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    Topic: Religion and Ethical Leadership for Junior Officers in the Fleet
    Written By: MIDN 1/C Jerrod Cole Watson
    Course: N S 4633 Naval Leadership and Ethics
    Professor: Captain Hall
    Date Submitted: 12 April 2018

    Junior officers in the United States Navy are faced with situations every day that challenge their leadership ability and their ethics. Most people assume that these situations involve decisions being made that result in life or death. Although there are many cases that do involve this, there is so much more that goes into being a junior officer. Yes, they are responsible for the lives of the Sailor’s that follow them but they are also responsible for their well-being and giving them the necessary tools so that they can perform their jobs effectively. In today’s times and most of history, religion has been an important part of people’s lives. In the United States Navy, all Sailors have some sort of religious views ranging from the belief in a God to belief that religion is pointless and no God exists. One of the responsibilities of junior officers to their Sailor’s is to ensure that they respect the religious beliefs of all of them and not let their own personal opinions get in the way of their decision making. In today’s Navy, religion still plays a large part in the ethical/leadership challenges junior officers face and it is important for them to be able to effectively separate their own religious beliefs from their decision-making with respect to ethics, mission accomplishment, and the needs of their Sailors.

    Before diving into the importance of separation between religion, decision making, and mission accomplishment, it is essential to prove the relevancy of religion in the United States Navy. The United States is one of the most religiously diverse countries on the planet. Since the military reflects the society from which its members are taken from, it can be assumed that the United States Navy and the United States Military as a whole are very diverse. In a study conducted back in June 2010 by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission to determine the religious diversity of the United States Military, they found that over 22 religions were represented in some capacity (Military Leadership Diversity Commission, 2010). These religions included Adventist, Jewish, Muslim, and Humanist. This vast diversity of religious beliefs is one of the reasons that makes the United States Military so unique and effective. The same study also surveyed the importance of religion to various servicemembers. Most responses ranged from Moderately Important to Very Important with significantly less members responding that religion was not important to them (Military Leadership Diversity Commission, 2010). The results of this survey show that there is a wide variety of religions in the United States Military and those that follow a religion place significant importance in it. This places a responsibility on junior officers to respect the religious beliefs of their Sailor’s and requires them to take into account those beliefs in their decision making.

    As showcased in the previous paragraph, religion is an important part of the day to day lives of many Sailor’s. This includes both Naval Officers and Enlisted members. Naval Officers have the unique responsibility of leadership and making decisions that directly affect those that follow them. This is where the ethical dilemma provided by religion comes into play. One of the most important parts of military leadership is the determination of right and wrong and placing a high priority on ethics. The question is then how does a Naval Officer’s personal religious beliefs play into their decision making and ethical views? The simple answer is that in the Navy they cannot.

    There are multiple reasons why the statement made in the previous paragraph is true. To begin, religion cannot be the sole base in which individuals derive their beliefs on ethics from, especially in the United States Navy and the military in general. This is not to say that religion does not have a positive effect on an individual’s morality. It has been proven that religions have a strong, positive influence on the morality of the individuals that practice them. Religion gives people incentives to be moral and influences what “type of person” they aspire to be like (Lucas and Rubel, 2015). Even with these positive points however, religion and morality cannot be seen as one and the same. One of the characteristics of a solid, grounded moral theory is that it is not wildly opposed to an individual’s habits and gut responses to problems (Lucas and Rubel, 2015). Utilizing religion as the basis of moral theory violates this principle. Not all people have the same religious beliefs, so a response to a problem that seems normal to a Christian might seem detrimental to someone who is Muslim. Interestingly enough, the diversity of religion is a strength that also serves as a weakness. Since beliefs on religion vary so greatly, it cannot be deemed a valid approach to morality because it is impossible to generate beliefs on ethics/morality that members of all religions as well as those that don’t follow religion would unanimously agree upon.

