An emailed advertisement from the base chaplain urging commanders to “Lead Like Jesus” has irked dozens of senior leaders at Naval Station Newport and sparked a demand by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to investigate the ad and punish those who sent it.
But military leaders insist the emailed flyer was designed to update times for an ongoing Sunday school program and wasn’t intended to convert any commanders to Christianity or besmirch other religious practices at Newport.
Sent to leaders of the tenant commands at the Rhode Island base, the Thursday morning message from chaplain Cmdr. Richard Clay Smothers featured what appears to be a blurry image of Christ on a stallion, sword drawn, leading a host of white robed angels at full gallop across the clouds.
Below that is the call to “Hear why military leaders from around NAVSTA Newport FOLLOW JESUS” and the dates and times for a dozen sessions at Perry Hall featuring guest speakers and boxed lunches from the galley.
On Friday morning, retired Air Force Brigadier Gen. Marty France — a Military Religious Freedom Foundation board member — fired off an email to the base commander, Capt. Ian L. Johnson, urging him to “move quickly on this blatant violation of the Constitution (that we both swore to uphold) as well as DoD regulations.”
At issue is whether the ad from the chaplain crossed the line separating church from state by implying a command endorsement of one faith over others, especially for senior military leaders.
France asked Johnson if he would be comfortable with a subordinate who publicly called on commanders to “Lead like Mohammed” or pitched a pro-atheist message on how to lead others.
“Please, swiftly and effectively put an end to this Constitutional mess and make sure that, as I’m sure you agree, there is no single religious perspective that is considered a necessary or sufficient condition for leadership in your or any command,” wrote France.
Messages placed Friday morning by Navy Times to Capt. Johnson and chaplain Smothers were not returned but officials said Johnson never received France’s email.
Superiors at Navy Installations Command referred Navy Times to Navy Region Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Elizabeth Baker, who said Friday morning that her command was unaware of the controversy but began investigating it.
She later explained that the flyer was intended to reflect discussions that occur after Sunday services and targeted only those who already were going to the chapel voluntarily. She indicated it wasn’t designed to try to convert any commander to Christianity or suggest they should model their leadership style after Jesus Christ.
“It’s not any kind of directive from the chaplain to lead like Jesus. It’s a discussion series after services only for those who volunteer to attend,” Baker told Navy Times by telephone from Norfolk.
Baker said that the chaplain’s message also was passed during the monthly tenant command meeting and the emailed flyer merely updated information on the ongoing 12-week leadership discussion program.
The base’s newspaper, The Navalog, also recently published information about the Sunday school initiative, she added.
“We promote an environment of religious freedom in a manner that supports the free exercise of religion by service members, their family and other persons authorized services through Professional Naval Chaplaincy,” Baker said.
“Naval Station Newport’s command religious program supports the command mission by fostering the religious, spiritual, moral and ethical well-being of military personnel and their families by providing opportunities for worship, religious education, fellowship and counseling.”
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Newport is home not only to the Navy’s school for chaplains but also the Naval Justice School for the sea service’s attorneys.
The 148 addresses on Smothers’ email list included Navy commands, plus those for the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and several Navy Federal Credit Union employees.
Military Religious Freedom Foundation founder Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein told Navy Times during a Thursday telephone interview that Smothers appears to have “weaponized Christianity” in his message and called for those behind the outreach to be “visibly and aggressively investigated and punished.”
“Nothing could be more disruptive to good order and discipline and unit cohesion than a message like this,” said Weinstein.
By Friday morning, Weinstein counted more than 40 military members who had reached out to his foundation to complain about the chaplain’s message. The majority were Christians, Weinstein added.
Had Smothers sent the message to members of his own flock, and not an entire command staff of diverse faiths, it wouldn’t have violated constitutional protections or Pentagon and Navy regulations, Weinstein said.
Although it remains unclear which religious denomination Smothers follows, he’s been cited by the Liberty Baptist Fellowship, a collection of independent churches that draws inspiration from the late Southern Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell, the conservative activist’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Liberty University.
For the past half-century, the “servant leadership” model has taken hold within the military as an antidote to toxic commands and a top-down structure that often seems out of place in an increasingly complex modern workforce of highly trained and educated professionals.
It also has deep roots in the Christian faith, which is reflected in Smothers’ message.
Scholars have pointed to the role Jesus Christ played with his disciples, especially in the Gospels of Mark and John, where he both serves and leads them in a ministry.
In Mark, Christ measures greatness by a willingness to serve others.
In John, Christ demonstrates that by washing the dirty feet of his disciples before a meal, a lesson in leadership that they’re urged to follow.
This is a developing story and Navy Times will continue to add to it.
Prine came to Navy Times after stints at the San Diego Union-Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Combat Infantryman Badge.