The military and the J-word, again

WhiteHouseNC053A long, long time ago, the journalist Stephen Bates wrote a stunning book entitled “Battleground: One Mother’s Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of Our Classrooms.” You knew it was an amazing book because the back cover was full of praise from scholars, journalists and acitivists on the left as well as the right. His thesis: Our public schools have become so biased against traditional forms of religion that they are, ultimately, undercutting the foundations of America’s heritage of public education. They are driving away millions of parents and, thus, their children.

I thought of this book while reading veteran Godbeat reporter Julia Duin’s story in the Washington Times about a hunger strike by Navy Lt. Gordon Klingenschmitt, who says he is one of many U.S. miltary chaplains who face discrimination because he refuses to stop saying traditional Christian prayers in public. In other words, he continues to say the word “Jesus.” (You may recall the excellent New York Times story on this issue that drew GetReligion praise.)

What is the connection?

When I was interviewing Bates about his book, he used two terms that I recalled from my graduate studies in church-state studies — “civic toleration” and “theological (or doctrinal) toleration.”

What the American founding fathers wanted was “civic toleration,” the belief that all faiths or non-faiths would be equal in the eyes of the state. This did not, however, mean that the state would — to use modern language — practice “viewpoint discrimination” and deliberately favor some forms of religion over others. The state would not say that some religions are right and others are wrong.

The problem, said Bates, was that American public schools seem to think that it is their duty to teach “theological toleration,” which teaches that all religions are the same in the eyes of God. This means that faiths that actually teach that their beliefs are true, and others are false, are — well — wrong. This means that they must change what they teach, in order to have any role in the public square. In practice, this leads to state recognition and even support for faiths that take an approach that says that “many religious roads to lead to the same god, gods or God.” The state then has trouble tolerating the faiths that it has ruled are not tolerant enough. This is church-state entanglement of the worse kind.

Bates had a memorable way of putting this. He said this is like people who say, “You know, there are people who just don’t love everybody the way that they should and I really hate people like that.”

This brings us back to Duin’s report about Klingenschmitt, a chaplain who has fought for the religious rights of Jews, Muslims and others under his care, but refuses to pray in a manner that he believes is less than Christian and, thus, heretical. He is backed by a conservative ecumenical group called the National Clergy Council (see photo). According to Klingenschmitt, he is about to be fired. Conservatives want President Bush to step in and defend the free-speech rights of chaplains.

Thus, Duin reports:

Seventy-three members of Congress have joined the request, saying in an Oct. 25 letter to the president, “In all branches of the military, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christian chaplains to use the name of Jesus when praying.” About 80 percent of U.S. troops are Christian, the legislators wrote, adding that military “censorship” of chaplains’ prayers disenfranchises “hundreds of thousands of Christian soldiers in the military who look to their chaplains for comfort, inspiration and support.”

Official military policy allows any sort of prayer, but Lt. Klingenschmitt says that in reality, evangelical Protestant prayers are censored. He cites his training at the Navy Chaplains School in Newport, R.I., where “they have clipboards and evaluators who evaluate your prayers, and they praise you if you pray just to God,” he said. “But if you pray in Jesus’ name, they counsel you.” Muslim, Jewish and Roman Catholic chaplains are likewise told not to pray in the name of Allah, in Hebrew or in the name of the Trinity, he added.

If you search for this story on Google, you will discover that, so far, only Stars and Stripes is interested in it (other than the usual assortment of conservative news outlets). Once again, offensive free speech now seems to be more important to conservatives than to those formerly known as “liberals.”

As the New York Times noted, the Navy is facing lawsuits filed by 50 or so Christian chaplains. Thus, the issue will not go away. Let’s hope that more MSM newsrooms notice this fact.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • Dan Berger

    He says he got in hot water during the summer of 2004 while aboard the USS Anzio for preaching an evangelistic sermon at the funeral of a Catholic sailor in a base chapel. [emphasis added]

    Did he preach an “evangelistic” sermon or an “evangelical” sermon? If the former, this could very well be a breach of taste and decorum, if not an imposition, during the funeral of a Catholic sailor. If the latter, tmatt’s post is probably correct: he is being denied the right to be himself religiously.

