Concerning theological Swiss Army knives (think chaplains)

In the world of church-state studies, few puzzles are as tough to crack as those that surround the work of military chaplains.

Suffice it to say, many soldiers would like spiritual comfort and help in combat. We are talking about life and death situations. A practicing Catholic or Orthodox soldier, for example, will want a chance to go to confession — with a valid priest.

And there is the problem. How many chaplains are going to fit into that foxhole? Are you going to get a male Catholic priest and a female Episcopal priest into the same submarine? How about a rabbi — Reform or Orthodox? — or an imam? Don’t Wiccan soldiers deserve a last rite of their own?

You can see the issues. Chaplains are asked to serve as, to repeat an image used before here at GetReligion, theological Swiss Army Knives. This works better for theological Universalists than it does for clergy who have taken vows to practice the rites and prayers of their faith and their faith alone.

This brings us to the debates about atheist/agnostic military chaplains. The following RNS story covers the political basics right up top:

(RNS) House lawmakers … approved an amendment to a Pentagon spending bill to prevent the appointment of nonreligious military chaplains.

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. John C. Fleming, R-La., requires that only religious organizations be permitted to endorse chaplains for the military.

“The amendment holds the military to its current standards on endorsing agencies, which must be recognized religious and faith-based organizations,” said Fleming’s spokesman, Doug Sachtleben.

Currently, the Department of Defense recognizes more than 200 endorsing agents, all of them based on a belief in God. But there has been a recent push by Humanists, who do not recognize a supernatural divinity, to endorse their own military chaplains.

So, do humanists/atheists/agnostics deserve — think “equal access” principles — the right to have their own chaplains, so that in times of crisis they are dealing with spiritual/humanist counsel that reflects their own beliefs?

It’s hard for a church-state separationist to answer “no.”

But the key issue — to lock onto one metaphor — is that submarine problem. Can you put an atheist chaplain on the submarine and ask her or him to function as a chaplain to a Roman Catholic, an Orthodox Jew, a traditional Muslim?

The problem with this short report — and the text is quite short, so let’s not quickly think blame here — is that it does not even contain a sentence about the Swiss Army Knife issue. Yet readers can see it lurking in the background:

The amendment has the support of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, an organization of Christian chaplains. In a statement issued Tuesday, Chaplain Ron Crews, a retired Air Force Colonel, said, “A fringe minority is advocating for atheists to be commissioned as chaplains, but the very nature of the word ‘chaplain’ suggests that the individual possesses a belief in God and a desire to minister to spiritual needs.”

Do “spiritual needs” imply a belief in God or gods? Yes and no. People will disagree on that. And there’s the problem with the current chaplaincy program and the theological Swiss Army Knife structure.

And there’s the issue, the issue that must be mentioned — somehow.

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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.

  • http://www.Armchair-Theology.net/ Dave

    As a military member this seems odd to me. The services humanists seem to be requesting are already readily available to them through the myriad of secular counseling services available to them through the military. At many bases the offices of counselors and chaplains are even situated side by side.

  • boinkie

    The chaplains offer a spiritual solace in times of trouble. This requires sensitivity to the person’s belief system, but not (as is being pushed by the PC) a denial of the chaplain’s own belief system.

    There is a core of similarities between religions that enable a spiritual conversation.

    For example, when I worked on an American Indian reservation, in times of tragedy, (e.g. car wrecks) the local Catholic and Anglican priests were a valuable support system for the families: the local medicine man approved of these two men because he knew they wouldn’t push their beliefs on these patients, but would comfort them in the language of their own belief system.

    So a good agnostic could do this, but it might not be believable to a soldier who receives “spiritual” advice from an atheist who is known for despising the soldier’s belief system.

    • Brian Westley

      So a good agnostic could do this, but it might not be believable to a soldier who receives “spiritual” advice from an atheist who is known for despising the soldier’s belief system.

      Of course, this is true for any combination where a chaplain of beliefs X despises the beliefs of soldier Y. But why are you assuming all atheists would “despise” a soldier’s belief system? Is it somehow “PC” to assume atheists are human beings instead of fanatical haters now?

      By the way, Belgium and the Netherlands have had humanist chaplains in the military for years now.

  • Jim Jones

    > Can you put an atheist chaplain on the submarine and ask her or him to
    function as a chaplain to a Roman Catholic, an Orthodox Jew, a
    traditional Muslim?

    Why not? Console and support the human, not the religion. It’d be easier for a humanist to perform last rites for a submariner of any faith than for a Catholic to perform for a Muslim. And the humanist could have a real job on the boat and not be just a passenger.

  • JoFro

    When they do approve humanist chaplains, can we finally see the end of of such statements like “humanism is not a religion, yo” or “atheism’s not a religion dude” – somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen!

  • Ann Rodgers

    It seems to me that the simple solution here is to turn to the Unitarian-Universalists, who do have humanist/atheist clergy. That solves both the issue of having an endorsing body (required by the military) and of ensuring that the person has received appropriate training in pastoral ministry. However — and here’s the journalism connection — I did a story on whether there would be gay-friendly chaplains after the demise of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, because many liberal traditions stopped promoting military chaplaincy after the Vietnam war, while some evangelical groups offer special seminary tracks for it. I recall interviewing the person who endorses military chaplains for the UUs, who said they are looking at ramping up their promotion of the military as a place to serve. This might give them a whole new angle for it.

    • John Pack Lambert

      It gets even more tricky than that. The amendment does not block the creation of humanist chaplains, as long as they can come up with a way to show they have provided clear credentials. The credentials for chaplains issue is actually bigger to groups like Mormons, who adamantly do not have a trained clergy. About 3 years ago BYU began a masters degree program specifically to train LDS chaplains. The head of the program is a former military chaplain, who was a Methodist and Presbyterian minsters (at different times) before he became a Mormon.


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