What's the Commandant talking about when he says Marines need to be 'spiritually' fit?

Physically fit? Check. Mentally fit? Check. Spiritually fit? Hmm.

That could be the response from more Marines and even other military service members of this Millennial generation, as fewer troops are claiming a religion than those of previous decades.

Time to get your 'spirit' on Marine! (USMC photo)

Time to get your ‘spirit’ on Marine! (USMC photo)

Earlier this month, Gen. Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, issued an all-hands message to encourage his men and women and Navy sailors assigned to their units to take note of their own “spiritual fitness.”

“During this time, I ask each of you to reflect on what you and the Marines and sailors you lead are doing to achieve and maintain an optimal level of strength and resilience. Your leaders and chaplains at all levels stand ready to engage with you in this task,” Neller, a veteran infantry officer entering his second year as the service’s top general officer, wrote in the Oct. 3 message. “By attending to spiritual fitness with the same rigor given to physical, social and mental fitness, Marines and sailors can become and remain the honorable warriors and model citizens our nation expects.”

The general’s mention of honorable warriors and model citizens – most Marines serve four to eight years and then return to civilian life – harkens to a generation ago. In the 1990s — with a military facing force cuts, ethical scandals and retention concerns — then-commandant Gen. Charles Krulak often spoke with Marines about the importance of integrity, having a “moral compass” and courage to do the right thing.

It wasn’t specifically directed at religion or spirituality but took a broad, holistic approach at building better “citizen-soldiers.”

In this generation, will that challenge to look inward at their spirituality, however they define it to be, resonate with Millennial Marines? And, if so, how?

If religious affiliation is any measure of that, military leaders might well be worried.

Last year, the Pew Research Center found that fewer Americans were identifying as religious. In its 2014 Religious Landscape Survey, the Pew Research Center found that 70.6 percent of Americans identified with a Christian-based religion, with “Evangelical Protestant,” “Catholic” and “Mainline Protestant” the top groups. Almost 6 percent claimed non-Christian faiths – Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, for example.

But almost 23 percent in the survey of 35,000 Americans said they were unaffiliated – known as “nones” – or nonbelievers, and 15.8 percent of them claimed no ties even to agnostics or atheists. That was a significant change from 2007, when 16 percent identified as “nones.”

The biggest group, 35 percent, among “nones” are Millennials, considered those born between 1981 and 1996, and “nones” as a whole “are getting even younger,” Pew found. It’s also an age group — 20 to 35 — that’s well represented within the military services.

So how will today’s Marines receive this latest message?

The Marine Corps hasn’t detailed just what the push for spiritual fitness will entail, but it’s described as part of leadership development and a holistic approach to overall fitness along with physical, mental and social wellness. The service’s deputy chaplain, Navy Capt. William Kennedy, said it wasn’t a program but “an engagement strategy to enable leaders at every level to communicate the importance of faith, values and moral living inside the Marine Corps culture of fitness.”

“Spiritual fitness is for everyone,” Kennedy said in an email response to WATM. “Every Marine has a position on matters of spirituality, belief in a higher being and religion. The individual Marine chooses if and how they will grow in spiritual fitness, enabling them to fulfill their duties successfully while deployed and in garrison.”

Scott said the Navy’s top chaplain Rear Adm. Brent Scott sent a letter to all Marine Corps’ chaplains, challenging them to “engage their commanders and the Marine Corps in conversations on spiritual fitness.”

A non-profit group, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has criticized the Corps’ plan as an attempt to push religious, if not Christian, values on all Marines.

Mikey Weinstein, the group’s founder and president and a former Air Force lawyer, has threatened to sue the Marine Corps to stop it from mandating spiritual fitness training for every Marine rather than having it be voluntary. Weinstein told Military.com last week that the service’s plan to include spiritual fitness with some training and education courses is “nothing more than a Trojan Horse for fundamentalist Christians to proselytize to a captive audience.”

“If they call this ‘mental fitness,’ that’s great,” Weinstein told WATM. But while Marines are regularly tested in physical fitness and military proficiency, he said, “who gets to decide what Marines are spiritually fit?”

While troops can be required to sit through legal discussions with a judge advocate or medical training with medics, they can’t be required to attend teachings or preaching by unit chaplains, he said, citing separation of church and state. If the Marine Corps sets mandatory lectures, testing or measuring tools or classes that discuss things like faith or “a higher power,” for example, that will push it into religious beliefs and violate the constitutional prohibition against religious tests, Weinstein said.

“If they do it, they’ll be in court,” he said.

In 2010, MRFF threatened to sue the Army when it pushed out a similar assessment program on spiritual fitness for soldiers, and Weinstein said the service eventually revised it.

But “spiritual fitness” remains a popular concept around the military — a phrase that might seem to avoid any specific religion to many but still retains an element of a belief. The Air Force considers it one of its comprehensive fitness pillars, along with mental, physical and social. And spiritual fitness is often mentioned in programs to help build resiliency among troops, including those grappling with combat or post-traumatic stress and even in programs to strengthen relationships among military couples and families.

Navy chaplain Kennedy described spirituality generally as something “that gives meaning and purpose in life.” It also might “refer to the practice of a philosophy, religion or way of living,” he said. “For some this is expressed in commitment to family, institution or esprit de corps. For others, it may apply to application of faith.”

Military chaplains have the duty to advise commanders and service members on “spiritual matters.” They “are required to perform faith-specific ministries that do not conflict with the tenets or faith requirements of their religious organizations. Additionally, chaplains are required to provide or facilitate religious support, pastoral care and spiritual wellness to all service members, regardless of religious affiliation,” according to a July 2015 Defense Department Inspector General report on “rights of conscience protections” for troops and chaplains.

Weinstein, who said he’s Jewish but “not that religious,” said his group isn’t anti-religion and counts 48,000 active-duty troops among its members, with 98 percent who affiliate with a religion. Many supporters don’t want the military services telling them what or whether to believe, he said, adding that “thousands of military people [say] that’s my personal business.”

But is spiritual fitness inherently a part of something religious, or is it separate from a religious belief?

It may depend on who is defining it. A spiritual fitness guide briefing slide by the U.S. Navy Chaplains Corps, whose members advise Navy and Marine Corps units, describes spiritual fitness this way: “A term used to capture a person’s overall spiritual health and reflects how spirituality may help one cope with and enjoy life. Spirituality may be used generally to refer to that which gives meaning and purpose in life. The term may be used more specifically to refer to the practice of a philosophy, religion or way of living.”

Would having no religious affiliation or belief render one without spirituality? For some Leathernecks, the Marine Corps itself is like a religion, with its own spirituality that “non-believers” – like POGs or people-other-than-grunts – can’t understand.

The Marines’ own institutional bible, so-to-speak, the warfighting publication “Leading Marines,” stated in its 1995 edition: “This manual is based on the firm belief that, as others have said in countless ways, our Corps embodies the spirit and essence of those who have gone before. It is about the belief, shared by all Marines, that there is no higher calling than that of a United States Marine.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to correct attribution from the Marine Corps Deputy Chaplain.

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