Republican-Led House Approves Amendment Banning Non-Religious Military Chaplains

Last month, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) suggested an amendment (PDF) to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that would allow Humanist, ethical culturist, or atheist chaplains in the Army Chaplains Corps:

Rep. Rob Andrews

The Secretary of Defense shall provide for the appointment, as officers in the Chaplain Corps of the Armed Forces, of persons who are certified or ordained by non-theistic organizations and institutions, such as humanist, ethical culturalist, or atheist.

The amendment made so much sense that, of course, Republicans were quick to condemn it:

There’s some first class ignorance for you:

They don’t believe anything,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) “I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, ‘You know, that’s it — your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food.’”

“This I think would make a mockery of the chaplaincy,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). “The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they’re at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, ‘If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.’”

You can see the full debate on the issue in my previous post.

Needless to say, the amendment failed on a 43-18 vote.

After that, Rep. Fleming, who wrongly believes Humanist chaplains want to tell people “There is no hope for you in the future,” sponsored a different amendment (attached to H.R. 2397, the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2014) that explicit forbade atheist chaplains: It prevented “funds from being used to appoint chaplains without an endorsing agency”… and since all the endorsing agencies are religious, that left out any non-religious chaplains.

Rep. John Fleming

Late last night, on a 253-173 vote, the House approved that amendment. Only two Republicans voted against it — Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) and Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AL).

Fleming doubled down on his amendment afterwards:

“It is absurd to argue that someone with no spiritual inclination should fill that role, especially when it could well mean that such an individual would take the place of a true chaplain who has been endorsed by a religious organization,” Fleming said. “Opponents of my amendment make vastly exaggerated claims about the religious demographics of the military.”

Fleming said less than one percent of service members identify themselves as atheists, “and all chaplains stand ready to serve any member of the Armed Forces, regardless of whether he or she shares the chaplain’s faith.”

While it’s true that less than 1% of the military label themselves as atheists, more than 20% have no religious preference.

More importantly, while Christians (of all varieties) make up close to 70% of the military, they make up more than 95% of the chaplaincy.

There was no need for the House to accept an amendment that makes life even harder for non-religious troops, but I suppose that’s “compassionate conservatism” for you.

In Fleming’s mind, if he can’t understand the need for non-religious chaplains, then there must not be a need for them. Why bother with research when he can rely on his own prejudice? He and his staff should be ashamed of themselves, and so should everyone who voted for this amendment, including 26 pathetic Democrats.

The Secular Coalition for America found one point of optimism, though: It was only a month ago when Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) tried to get Rep. Andrews’ original pro-Humanist-chaplains amendment passed in the full House. At the time, the House rejected that amendment 274-150.

That means that in the span of a month, 23 more people than before came to support the idea of non-religious chaplains:

“Chaplains for nontheistic military service members are absolutely crucial for so many men and women who are serving our country,” said Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America. “Religious chaplains are ill equipped to handle the problems of nontheistic service members and unfortunately, seeking psychiatric help can stigmatize a service member for the rest of their career.”

“The vote yesterday demonstrates a fast-growing consensus in recognizing not only the importance of Humanist chaplains but equal rights for all military members regardless of religious beliefs,” Rogers said. “Our service men and women put their lives on the line to protect our rights as Americans, including our rights to believe or not to believe. The least we can do is ensure all service members receive equal treatment.”

***Update***: Jason Torpy of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers says that this amendment only reinforces the status quo, so it didn’t really do anything:

“The language (of the amendment) only requires adherence to the applicable instruction, which in no way restricts chaplains to only those who believe in some higher power,” he said. “Their amendment does nothing, so there’s nothing to be done in response. It just shows their ignorance about atheists, humanists, and military regulations.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Rain

    Yay the “buffoons” win again, with their long convoluted speeches that justify their “buffoonery”. So, what else is new, lol.

  • pierre

    “It prevented ‘funds from being used to appoint chaplains without an
    endorsing agency’… and since all the endorsing agencies are religious,
    that left out any non-religious chaplains.”

    Isn’t this a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause then?

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    Even in the year 2013 old white men still rule the United States. Thankfully that is changing, albeit rather slowly, at least it is.

  • coljos

    Would an atheist chaplain be a psychiatrist that “isn’t” a psychiatrist? I’m just honestly wondering what their purpose would be.

