I want to revisit the always hot topic of free speech and military chaplains, because of a very interesting op-ed column in the Washington Post. We rarely deal with editorial page offerings here at GetReligion, but this piece anticipates where this hot story may be headed.
The column was called “What the Military Shouldn’t Preach” and it was written by Scott Poppleton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He is boldly asking a simple question: Are military chaplains appropriate? Are they even legal? Another question looms in the background: Is it legal to force soldiers to listen to prayers and/or evangelistic messages by clergy who are not of their own faith? Here at GetReligion, I have been asking: Is it legal to require chaplains (if they want to be promoted) to voice prayers that require them to water down, if not violate, the doctrines of the faith in which they are ordained?
According to Poppleton, it is now time to take a radical step. He believes the military services should create secular counseling services, thus removing the government from the religion business:
We are well past the point where we need to reset the baseline of individual religious freedom in our military. The first step is to provide clear-cut regulatory guidance to our commanders and chaplains requiring them to keep their religious views to themselves other than in personal settings or at church. If a solemn occasion is appropriate at a military ceremony, implement a moment of silence, as we do at every public school in our nation.
The next essential step is to reform our dedicated and government-paid chaplain corps into a nondenominational and non-religious counseling service to aid our commanders in helping everyone under their leadership. Let the counselors help with the drug, alcohol and family problems that face our forces. Give civilian clergy the right to preach and teach in the chapel. In deployed locations, provide time and space for service members to conduct services.
In other words, replace chaplains with counselors and then allow civilian clergy in a wide variety of faiths — from Baptist to Buddhist, from Catholic to Muslim — to come in and lead worship services and other activitities in which they would not be expected to compromise on issues of doctrine.
Instead of a lowest-common-denominator theism for military life, you would have a secular approach to military life backed up with a free-market system for worship.
This raises all kinds of questions, but they are questions that are already haunting military life. What happens on battlefields? On submarines with limited space? In military hospitals? Will there be no clergy in those locations at all (if local civilian clergy cannot get there on their own as Poppleton proposes)?
These are tough questions, but they are no tougher than the questions raised by the current system, in which one base may include soldiers representing a dozen or more faiths. How many chaplains can the military afford to fund for any one location so that no one is offended? Now flip that coin over. Can the military honestly expect clergy in traditional faiths to compromise on their own beliefs, in order to serve as shepherds for soldiers from a wide variety of flocks?
As I keep saying, this story is not going to go away.