The Necessity of Prayer to Effective Military & Combat Leadership

The Historic and Crucial “Military Necessity” of Prayer – Video by Col. Ronald D. Ray

Voice of Col. Ronald D. Ray.  Col. Ray is a practicing attorney in Kentucky and a highly decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War (two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart). He served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration and was appointed by President Bush to serve on the American Battle Monuments Commission (1991-1994), and on the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces. From 1990 through 1994, he served as Military Historian and Deputy Director of Field Operations for the U.S. Marine Corps Historical Center, Washington, D.C.



In 2002, The Naval Aviation Foundation (NAF), led by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Thomas Moorer and Admiral Mark Hill, filed a friend of the court brief in the Virginia Military Institute prayer case, Mellen and Knick v. Bunting, targeted at removing mealtime prayers at VMI.  This would be the first major battle in the war against prayer in the Armed Forces.

VMIVMI was a target because it is state supported and trains young men and women to defend our country “in time of national peril,” and thus, it is an part of America’s military and defense establishment. The NAF presented many proofs from American history, including organic utterances, official acts, testimonials, and the prayers of America’s Commanders-­in-Chief and preeminent combat leaders, to reconfirm to the judges that American military leadership considers prayer a “military necessity” and has so from America’s founding, to this present hour.

Judges use the term “military necessity,” to describe the judicial deference given to America’s uniformed military leadership because of the different demands on those charged with winning America’s wars and ultimately securing the nation’s defense and security.

The country’s first organic utterance is the Declaration of Independence. It recognizes the “Creator” and “Divine Providence”.  The authors of the Declaration also wrote the U.S. Armed Forces’ first principles, which form the military’s core principles.  The “Creator”, cited in the Declaration of Independence, is the same “God” called upon in the Armed Forces “sacred oaths,” all of which end with the prayer, “…so help me God.”

The first principles of the Continental Navy were written by John Adams in 1775 and passed by the Continental congress on November 28, 1775.  These same principles were reaffirmed and expanded in 1956 by the U.S. Congress and again for the U.S. Army and Air Force in 1997, and remain to this day unchanged.

The second principle of the Continental Navy states:

“The Commanders of the ships of the Thirteen United Colonies are to take care that divine service be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays, unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent it.”

The second principle adopted in the Rules and Regulations of for the Continental Army on Friday June 30 1775, states:

“It is earnestly recommended to all officers and soldiers, diligently to attend Divine Service…”

Prayer and American Military History in battles great and small are inseparable in that prayer has been used to foster a sense of honor, loyalty and devotion to duty in service to God and Country.  The recognition of our “Creator” found in the Declaration of Independence, and tens of thousands of official government documents and Americans’ national dependence upon His superintending or Divine Providence, is often publicly and officially invoked and acknowledged through public and official prayer by the Commander-in-Chief, elected and appointed officials, and most importantly, America’s uniformed and civilian military leadership and authorities.  All of whom speak with a single voice confirming that prayer to Almighty God for his provision and protection is a vital national security interest for the United States Armed Forces.

Military prayers have never established, supported, or sponsored a specific religion, but rather have acknowledged Divine Providence in the establishment of the United States of America, and the successes of her Armed Forces.


Virtue is the “animating spirit” of the American military and is the “keynote” of a Commander’s sworn duty of exemplary behavior, supervision and correction.”[1]  Successful armies consist of uniformly disciplined, patriotic, well-trained, obedient soldiers, whose high morale demonstrates a special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities of their military officers and civilian military leaders.

Distinguished VMI graduate General George C. Marshall, author of “The Marshall Plan” to rebuild Europe after World War II, taught that morale comes from “the religious fervor of the soul.” It is the essential element of achieving military objectives, and is ignored at great peril, when soldiers hold only guns and orders, with no strength of virtue.  Said Marshall:

…I look upon the spiritual life of the soldier as even more important than his physical equipment…the soldier’s heart, the soldier’s spirit, the soldier’s soul are everything.  Unless the soldier’s soul sustains him, he cannot be relied on and will fail himself and his commander and his country in the end. General George C. Marshall

In 1828, Noah Webster defined “soul” as; “The spiritual, rational and immortal substance in man…which enables him to think and reason, and which renders him a subject of moral government.” The soul’s training for self-government yields a commensurate level of good order and military discipline.  American military services are especially constituted to train effective and disciplined forces, to lead and defend the country “in time of national peril,” and must therefore be keen to the soul and the true source of American virtue, honor and patriotism.

When military leaders publicly pray they convey to those under their command their subordination to the institutional moral standard, thereby signaling to the ranks their adherence to the standard’s high value of life and their careful consideration to the expenditure of lives and resources in accomplishing military combat objectives.

Leaders can rely upon the military chaplaincy, to an extent. to shoulder the responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the troops, but officers lead by example. Subordination to the Declaration’s “Creator” through prayer demonstrates to the ranks that commanders recognize the difficulty in humanly alleviating the morale-depleting stresses attributable to separation from their homes, duty in strange surroundings involving people whose language or customs they do not share, fear of facing dangerous training, deadly combat, new assignments, and other service hardships.

Transmitting the military necessity for public prayer and the precedent for a military moral code familiarizes troops with the military’s unique justice system, aids them in determining “lawful” orders, both given and received, and assists in inspiring virtue, honor and patriotism, while suppressing all immorality to, and for, the welfare of those under their command.