  • randomfactor

    Couldn’t American Atheists be an “endorsing agency”? I presume it’s defined somewhere.

  • randomfactor

    Equality. Non-atheist chaplains are also untrained counselors.

  • DougI

    Violation of the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act. Soldiers take an oath to uphold the Constitution so the first thing they should do is run the lazy, worthless chaplains out of the military. Isn’t it equally insulting that chaplains are automatically considered officers with rank?

  • randomfactor
  • YankeeCynic

    I’m an atheist and a humanist. I’m also am in a leadership position in the Army. I assure you, when one of my Soldiers comes to me with a problem I don’t tell them there is no hope.

    Do you know what I do? My damn job! I take care of them! And I do it regardless of their religion. In fact my religion shouldn’t even come up!

    If I can do that, so can a humanist chaplain. I’m not crazy about the fact that there are chaplains to begin with, but if we’re going to have them lets have proper proportional representation.

    As a side note one of the problems we have with the numbers of chaplains verses the actual composition of the force is officer management requirements. We can’t just throw chaplains out based on their faith verses how many people of that faith are in the service, because like all other officer jobs there is a progression. Chaplains start at battalion, and after they’ve learned that job they move to brigade which is typically a major. Then they go to division, which is a lieutenant colonel. They can’t just pin brand new officers at that rank. They have to mature them for the next rank first. If that person is in a faith that has declined in number they stick around because they’re the only people qualified for the higher level jobs. That’s why there is a lag, and that captures some of the problems we invite by having them in the ranks.

  • YankeeCynic

    That was my thought. While I don’t agree with the amendment it doesn’t stop humanist chaplains. The DoD just needs to recognize an organization to certify them.

  • Stev84

    If Christian chaplains actually preached what their faith truly says, they’d tell people to be happy about their loved ones’ death. After all they are in heaven, which is the #1 goal of any believer and infinitely better than being alive and plagued by all that sin.

  • Rich Wilson

    I can’t imagine

    Exactly right. They are unable to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and empathize. Most atheists, even if we were never theists, are so steeped in religious culture that we don’t have trouble understanding at least the point of view.

    Even if you don’t agree with the other person’s point of view, if you’re a lawmaker you at least have a responsibility to take that point of view into consideration, and not simply substitute your own lack of imagination.

  • Paula M Smolik

    Okay, if you want to help people in the armed forces, why can’t you be a psychologist? Is there a stigma there too? I think there ought to be a job description for people who need counseling, consolation, etc. But chaplain is obviously religious.

  • Erik Wiseman

    We clearly need some Satanist chaplains in the US military. I think they would be ever so much more sane than the Evangelical Christians.

  • indorri

    Contemptuous wretches.

  • Poose

    Thank you YC. As a former “sorta” military brat myself (dad de-enlisted while I grew up) It’s refreshing to see that the hurdles someone that wants to do good are finally getting the attention it deserves. We’re a long way from happy yet, but it’s at least on the radar now.

    I often wonder-do the idiots realise we’re paying attention now, and both Facebook and Twitter (Hel, anything on the ‘Net) can be archived?

    I especially love it when one of the godbots says something spectacularly stupid, retracts it, thinks it went away and we rock up with the screengrabs-


    I just wish the media majors would pay better attention to the more egregious examples that have come to our attention…

  • poose

    You mean ninety-day wonders? I can see that for an engineer in time of war-but a godbotherer?

    Ew. I want to vomit now.

  • Michael Harrison

    Gotta love those Christians who think they’re experts on atheism (and Islam, and Judaism, and . . .), but they don’t see the irony when they complain about other people misrepresenting their beliefs.

  • JET

    Can’t the military have non-denominational counselors in addition to the chaplains? I understand there is a stigma with seeking psychiatric treatment, but couldn’t a counselor be given the same discretion as a chaplain? The counselor might actually be trained to, you know… counsel people.

  • liquidsiphon

    I have been told so many times that atheism is a religion. Kind of funny that when atheists seek a chaplaincy position that it suddenly isn’t a religion.

  • YankeeCynic

    We do! There are professional military and civilian mental health professionals. Those professionals also have arrangements for people to seek help off-post, which I took advantage of when I came home from Iraq after my first deployment. That way leaders don’t have to worry about appearing weak in front of their subordinates (since that stigma does exist, and its better to acknowledge it and get them help than it is to let them melt down).

