by Brian Leppert
The Army demands competency and establishes training standards in a set of basic soldier tasks and drills. These create a baseline for conducting operations. Yet, CA personnel, by definition, encounter a variety of non-military mission related problems. Because of their emphasis on building relationships, CA teams must train new members on the basics of social topics. One said topic, which often leaves Americans in heated dinner table debates, concerns religion. Religion impacts individual and social life in the operational environments (OEs) that CA teams operate in. Yet, how can new CA personnel master the basics of religion? How can they extend their knowledge beyond the dinner table?
The following aims to provide a “10-level” guide for new CA personnel on religion and its application to the CA mission. Here, religion focuses on spiritual pursuits, which inform the courses of action (COA) religious people pursue. New CA team members don’t have to acquire a doctoral-level understanding of each religion. But having a more robust understanding of the basics will aid them in navigating religious problem sets. Simply put, understanding the basics provides team members with a perspective that will heighten their awareness and increase their operational capability. Religious basics give new CA personnel an additional sheet of cognitive acetate, deepening their understanding of the operational environment.
Spirituality and Ethical COAs
First, religious people primarily seek divine or spiritual experience. Spirituality can take many different forms, but it generally follows along the lines of theism and pantheism.[i] Theism views the spiritual realm as resulting from a singular, all-powerful entity, or “god.” Theistic religions include Christianity, Judiaism, and Islam. Theism differs from pantheism, which views the world as one with or the same as god. Here, no separation exists between god, nature, and people. Pantheistic religions often include traditional/folk religions, sects of Hinduism, Buddhism, various New Age religions, and some post-modern philosophy.
Second, the ethical COAs prescribed by religions result from their spiritual beliefs. Essentially, the pursuit of spirituality drives both individual and social conduct. Theism produces specific COAs in governance, finance, civic duty, medicine, business, etc. Likewise, these differ from the COAs prescribed by pantheism. For example, because a theistic worldview separates god and nature, theists often view modern scientific medicine as a valid means of healing.[ii] Here, faith healing plays a crucial part because god can heal. But, this does not negate seeking medical cures because god may not heal. Inversely, pantheists often look towards holistic views of healing and medicine, which require a spiritual component. Because nature equates to god, divine presence permeates all things. Thus, pantheists will adopt healing practices that acknowledge unity with cosmic spirituality.
Yet, because religion focuses on spirituality, the religious person does not first ask, “How can I be a good person?” Instead, they ask, “How can I become spiritual?” This differs from Western secularism because the secularist does not view morality as a by-product of a higher power. Here, ethics derive from either law or culture. But, by focusing on spirituality, religious people produce COAs that align with their understanding of the world. Putting ethics before spirituality in religious settings places the cart before the horse. Theists and pantheists alike seek a greater understanding of ‘god.’ But each understanding drastically differs. Consequently, this pursuit drives their respective COAs. Thus, ethics, although important, comes second, derived from sacred experience.
Application of Religious Principles
The following section outlines several “how-to’s” on applying religious spirituality and spiritually derived COAs to problems CA teams may encounter. First, consider the treatment of disease in many traditional African communities. Many African traditional religions view disease as caused by evil spirits, curses, or witchcraft. This view results from a pantheistic understanding of nature. These societies don’t see the world around them as only physical, consisting exclusively of scientific concepts such as molecules, bacteria, or viruses. Instead, the spiritual controls the physical. Viruses exist, but viruses result from bad spiritual conduct. Thus, those holding to this worldview view healing as a process that, “. . . provides treatment for physical, psychological, spiritual and social symptoms”.[iii] Team medics must recognize that some patients will not view themselves as “treated” simply by the administering of various drugs or antibiotics. Giving a traditionally religious person Ibuprofen leaves healing still on the table. Medical treatment in traditionally religious communities may require coordination with the local healer. By recognizing that worldview guides practice, team members can look for problem areas derived from unquestioned Western assumptions and mitigate them before they arise.
Next, religious people view individual and social COAs as both immediate and ultimate because they prioritize spirituality. Like all people, religious people must satisfy immediate needs such as food and water, but they ultimately seek divine experience. A religious person may intentionally give up physical (immediate) needs like food in order to achieve spiritual (ultimate) fulfillment. Most religions have extreme examples of this, called ascetics, who intentionally forego physical comfort in their spiritual pursuits. The early Christian patriarch, Origen, went as far as to have castrated himself to avoid sexual temptation. These individuals often hold significant influence over the religious population, existing as social centers of gravity (COGs). Teams must identify and establish relationships with these individuals because they serve as a point of contact for higher spiritual wisdom. Teams will establish themselves as authorities on various issues, like medicine, if they collaborate with the local ascetic/social COG.