    The fact that he’s gotten in hot water for standing up for non-evangelicals (and non-Christians) in his duties as chaplain argues that he would probably not have preached a sermon at the funeral of a Catholic that said “all Catholics are hell-bound, the rest of y’all need to get right with God!” One hopes.

    (Who was it that said, “at a black church funeral, if the departed was a low down dirty dog, the preacher says so, and all the people say Amen!”)

  • Avram

    Did anyone else have trouble getting that Washington Times link to work?

  • Dan Berger

    I did, but it’s apparently a double link. The correct link is here.

    The S&S story gives a bit more detail of what his military offenses were. They don’t look too offensive to me; but at sea, Captain = God.

  • tmatt

    The link is fixed. Sorry!

    Dan’s comment is precisely right, concerning “evangelical” vs. “evangelistic.” Of course, if someone had stood up at a CATHOLIC funeral and preached the CATHOLIC doctrines on salvation someone would have freaked out, too. The problem is handling ultimate issues — period. This is an issue of OFFENSIVE free speech. The military must, however, err on the side of freedom of conscience.

    If they try to make the military Unitarians, they will end up with a military that can only hunt for soldiers in Unitarian pews. No offense to Unitarians, but I don’t think that will work.

  • Stephen A.

    I heard a chaplain at the center of this controversy on Sean Hannity’s radio program. A guest host was filling in that day and he let the chaplain pretty much ramble for quite a few minutes about his case, which I found pretty persuasive at first blush.

    I scanned away from that station, but later, turned back to hear what sounded like a superior officer on the same show who had called in to lambaste the chaplain for insubordination and for mispresenting the facts. One point: that he wasn’t “ordered” not to preach in Jesus’ name in uniform, but was only told not to speak on political issues in uniform, which would have been a breach in protocol.

    There is, however, some truth to a military ban on chaplains preaching as a means of conversion while in uniform.

    Kind of confusing, and worth a second look by reporters eager to make this the next “crusade” one way (“secularists run amok”) or the other (“Righties imposing religion on others.”)

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  • Avram

    One thing that would clarify this issue for me is a better explanation of what a chaplain’s duties involve, and what the distinction is between chapel services (where they are, according to the Wash. Times story) allowed to use denomination-specific language, and “other public events”. At the latter, for whom are the chaplains assumed to be acting? Their own, their denomination, those present, their immediate commanding officer, their branch of the military, the US government?

  • Dan Berger

    Those are questions that I’d love to see answered officially, Avram. It boils down to the question of whether chaplains are primarily representatives of their parent religions, or representatives of the civic religion of the USA.

    I’d say the chain-of-command’s answer is going to be the latter, with the proviso that chaplains are also expected to do counseling and some advocacy work for individual service members.

  • sharon d.

    “I’m sure we all agree that we ought to love one another, and I know there are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that!”
    –Tom Lehrer, introduction to “National Brotherhood Week”

    Just wanted to provide the attribution for the original quote.

  • tmatt


    There CAN BE NO official civic religion of the USA. That’s the point, whether you’re Jerry Falwell or Bishop Spong.

    No, they are going to have to make diversity work and err on the side of civic tolerance and free speech. And they should simply AVOID large, watered-down-religion assemblies. They mean nothing and do no good for anyone. IMHO

    tmatt, at cafe in Burnsville, NC

  • Dan Berger


    While I agree with the sentiments (and policy recommendations) in your response, we absolutely do have an “official civic religion” in the USA. It doesn’t quite qualify as a state church, it’s more like a strong tradition. In the military, traditions tend to have the force of a direct order.

    There are several unconstitutional things that are part and parcel of our government; for example, originating funding bills in the Senate.

  • Daniel

    As a former JAG officer, I’m trying to figure out exactly where you believe this free speech right of military members is found. Chaplains have to toe the military line, regardless of whether it impedes on their faith or not. They are there to serve all members of the military, not just those of their faith.

    It’s likely that one of the reasons the MSM hasn’t touched this story can be found by looking at the chaplain’s website. He’s a classic whistleblower–for good and naught–and appears to have some serious problems with following command and procedures. That may make you a great evagelical minister, but it makes you a lousy officer and gentleman.