  • Mackinz

    November 2014 cannot come soon enough. These Republican assholes will get there just desserts then.

  • B-Lar

    It works the other way round too… If you claim that Atheism is not a religion then you cant claim that it is later in order to benefit (unless you are happy to “hypocricise”).
    Luckily, religion doesn’t have the monopoly on pastoral and compassionate care. Quite the opposite in fact. Humanist chaplains would be the first chaplains who do their job for the right reasons all the way down (ie, not to glorify a mind-demon).

  • mikespeir

    Get rid of the chaplaincy. You need counseling? Go to the hospital. They have counselors there with real qualifications. They’re called psychologists.

  • Freethinking Jew

    We need to send thank-you E-mails to Rep. Adam Smith, who went against the tide and spoke eloquently for our cause in the video clip above. Can anyone figure out what his E-mail is? When I go to his page, it seems you have to live in his district to E-mail him.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    Yes, there’s a stigma. If you see a psychiatric professional while in the military, you are unlikely to get promoted again.

  • Gordon Duffy

    Well if they are accepting that the chaplaincy is explicitly religious then they should have to get rid of it, or staff it entirely with unpaid volunteers.

  • JD

    While it’s true that less than 1% of the military label themselves as atheists, more than 20% have no religious preference.

    As a math teacher I’m surprised you would consider that statement intellectually honest, because the former has nothing to do with the latter. The Fort Hood shooter had “No Religious Preference”, for crying out loud. Does that support your demographic point?

    This unethical use of these numbers began with Jason Torpy in 2010 and was debunked at the time, yet still continues to be promoted, even by you. How would you grade a student who used that sentence to make his point?

  • blasphemous_kansan

    “As a math teacher I’m surprised you would consider that statement intellectually honest, ”

    How is that statement not honest? It is merely expressing the data, exactly as it was reported. What are you frothing about?

    “…because the former has nothing to do with the latter.”

    So, what’s your point? That the ‘no religious preference’ members are adequately serviced by religious chaplains, or that atheists are not a subset of the ‘no religious preference’ category? Clarification of, and support for, your points would be appreciated.

    “The Fort Hood shooter had “No Religious Preference”, for crying out loud. Does that support your demographic point?”

    Umm, no. That piece of information doesn’t really support any point related to this topic, and seems to be an attempt at misdirection.

    Oh boy, good old CFP. Actually, your source does nothing to “debunk” these numbers in any way. The only actual point your source makes (which I find myself agreeing with) is that maybe some unknown percentage of the 20% of ‘no religious preference’ includes theists of varying flavors. This seems hard to dispute. But then the author rants about the Fort Hood shooter as if this one unbalanced individual represents the entire story of the ‘no religious preference’ service members. Then goes on to state that the report is severely misrepresented……because of the Ft. Hood shooter I guess? You do know that anecdote =/= data, right? The author of your source seems to be confused on this point.

  • eric

    It prevented “funds from being used to appoint chaplains without an endorsing agency”… and since all the endorsing agencies are religious, that left out any non-religious chaplains.
    Well, I suppose the workaround is to find a relatively liberal sponsoring agency that will sponsor a humanist chaplain out of principle.
    Possibly the Untarians? AIUI, their sect accepts as members people that do’t believe in God, so a atheist humanist could technically BE a unitarian.

  • ZeldasCrown

    “I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life…”

    What if that soldier and/or his/her family are atheists? Having a religiously affiliated tell that soldier’s family all the typical religious condolences would be equally distressing to that family as the reverse would be to the religious family. And I’d imagine that any atheist chaplain would have more courtesy, compassion, and tact to say something other than “You know, that’s it — your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food.” I don’t really think that any family, regardless of their thoughts on religion, would want to hear that in that specific moment. If I had to deliver this news, I’d say something like “I’m sorry for your loss. He/She was a wonderful fellow soldier. Here are some resources (and I’d give them a variety of religious, atheist and secular recommendations) if you find that you need some help through this tough time”. Nice and neutral, and then take cues from the family as to which way to go if we talked more than that.

  • Holytape

    So 20% percent have no religious preference, therefor we must supply them with only evangelical christian chaplains. If they have no religious preference should they then also have the choice of seeing a chaplain with no religious preference, (i.e. humanist) or with no religion?

