I had read about the Army’s test of spirituality earlier last week, so it was with great interest that I read Rev. Andrea Ayvazian’s piece about the test in her guest column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette this past Saturday. I had felt quite appalled at the idea that the military felt it was necessary, as a means of discovering who was most fit to serve, to administer such an evaluation of one’s belief system. That it was comprehensively biased against those without a belief in God was no surprise, nor that the test is being challenged in court as unconstitutional, but I was moved by Rev. Ayvazian’s take on the test and wrote a response to her piece. Below you will find her thoughtful comments as well as my response.
Andrea Ayvazian: Armed with spirituality?
By Daily Hampshire Gazette
Created 06/09/2012 – 5:00am
HAYDENVILLE – The U.S. Army has made the big mistake of creating a “Spiritual Fitness” test to assess a soldier’s spiritual depth and readiness to serve in the military. The consequences of failing this test are dire. And by instituting this Spiritual Fitness test, the Army is treading on shaky theological ground.
The Spiritual Fitness test is part of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program, a $125 million “holistic fitness program” begun in 2009 with the aim of reducing the alarmingly high rate of suicides and stress-related disorders experienced by soldiers. The CSF measures a soldier’s fitness level in five areas: emotional, physical, family, social and spiritual. Every soldier is required to complete a survey that consists of some 100 questions.
If their responses fall short of the accepted fitness level, the soldier is required to take courses in a classroom or online to strengthen their resilience in the areas in which they received low scores.
The spiritual component of the test contains questions clearly written for soldiers who believe in God. Nonbelievers inevitably test poorly – and, due to their low scores, are forced to participate in courses and exercises that use religious language to train soldiers up to an acceptable level of spiritual beliefs.
The survey asks the soldier to rank himself or herself on statements such as: “I am a spiritual person. I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all of humanity. I often find comfort in my religion and spiritual beliefs.” Another question asks the soldier to respond to this statement: “In difficult times, I pray or meditate.”
The Spiritual Fitness test is taken online. If the person does not measure up to what the Army considers appropriately “spiritually fit” for a soldier, the computer program provides this assessment immediately: “Spiritual fitness may be an area of difficulty.”
The on-screen message continues, “You may lack a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and to others around you. You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself. You may question your beliefs, principles and values.”
The Spiritual Fitness test is being challenged in the courts as a violation of the First Amendment. Many “foxhole atheists” are outraged because when they “fail” the Spiritual Fitness test, they are being told they are unfit to serve in the Army.
Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer who founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, believes that the term “spirituality” is a smokescreen for religion – particularly evangelical Christianity – and that the test is “blatantly unconstitutional.” Weinstein is adamant: “It has to stop.”
I find the Spiritual Fitness test troubling not just because it violates a soldier’s First Amendment rights but also because the ironic twist embedded in this assessment makes the results of the test simply bizarre. The Army believes that people who pass the Spiritual Fitness test make acceptable soldiers.
However, as a Christian pastor, I think that precisely the opposite is true. Those who pass the Spiritual Fitness test are least likely to make good soldiers because their deeply held religious beliefs should make it impossible for them to kill others.
Those who score the highest on the Spiritual Fitness test should actually be rated as failures on this assessment tool because they should be bound by their faith to protect and promote all life.
The soldiers who answer a resounding yes to a particular statement (“I am a spiritual person. I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all of humanity”) would not consider anyone an “enemy” and would not kill another member of the human family – of any nationality, any ethnicity, in any country. Period.
The Army believes that soldiers need to be “spiritually fit” to serve in the military. And yet every major religion forbids killing, so if you are spiritually fit, you cannot serve. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, a sacred commandment on the lips of every faithful person is “Thou shall not kill.” And that sentiment is found in all the holy books and in every religious tradition around the globe.
So the Army has it backwards. Those who pass the Spiritual Fitness test – especially those who sail through with flying colors – should not be issued a gun.
They wouldn’t use it.
The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church, writes a regular column on faith, culture and politics. She can be reached at [email protected] . Her next column will appear in September.
IF ONLY PASSING THE TEST MEANT REFUSING TO KILL
A wonderful letter from a spiritual leader! It is outrageous that a spiritual test that overtly discriminates against those who do not believe in God is being used by the military to… what? Weed out those who are more likely to be able to take another’s life because they don’t believe their lives are “closely connected to all of humanity?” This is utter hypocrisy and Rev. Ayvazian does a fine job in pointing this out as she writes about the absurdity of requiring a soldier to pass a test of his spirituality and then expect him to see the enemy as other, as less human in order to become the killing machine he is trained to be.
My only very minor criticism pertains to Rev. Ayvazian’s conclusion – that those who pass the test “shouldn’t be issued a gun (because) they wouldn’t use it.” I have to beg to differ, since it is just those often evangelical Christians who “sail through with flying colors,” who justify taking another’s life by connecting God and the American flag via patriotism. If only we could succeed in dissolving this connection that has lead to innumerable deaths going back to the beginning of time and extending through Rome’s persecution of Christians, the horrible Crusades, Pakistan and India’s endless often bloody struggles, the unending wars between Israel and the Palestinians and right until the current wars pitting, in the eyes of many, Christianity against Islam.
If only the equation was made that Rev. Ayvazian points out when she mentions the pan-religious/humanitarian principle “Thou shalt not kill,” a connection that would equate leading a spiritual or atheistic life with refusing to take another’s life. That will be the day that the leaders will no longer have anyone to send to do their bidding and war will become unacceptable as a way to resolve conflict.