    Morality is something that needs to be able to stand on its own and that is why it cannot be solely drawn from religion. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, religion is a very diverse establishment. Even people that follow the same religion do not have the exact same outlook on life. It is important for moral actions to be justified for reasons beyond religion. For example, in the Biblical story involving Abraham following the God-given command to sacrifice his son, Abraham seemed to disregard what was ethical in place of faith. This story seems to exemplify that the greatest obstacle to faith is the desire and temptation to be ethical (Lucas and Rubel, 2015). This thinking undermines the autonomy (self -governance) that is essential to morality. This means that morality should be free from external control. People should believe something is right/moral because it is, not because their religious beliefs require them to think so. Religion taking away from the autonomy of morality along with its inability to provide an agreed upon approach to what is right makes it unqualified to be someone’s sole source of moral reasoning. Therefore, a Naval Officer cannot and should not rely solely on religion to determine his or her moral standing.

    The previous paragraphs talked about how religion could not influence a Naval Officer’s decision making and ethics because of morality needing to stand on its own. There are also certain requirements of Naval Officers that push religion out of the picture. One of the most important parts of the career of an officer in the military is reciting the Oath of Office. This Oath binds the individuals that recite it to upholding the ideals expressed in the Constitution. This document represents the supreme law of the land by which the United States has operated by since its inception. It is the responsibility of those in the military to protect the values expressed in the Constitution along with following what it says themselves. Specific to religion, Naval Officers are entitled to their own religious beliefs, but because of the Oath they took they are not entitled to interpret the meanings of the Constitution through their own religious standpoints (Cook, 2007). The meaning of the Constitution has been interpreted and set by the Supreme Court, which means that there is no room for opinion, only loyalty and obedience. This loyalty to the Constitution from a military standpoint can be most appropriately explained through Constitutional Ethics, specifically the hierarchy of loyalties.

    In the United States Navy, Naval Officers follow a hierarchy of loyalties which outline where their loyalties should lie. From most important to least, the hierarchy of loyalties contains the Constitution, Mission, Service, Ship/Command, Shipmate, and Self (Lucas and Rubel, 2015). As shown in the list, a Naval Officer’s highest loyalties should be reserved for the Constitution. It is also worth noting that religion is nowhere to be found on the list. This does not mean the Navy has no respect for the religious beliefs of its Sailor’s. It means that Sailor’s, regardless if they are Officers or Enlisted, cannot let religious loyalties interfere with their loyalties to the Constitution, Mission, Shipmates, etc. Naval Officers that base their decisions and actions solely off their religious beliefs run the risk of entering into serious conflict with their Constitutional responsibilities (Lucas and Rubel, 2015). The Constitution requires the government and its entities to remain neutral regarding religion, allowing everyone the freedom to practice the religion they desire.

    After viewing religion through the lens of Constitutional Ethics, it can be seen that Naval Officers are placed in a unique situation regarding their religious beliefs. While they are awarded the rights to practice their own religion, they are also required to not let it interfere in their decision making and with mission accomplishment. Specifically, Naval Officers and all members of the Armed Forces must willingly surrender some of their rights regarding religion when they interfere with mission accomplishment and the good order and discipline of a unit (Military Religious Freedom Foundation, 2016). This is a challenge all service members must face daily but the fact of the matter is, it is well-known that military service requires sacrifice. All those that serve are required to give up some parts of themselves so that they can effectively carry out the duties prescribed to them.

    Up to this point it has been established that Naval Officers cannot let religion interfere with them carrying out their duties as military leaders that prioritize ethics. The reasoning for this being grounded in the fact that morality cannot be solely drawn from religion and that a Naval Officer’s required loyalty to the Constitution displaces their individual loyalties to religious beliefs. It is important to now examine some of the ethics related challenges that junior officers in the Fleet will face regarding religion and explain why certain responses are unethical. One of the most prominent ethics related challenges junior officers face is putting aside their religious beliefs regarding making decisions concerning their own Sailors.

