Army’s religious parade highlights need for secular reform

Si Gladman / 19 July 2023

The dominant role of Christianity in an Army parade in Adelaide this month highlights the urgent need for secular cultural reform and modernisation of the military, says the Rationalist Society of Australia.

A number of male priests led Army personnel from 1st Armoured Regiment and military equipment, including tanks, through the streets of Adelaide on Saturday 8 July before attending a Christian church service. 

The event was held to mark the transfer of the unit’s banners, known as Regimental Colours, from Darwin to Adelaide last year.

During the one-hour-plus church service at St Peter’s Cathedral (watch it here), the unit’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Henderson, led the troops in a prayer ritual which required them to “dedicate ourselves” to “the honour and service of God”.

“We come together before God to ask his blessing on these devices which represent to us our duty towards our sovereign and our country,” said the Commanding Officer.

“May these devices be a sign to all of us that God is with us always – in danger and in difficulties. May they increase our faith and hope in Him, who is king of kings and lord of lords.”

The Daily Mail reported that some onlookers found the overt religious nature of the event disturbing.

RSA president Dr Meredith Doig said the continued domination of ceremonies and traditions by Christianity was inappropriate and showed that reform of the military culture was urgently required.

The RSA will write to the Defence minister, Richard Marles, to seek answers on when Australians can expect the military to modernise its practices to better reflect the country it represents.

While the military’s top brass remains dominated by Christians, the overall workforce is increasingly becoming non-religious, with current data for military personnel who identify as not religious expected to have now reached more than 60 per cent – up from 56 per cent at the 2019 Defence Census.

“A majority of the 1st Armoured Regiment’s members would not be religious. Yet, as part of their job, the Army requires them to participate in wholly Christian services in which their Commanding Officer asks that they dedicate themselves to God. This, surely, is completely inappropriate in modern-day Australia,” said Dr Doig.

“Moreover, forcing ADF personnel to participate in religious ceremonies is unlawful. Section 123B of the Defence Act 1903 (Cth) prohibits any ‘order compel[ling] attendance at any religious service.’

“It’s well-known that the Australian Army is struggling to meet recruiting targets. Clearly, the Army needs to get with the times and modernise its culture if it is going to appeal to young Australians as an employer of choice.

“The Albanese government needs to take the initiative and drive the required secular reforms within the Australian Defence Force. We’ll continue to call on the Defence ministers to take action.”

In November last year, Defence personnel minister Matt Keogh’s office told the RSA that “most” military ceremonies were “predominantly secular”.

A spokesperson said the inclusion of “small portions” of religious and cultural content was dependent on the context, audience and supporting personnel.

“Inclusion of religious and cultural content is at the discretion of the organising staff in consideration of the context of individual events and normally includes an introduction situating the content and inviting respect and inclusivity, acknowledging the diversity of the audience,” the spokesperson said.

The RSA is continuing to call on the Army to follow the lead of Navy and introduce secular welfare workers to its frontline pastoral care and wellbeing support capability. Currently, Army – and Air Force – provide only religious chaplains for these roles.

The RSA has also questioned Mr Marles and Mr Keogh on the appropriateness of some Army staff – chaplains – wearing ‘crusader’ emblems as part of their formal uniform.

The Rationalist Society of Australia is actively lobbying and advocating for secular reform of the Defence Force. See the latest updates here.

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Si Gladman is the Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

Image: Alex de Sousa on Flickr (CC)

*This article has been revised on 30 November 2023

All the more reason.