1376739-eise3In the 1950s, after the Korean War, a Defense Department study of returned POW’s reported the extent of their poor performance at Communist hands.  Because our “soldiers did not understand the Constitution or the stark differences” between the atheistic Communist system and the rights and freedoms with which Americans are endowed by the “Creator” of the Declaration of Independence, President Dwight Eisenhower issued the U.S. Military “Code of Conduct” to reinforce the individual soldier by reaffirming the American purpose and by adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.  The Code of Conduct memorized by all soldiers included; “never to forget that I am an American fighting man, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which make my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.”

The recognition of “God” and the “Creator” is in tens of thousands of official American government documents.  Divine Providence is often publicly invoked and acknowledged through prayer by our Commanders-in-Chief, who without exception have publicly acknowledged “God” in each of their inaugural addresses.  Elected and appointed officials, and most importantly, America’s uniformed and civilian military leadership and senior authorities, all speak with a single voice confirming that prayer to “Almighty God” for his provision and protection is vital to national security for all of the United States Armed Forces.


Not only has prayer been deemed essential in the professional judgment of military leaders, scientific research supports its positive impact on military morale, health and well-being.

The Studies in Social Psychology in World War II Series, produced by the Social Science Research Council, was one of the largest social science research projects in history. Volume II, The American Soldier, Combat and Its Aftermath, Princeton University Press, (1949), reported data on the importance of prayer to officers and enlisted infantrymen. Prayer was selected most frequently as the soldier’s source of combat motivation.   The motivation of prayer was selected over the next highest categories of “thinking that you couldn’t let the other men down,” and “thinking that you had to finish the job in order to get home again.” Not only did enlisted infantrymen mention prayers more often than any other item as helping a lot, but length of combat had no effect on the frequency of responses.

These data would suggest that combat men who had experienced greater stress were at least as likely to say they were helped by prayer as those who had been subjected to less stress” (p. 176)…[T]he fact that such an overwhelming majority of combat men said that prayer helped them a lot certainly means that they almost universally had recourse to prayer and probably found relief, distraction, or consolation in the process (p. 185).

Military training and “going in harm’s way” can result in injury and death. The healing aspects of religion and prayer have also been scientifically noted.  Dr. Dale Matthews, a physician with Duke University’s Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, has published a book on The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer, and the Duke University Center has produced more than 70 data-based, peer-reviewed papers published in medical and scientific journals.  Although the mountain of data is vigorously challenged in humanist journals such as Free Thought and Skeptical Inquirer, Harold Pincus, former deputy medical director of the American Psychiatric Association, stated that these findings make it clear there are “important connections between spirituality, religion, and health,”[2] and medical schools have acted to implement its benefits in physician training.


Military Prayer BooksThe American military spirit borne of the military’s first principles, virtue, honor and patriotism, is confirmed in the public prayers, public speeches, and writings of senior military leadership in an unbroken line from the nation’s founding to the present. There are prayers found in the speeches and writings of military leaders and published in a plethora of Armed Forces Prayer Books utilized by servicemen through our entire national history, of which only a sampling is hereafter provided.  In two of 77 Military Prayer Books identified in preparation for making the case for prayer, thirty-three senior military authorities acknowledged the essential nature of prayer for every member of the armed forces.

President George W. Bush remarked at a National Day of Prayer gathering on May 3, 2001,

Our country was founded by great and wise people who were fluent in the language of humility, praise and petition.  Throughout our history, in danger and division, we have always turned to prayer.  And our country has been delivered from many serious evils and wrongs because of that prayer.[3]

Patton Prayer

The concept that prayer is a private exercise without impact on the common morale is novel and without foundation.  The conduct of soldiers is highly regulated with uniformity being a priority for combat readiness.  The morale of the unit is dependent upon members deferring their individual interests to the function of the whole.  This is not a matter of requiring a certain faith or creed.  The consequence of eliminating common prayer has implications for military readiness.  General Patton called on all men of faith to pray, and even provided the words for them to voice a request.  Chaplain James O’Neill, Chaplain for General Patton and the Third Army wrote, per the request of General Patton, in Training Letter No. 5, “we must urge, instruct, and indoctrinate every fighting man to pray as well as fight . . . This Army needs the assurance and the faith that God is with us.  With prayer, we cannot fail.”

Historically, the military has acknowledged almighty God as sovereign over the affairs of men, especially men of valor in war.  Prayer must not be made into a wedge of exception or treated as a dispensable triviality.  Great military leaders as well as our Presidents throughout our history have acknowledge a Divine Providence who has created all men equal, and Whose favor has been earnestly sought.  Those who cannot participate in this military act, according to General Marshall, are not the soldiers whose souls would sustain them in battle.  Prayer is, in law, fact and history, a military necessity, and we offer the case for military prayer now as a form of humble gratitude and honor for the continuous line of shed blood and sacrifice that has maintained the American Spirit and America’s Liberty.

[1] Leland P. Lovette, Naval Customs Traditions and Usage, George Banta Publishing Company: Menasha, Wisconsin, 1934, p. 60-61.  See U.S. Navy, Naval Justice 18-19 (1945).

[2] H. A. Pincus. Commentary: Spirituality, Religion, and Health: Expanding, and Using the Knowledge Base. Mind/Body Medicine, 2 (1997) at 49.

[3] White House News Release, Office of the Press Secretary, at

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