    One of the most basic rights provided to all United States citizens in the Constitution is religious freedom. This means that any citizen of the United States has the right to pursue whatever religious faith they desire. These rights are outlined in multiple official documents such as Title 10 in the United States Code and Department of Defense Directive 1300.17, “Accommodation of Religious Practice Within the Military Services,” (Military Religious Freedom Foundation, 2016). As mentioned previously Naval Officers took an Oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States so this means that they must respect the rights of their Sailor’s expressed in the Constitution and other supporting documents. They cannot let their own religious beliefs or their disagreement with someone else’s get in the way of their decision making.
    It is important to give examples of what letting religious beliefs get in the way of viable decision making is to better understand it. First, an example will be given regarding a Naval Officer letting his or her own religious beliefs get in the way of ethical decision making. Let’s say a Sailor requests permission to receive leave so that they can go get an abortion. The leave request paperwork is presented before the Sailor’s direct superior, a Naval Officer who is a strong Christian. Due to their religious beliefs against abortion, they decide to deny the request. This decision is unethical. A Naval Officer cannot ethically deny this request simply because their religious beliefs do not agree with abortions. Denying the request on religious grounds is unethical because not everyone has the same religious beliefs. It is also an example of potential religious intolerance. The United States Navy advocates for religious tolerance and freedom of religious expression (Greenslit, 2006). Therefore, Naval Officers are expected to respect the religious beliefs of their fellow Sailors not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also a law expressed in the Constitution.
    The next example that will be given revolves around a Naval Officer not respecting a Sailor’s right to practice their own religion. In this situation, a Sailor has approached their Division Officer requesting that they be allowed to openly display a Menorah is their bunkroom onboard the ship. The Division Officer, a strong Christian, denies it on the grounds that they are uncomfortable with the open display of religious practices that they do not agree with. This decision is not consistent with ethical military leadership. As mentioned previously, all Sailors are awarded rights to practice their own religion in multiple government documents and it is the responsibility of Naval Officers to the best of their ability accommodate their Sailors if mission accomplishment is not interfered with (Greenslit, 2006). It is important for all Naval Officers to understand that to be effective leaders they must prioritize the well-being of their Sailors and be willing to make personal sacrifices to do so.

    Another ethical challenge related to religion faced by junior officers in the Fleet is the active spreading or favoring of certain religions. The government’s and hence the military’s policy on the matter is outlined in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in the Constitution. This clause prohibits the active endorsement of single religions or promoting religious messages (Merriam, 2008). In other words, Naval Officers cannot spread/endorse their own religious views or tolerate similar action by their Sailors, fellow officers, and superiors. As mentioned previously, the United States Navy values accommodation and inclusion of all religions. Favoring or spreading a single religion violates this principle and can result in the loss of mission readiness. Mission readiness is sacrificed because many Sailors will feel pressured by those encouraging their own religious beliefs and hence take away from a safe and productive work environment. Henceforth, it is important that Naval Officers refrain from spreading their personal religious views and take the initiative in discouraging their peers from doing the same.

    Mission readiness and the accomplishment of mission objectives are arguably some of the most important responsibilities of the United States Navy. As a result, it is important that Sailors are trained in such a way that mission accomplishment is a priority in their minds. Religion has potential to compromise mission accomplishment, and represents another ethical challenge junior officers must face. As mentioned previously, the United States Military has outlined that all religions are to be accommodated in such a way that respects mission accomplishment. It was also mentioned that military officers are required to prioritize their loyalties to mission accomplishment. Where is the line drawn then? How do junior officers in the Fleet balance their Constitutional duties and ethical responsibilities to their Sailor’s religious needs? This situation can be most effectively related to Aristotle’s idea of excess and deficit. In Aristotle’s sect of ethics, he believed that people’s pursuit of a virtuous life was finding the balance between too much and too little (Lucas and Rubel, 2015). Relating this to military leadership, junior officers can balance mission accomplishment with the religious needs of their Sailors and themselves by following Aristotle’s ideas on ethics. This will allow for them to keep ethics a priority in their leadership styles.

    It is important to define what excess and deficit are in terms of balancing religious needs and mission accomplishment. Excess in this situation can be defined as placing religion above mission accomplishment. This is unacceptable, as it undermines the purpose of the United States Navy and the United States Military as a whole. An example of this that a junior officer could encounter in the Fleet would be allowing a Sailor to refrain from firing a Tomahawk missile at an enemy target because his or her religious beliefs don’t allow them to kill. This undermines mission accomplishment because religious beliefs are impacting the mission at hand which is sending a Tomahawk to destroy an enemy target. The result of this could be the loss of friendly soldiers or strategic advantages. Moving on to deficit, this can be defined as disregarding the rights of Sailors to practice their religions. An example of this would be not allowing Sailors to attend religious services to maximize the amount of time in a workday. This decision does not prioritize the well-being of Sailors and violates their Constitutional rights. With excess and deficit now defined, it is up to junior officers to find a balance. Finding this balance will require extra effort in many cases but is necessary to ethical leadership.

