By Norris Burkes July 10, 2020

As I continue with my July Freedom Series, I recall a conversation I had with an Air Force officer who needed some updated information on the freedom of religion.

“Watcha doin’, Chaplain?”

The nonchalant question came from my 40-something deputy commander who had stuck her head in my open office door as she returned from a meeting.

“I’m trying to write a prayer for Colonel ‘So-and-So’s retirement ceremony, but I’m not getting far.” 

“Why, what’s the trouble?” 

‘Well, I uh ,..’

She interrupted with another question. Commanders will do that sometimes. 

“Why would you have to write your prayer? You’re a chaplain. Just pray.” 

“You mean just a quick ‘Wham-bam-amen, ma’am’?” I asked.

(NO, I definitely did not say that to my Deputy Commander. I just like to imagine I did.)

I explained that the retiree was Buddhist, so I was trying to find a prayer or a poem to honor his tradition.

“Keep it simple, Chaplain,” the commander said. “Just pray a Christian prayer. After all, this is a Christian Air Force.”

Honestly, this conversation took place too long ago for me to attest to the accuracy of all my quotes, but I will testify that, yes, she really did say, “This is a Christian Air Force.”

I stood from my desk. Her assertion inspired, as they say, “a teaching moment.”

“Do you have a minute to talk?” I asked. 

She did, but she remained standing, as did I. 

I asked her to think about our oath of office where we’d sworn to “… support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Perhaps remembering the dozens of officers she’d sworn in during her career, she nodded, but then added, “I’ve always wondered how, exactly, does a chaplain defend the Constitution?”

“Right,” I said. “It’s complicated.”

We both knew that the Geneva Convention prohibited chaplains from carrying a gun.

“I defend the constitution mostly through my promotion of the first amendment – ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’”

She was sharp. She knew I was telling her that “A commander shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

I pushed on, telling her that by respecting the faith of this retiring officer, I was protecting the religious rights of all, even those we disagree with. 

As a chaplain, my oath means that I make room for all faiths, not just Christianity. It means respecting all the Wiccan, the Muslim and the Jew. It even means we respect the stand of the agnostic or atheist. 

She gave my answer a sincere nod, a sign of a good commander.

“And,” I daringly added, “in abidance with the Geneva Convention, I would even allow an enemy combatant his place of worship.”

That last point may have proved to be her bridge-too-far, because she stood, mentioned an upcoming meeting, and was off.

As we remember our freedoms this month, we should know that the first amendment takes some inspiration from the Golden Rule. We do unto others as we’d want them to do unto us.

In military life, it means that if I don’t want a Buddhist prayer given at my retirement, I shouldn’t present a Christian prayer at a non-Christian retirement. 

In everyday life, it means that I must do my part to safeguard the local mosque if I hope to also promote my church services. If I want to wear my I-love-Jesus shirt, then I must affirm a woman’s right to wear her hijab. If my city council invites Pastor Bob to pray, they should also allow the humanist to share her inspirational thought.

Why stand with those whose faith practice is so drastically different than ours? Because at the end of the day, if we refuse to stand together then, we will most decidedly fall alone. 

Finally, I’ll leave you with these four guidelines concerning the first amendment.

1. Introduce your religious beliefs only when you are asked for them.

2. Assume people are nonreligious unless you know differently.

3. Cultivate a genuine respect for all religions and their followers.

4. Extend your understanding to those who profess agnosticism or atheism, because freedom of religion must also include freedom from religion.


My books are available at Contact me at or 10566 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715. Twitter @chaplain.