on the importance of religion within the military early in his career while serving as a young Colonel during the French & Indian War (1753-1763). Throughout that time, he repeatedly requested religious support for his troops, explaining: “Common decency, Sir, in a camp calls for the services of a divine, and which ought not to be dispensed with, altho’ the world should be so uncharitable as to think us void of religion.”
Washington’s British superiors refused each of his requests. But Washington believed so firmly that religious exercises and activities were essential to the well-being of his troops that he periodically undertook to perform those duties himself, including reading Scriptures, offering prayers and conducting funeral services.
Future presidents and legislatures followed Washington’s lead, laying a solid foundation for religious expression in the military. After the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, it became evident that reconciliation with Great Britain was unlikely. In response, Congress officially established the Continental Army, and explicitly recommended that “all officers and soldiers diligently to attend Divine Service.” Similarly, Congress instructed America’s fledgling navy that “commanders of the ships of the Thirteen United Colonies are to take care that Divine Service be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon be preached on Sundays.”
#2: President John Adams. America’s second Commander-in-Chief, John Adams, was no less insistent that religious expression be promoted in the military. Known as “the Father of the American Navy,” Adams’ presidency saw the U.S. Navy grow from its humble origins, as an organization comprised largely of privateers, into a formidable fighting force capable of defending the nation. During the Navy’s ascendency under his watch, Adams instructed his Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, on the importance of a Navy chaplaincy: I know not whether the commanders of our ships have given much attention to this subject [chaplains], but in my humble opinion, we shall be very unskillful politicians as well as bad Christians and unwise men if we neglect this important office in our infant navy.
Congress responded favorably to President Adams’ desire by establishing and providing for naval chaplains, and re-issuing the naval regulations it established during the Revolutionary War, requiring that Divine Service be performed twice each day aboard all naval vessels and that a sermon be preached each Sunday.
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SOURCE: Liberty Institute