Additionally, the pursuit of spirituality can also impact social identity. To illustrate this, consider the split between Boko Haram (BH) and its ISIS counterpart (ISIS West Africa, or ISWA). Here, the two violent extremist factions divided over who they considered a true Muslim.[iv] BH did not consider people living under ‘secular’ rule as properly prioritizing spirituality.[v] Because of this, they actively targeted civilian centers such as markets.[vi] Essentially, BH targeted civilians because the ultimate goal of more spiritual governance took precedence over the immediate need for security.[vii] ISWA, however, shifted targeting to security forces.[viii] For ISWA, the local Muslim population still had true faith even though they lived under secular rule. Basically, ISWA recognized the immediate need for rule of law, viewed the current system as quasi-legitimate, but believed they could offer a better approach. Following this narrative, BH and ISWA saw the relationship between immediate and ultimate needs differently. BH viewed civil governance as antagonistic to Muslim spirituality whereas ISWA sought to legitimize their actions by appealing to material needs. BH took an ascetic approach to governance, requiring all people to adopt their “all or nothing” ideology.
Understanding these spiritual dynamics can help CA teams resolve conflicts, strengthen the legitimacy of civil institutions, and counter extremist action. It can further dialogue initiatives between the government’s security efforts and the local population by recognizing the interplay between religion and public life.[ix] Providing security, medical, or governmental assistance strengthens immediate, material support. Yet, teams must help civil governments bridge the gap between immediate needs and addressing root causes of divide in religiously fractured societies. CA teams cannot overlook the role that religion plays in the ways that religious extremists utilize it to bolster support and drive recruitment. Local governments in the Lake Chad region ravaged by BH and ISWA will create a higher likelihood of success by implementing religiously-minded policies. These approaches will help counter the appeal of extremist organizations by de-legitimizing their efforts. Here, CA teams will not directly fulfill spiritual needs. Instead, they focus material support in ways that set conditions for the local population to achieve their ultimate/spiritual goals. CA security, medical, and governmental assistance efforts only scratch the surface if they fail to appreciate the foundational religious issues.
Additionally, CA teams focused on civil information management (CIM), or the newer civil knowledge integration (CKI), and civil reconnaissance (CR) can leverage religion to identify centers of potential conflict. Furthermore, CA personnel can make “. . . religion... part of the solution”.[x] For instance, a religious division extends across the Sahel between Muslims in the North and Christians in the South.[xi] Both Islam and Christianity share similar basics, stemming from their theistic beliefs. CA teams can leverage these similarities rather than highlighting their differences. Also, CA personnel can also utilize history as valuable context to further these efforts. Contrary to popular belief, Christians and Muslims have established dialogue in the past. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest Christian theologians, extensively dialogued with Muslim scholars in his Summa Contra Gentiles.[xii] CA teams can develop relationships in religiously diverse and tense areas by identifying existing and/or historical efforts for dialogue.
Moreover, CA teams can leverage religious educational initiatives within their AO. Take the push for literacy by Christian missionaries as a case in point. Historically, Christians have prioritized literacy because Christian spiritual growth comes by reading the scriptures. A Pew Research study suggests that Christian communities in the Sahel have higher education rates and have made advances in formal education, compared to other faith traditions.[xiii] For many of these communities, literacy and education have a distinct religious association for the reasons mentioned above. In these communities and others like them, CA teams can learn from and build off of the literacy work conducted by Christian missionaries.CA, acting under the authority of the US government, cannot teach religion per the establishment clause of the First Amendment. But, identifying shared identities in religious communities’ social systems benefits CA efforts because it allows teams to strengthen relationships.
Finally, new CA team members should seek out the help of religious experts within their battalions (BNs). Reserve component (RC) units have the uniquely organized to accomplish this because of the dual civilian-military hats that their members wear. For example, the S2 shop of the BN this author serves in has several analysts with academic backgrounds in religion. A challenge exists, though, in that BNs must identify those with expertise in religion as no formal mechanism exists to do so. Additionally, active component (AC) and RC CA teams should seek ways to implement the chaplain when planning operations in religiously dynamic OEs. The chaplain should serve as a starting point to implement both “hip-pocket” and structured training plans. Chaplains have expertise beyond personal counsel and unit morale. All chaplains have graduate-level training from accredited seminaries and other religiously focused academic institutions. Because of this, they can offer collegiate-level instruction on religion
CA teams must expand their training to include topics like religion, especially for new members who may have spent the majority of their time in traditional line units. By understanding religion, CA teams can analyze the civil landscape and address conflicts at a deeper level. This requires a basic understanding of religious “10-level” principles. This paper has attempted to craft a starting place for CA teams to adopt a deeper understanding of religion. Yet, in order to further training in religion, it has attached a reading list below. This list can serve as the basis for both unit training and professional development. It covers a variety of sources from different, opposing backgrounds, aiming to produce a broader understanding of religious debates.
