Over the last decade, the Armed Forces have become increasingly hostile to religious liberty and also have a record suicide rate. Restoring religious liberty and encouraging religious practice would significantly improve the mental well-being of our nation’s soldiers, as religious practice delivers fundamental benefits to mental well-being.
Threats to religious liberty in the Armed Forces have amplified in recent years. In June 2011 Christian prayer was banned at military funerals, and in September the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center declared, “No religious items (i.e. Bibles, reading material, and/or artifacts) are allowed to be given away or used during a visit.” The prayer and Bible bans were eventually reversed but other religious liberty violations have continued to emerge. In 2012 the Army censored Catholic chaplains, and the Pennsylvania Army Reserve training document labeled Evangelical Christians and Catholics as “extremists.” In 2013 the Army ordered soldiers to remove crosses and steeples from a chapel in Afghanistan, and an Air Force officer was forced to remove a Bible from his desk because it “‘[might]’ appear that he was condoning a particular religion.” These are only “the tip of the iceberg”. Last Thanksgiving an Army chaplain was punished for telling his suicide-prevention class how his faith helped him counter depression, and this past May a Marine was sentenced to bad-conduct discharge for displaying three Bible verses at her work-station.
During this time of increased religious censorship, suicide rates amongst deployed soldiers and those who have never fought grew. In the last three years of World War II, the Army peaked at 10 suicides per 100,000 soldiers; between 1975 and 1986 the Army averaged 13 suicides per 100,000 soldiers; in 2011 the Army reported 23 suicides per 100,000 soldiers—more than twice the number of suicides during the World War II era. These suicides reflect a poignant truth: American soldiers struggling with mental difficulties are not adequately taken care of.
Religious liberty is a requisite to ensuring that our service men and women are mentally healthy. MARRI research shows that religious worship is correlated with greater happiness, a greater sense of purpose in life, and a positive morale. More frequent religious attendance predicts less distress among adults, and membership in a religious community enhances coping skills. A review of more than 100 studies found that religious participation is associated with a reduced risk for depression, and 87 percent of studies surveyed concluded that religious practice correlates with a reduced incidence of suicide.