    We can not say with any certainty what percentage of that 20% is religious or not religious. What we can say is that this 20%, which may or may not be atheist or secular, be should be allowed to see a humanist or an atheist chaplain, if they so chose.

    What you are saying is that this twenty persent, be they religious or not, must see a religious, and probably evangelical Christian, chaplain.

    See the difference. The first option allows the freedom to see the chaplain that best suits the soldiers beliefs, while your option is just tin-pot theocracy in action.

    So if a grad student used these numbers as Mr. Mehta used them, they would be correct. If they used them like you used them, and then used the fort hood example, I would call them of fallacious reasoning.

  • Hypersapien

    “There shall be no religious test for any public office or trust under the United States.”

    ~ Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution

  • Stev84

    The interesting thing is that for legal purposes (like first amendment challenges) atheism is usually treated as a religious belief, so that it’s covered by the law.

  • Willy Occam

    Funny thing, that: go see a psychiatrist and you’re stigmatized and unlikely to get promoted; but go see sky daddy’s messenger and say some magic words, no problem.

  • LutherW

    Like Pat Tillman’s family. We all know how that worked out.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Only religionists should have nice things, ya’ll. It says so in the Constitution.

  • Baby_Raptor

    To have someone for non-religious military members (Or members who don’t want a religious view of their issues) to turn to when in need of outside help.

  • Gus Snarp

    Yeah, some priest showing up at my house to tell me how my son’s death was part of God’s plan and he was in heaven now would stand a non-zero chance of getting punched in the face, or at least the angry lecture of his life.

  • Jim Jones

    And they could be trained to shoot a weapon which would make them more popular with the other servicemen.

  • GeniusPhx

    This whole video of these congressmen made me very angry. The essence of the first amendment is to prevent this from happening at all. It should at least be viewpoint discrimination. Chaplaincy was started in 1777, before we had a constitution or first amendment or official laws. There were no prayers during the convention and no god in the constitution, Ben Franklin was the only xtian (unless ur a xtian then they all were). Get rid of the whole program. Do what I do, tell a hooker!!

  • Priscilla Troop

    That’s the whole problem. Atheism is not recognized as a religion because it lacks tenets and rituals to define it as such, as it should. Humanism is recognized as a belief and by extension, a religion. The problem with this approach is that atheists don’t have a monopoly on humanism. There are Christian/Jewish/Buddhist/Muslim humanists and the AHA and AHS have yet to distinguish between what a secular humanist and a ‘religious’ humanist is. The Chaplaincy is there to ensure the ‘free exercise of religion’ under the free exercise clause of the first amendment as their primary mission. In order for a secular humanist Chaplain to be approved, they have demonstrate the need and there simply isn’t one. All the attempted arguments put forth so far are coming across as grappling by certain organizations in an attempt to undermine the Chaplain Corp.

    From my experience, both with Chaplains and Command, they get the premise of the idea of a humanist Chaplain, but not one whose focus it is to provide religious services to atheists. That’s nonsensical.

    The argument for counselors is beyond moot as the military already has them. I fully support the idea of a humanist and even atheist Diatinguished Faith Group Leader but the SCoA, MAAF and the AHA are being disingenous about it. NO rel. pref means just that and the Chaplaincy is not there to offer religious services to that demographic as they are restricted from doing so.

  • Nathan

    Actually, Tom Cotton is a representative of Arkansas, not Alabama. I noticed because I was surprised an Alabama Rep would be one of the ones voting against it. Anyway good post.

  • Mira

    I think that’s terrible. I would have loved to have an atheist chaplain to talk to when I was in–even though I was still somewhat religious at the time. The idea of someone not telling you to “pray the depression away” or that “god will make it all work out” is incredibly appealing to me. I think that someone who can find the best in others, without invoking anything theistic, would be a boon to the service.
    For starters.

  • Mira

    Ehh I’d only disagree because I had very, VERY negative experiences with psychologists in the military. The chaplains were the only ones I could talk to who weren’t judgmental or trying to kick me out.

  • B-Lar

    Hmm… That seems morally oblique… and yet strangely pragmatic.

  • Stev84

    >”NO rel. pref means just that and the Chaplaincy is not there to offer religious services to that demographic as they are restricted from doing so”

    More untruth from you. “No Rel Pref” means that people just don’t care which religion they are bombarded with. The chaplains very explicitly reserve the right to “evangelize the unchurched”. And there is nothing preventing them from doing so.