    Now that an explanation has been given concerning the necessity of separating religion and ethical leadership along with the examination of ethical challenges junior officers can face regarding religion in the Fleet, it is necessary to give recommendations for how they can overcome these challenges. To begin, junior officers can ensure that they refrain from letting religion influence their decision making by taking the time to review what the Constitution, United States Code, and Department of Defense Directives say about religious freedom. This will allow them the opportunity to come to peace with what is required of them. They can also reach out to the chaplains or superior officers on their ships or in their squadrons that share the same beliefs as them and seek guidance. Really it comes down to junior officers being open-minded and motivated to take the responsibilities of their position seriously. In regards to junior officers respecting the religious beliefs of their Sailors and ensuring their Sailors do the same with each other, they can hold annual trainings similar to SAPR and Operational Readiness training. The purpose of this training would be to inform Sailors on their rights in terms of religious freedom and also outline acceptable (religious tolerance) and unacceptable behavior (religious discrimination, spreading of religion, placement of religion above mission accomplishment, etc.). Mandatory training will ensure that both Officers and Enlisted will be fully aware of what is expected of them and take away opportunities for them to make excuses about not knowing the policy.

    In order for junior officers in the fleet to find a balance between respecting the religious needs of themselves and their Sailors but also respecting mission accomplishment, they need to find a balance. It is recommended that this balance be found by taking the time to examine what military policy says about what is allowed in terms of religion so that they can make informed decisions. Balance can also be achieved by looking at each situation that involves religion affecting mission accomplishment in detail and making decisions grounded in military policy, not off of personal opinion. Junior officers should not be afraid to approach their superiors for assistance. It is also recommended that junior officers make diligent efforts to accommodate the religious needs of their Sailors and regularly talk to them about how they feel they are being taken care of. If responses are negative, then efforts should be made to accommodate what is lacking. An example of this is a Sailor complaining of not having time to attend religious services because of watch. A way to accommodate this Sailor is to coordinate with the available chaplain to set up times for religious services that the Sailor can attend that do not coincide with his or her watch. At the end of the day, it comes down to junior officers taking the needs of their Sailors seriously and doing all they can to respect and accommodate those needs.

    In today’s Navy, religion still plays a large part in the ethical/leadership challenges junior officers face and it is important for them to be able to effectively separate their own religious beliefs from their decision-making with respect to ethics, mission accomplishment, and the needs of their Sailors. It was established that junior officers cannot ground their moral beliefs solely in religion because morality needs to be able to stand on its own. Constitutional Ethics also requires all officers in the military to place the majority of their loyalty in the Constitution, which means keeping religion out of their decision making. Junior officers cannot allow religion to affect their leadership style because not all people believe in the same thing and basing decisions off of criteria that not all people deem true is unethical. As a result, junior officers in the Fleet are required to put their own beliefs aside and respect the beliefs of those they lead. It is therefore the responsibility of all officers to balance the religious beliefs of themselves, their Sailors, and their duty to serving the Constitution, a responsibility that will exist for as long as there is a military.

    Works Cited
    Cook, Martin L. (25 January 2007). Religion and the U.S. Military. Retrieved February 13, 2018, from
    Greenslit, CAPT Lawrence P. (15 March 2006). Religion and the Military: A Growing Ethical Dilemma. Retrieved February 13, 2018, from;metadataPrefix=html;identifier=ADA448671
    Lucas, Dr. George R., ; Rubel, Capt. Rick. (2015). Ethics and the Military Profession: The Moral Foundations of Leadership, 57-62, 97-103, 185-190. Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions.

    Merriam, Jesse. (3 July 2008). Accommodating Faith in the Military. Retrieved February 14, 2018, from
    Military Leadership Diversity Commission. (June 2010). Religious Diversity in the U.S. Military. Retrieved February 13, 2018, from
    Military Religious Freedom Foundation. (May 2016). Religious Freedom ; the Military: An Ongoing History. Retrieved February 14, 2018, from

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