About the Author
Brian Leppert serves with a Reserve Component CA unit. He holds both a BA in Historical Theology and a MA in National Security Studies. He currently works in local law enforcement.
1. ATP 1-05.01 Religious Support and the Operations Process
2. ATP 1-05.03 Religious Support and External Advisement
3. Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction
4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles
5. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational
6. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be
7. St. Augustine, The City of God
8. Inazo Nitobe, Bushido
9. Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
10. Eric Patterson, Politics in a Religious World: Building a Religiously Informed U.S. Foreign Policy
11. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
[i] Most introductory textbooks on religion divide religion according to theism, deism, polytheism, and pantheism. However, for the purpose of this guide, deism and polytheism ultimately reduce to and/or closely resemble theism. Thus, in order to avoid getting “bogged down” in the specific, this guide presents theism and pantheism as the leading paradigms of spirituality. [ii] This does not universally apply as variations exist between religions and religious sects. However, from a logical perspective, a theistic worldview tends towards a more positive understanding of modern science. [iii] Peter White, “The concept of diseases and health care in African traditional religion in Ghana,” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 71, no. 3 (2015): 3, accessed January 12, 2021, https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v71i3.2762. [iv] Omar S. Mahmood and Ndubuisi Christian Ani, “Factional Dynamics within Boko Haram,” ISS Research report (2108): 12, accessed January 12, 2021, https://issafrica.s3.amazonaws.com/site/uploads/2018-07-06-research-report-2.pdf. [v] Ibid; Alex Thurston, “’The disease is unbelief’: Boko Haram’s religious and political worldview,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World no. 22 (January, 2016): 12, accessed January 14, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/brookings-analysis-paper_alex-thurston_final_web.pdf. [vi] Mahmood and Ani, 12. [vii] Ibid. [viii] Ibid. [ix] An ISS article (see: Maram Mahdi, “Time to consider talks with Boko Haram?” ISS Today, Institute for Security Studies, December 16, 2020, https://issafrica.org/iss-today/time-to-consider-talks-with-boko-haram.) argues for initiating dialogue with Boko Haram; however, identifying religious issues that play a fundamental role in the conflict through increased dialogue with the local community may strengthen the security situation. Also see: Mahdi, “Dialogue with violent extremist groups: Community perspectives in the Lake Chad Basin,” Policy Brief 137, Institute for Security Studies, March, 2020, https://issafrica.s3.amazonaws.com/site/uploads/pb-137.pdf. [x] Yvan Y. Ilunga and Thomas G. Matyok, “Religion and Peacebuilding, “Eunomia Journal (October 2020), accessed January 15, 2021, https://www.civilaffairsassoc.org/post/religion-and-peacebuilding. [xi] See “Levels of Religious Diversity” global heatmap: “Global Religious Diversity,” Religion & Public Life, Pew Research Center, April 4, 2014, https://www.pewforum.org/2014/04/04/global-religious-diversity/. [xii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 1.2, accessed February 7, 2021, https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/264/scgbk1chap1-9.htm. Here, Aquinas introduces this tome as an appeal to philosophy in order to create rational discourse with the Muslim theologians who rejected articles of the Christian faith. Aquinas saw their mutual agreement on theism as a foundation from which to proceed. [xiii] “2. Christian educational attainment,” Religion and Education Around the World, Religion and Public Life, Pew Research Center, December 13, 2016, https://www.pewforum.org/2016/12/13/christian-educational-attainment/; “1. Muslim educational attainment,” Religion and Education Around the World, Religion and Public Life, Pew Research Center, December 13, 2016, https://www.pewforum.org/2016/12/13/muslim-educational-attainment/#sub-saharan-africa.
Cover photo: Maj. Abdel Latif, along side Imams Capt. Imam Sabri Al Qudah and Lt. Imam Ahmad Shemayli, with the Jordanian Engagement Team, based out of Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, talk with village elders and mullahs about the Amman message during a meeting in Khowst province, Afghanistan, June 11, 2013. (U.S. Army photo Sgt. Justin Moeller/Released)