Chaplains offering real prayers at fake POW/MIA rites?

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Dang! Just when you thought that the news couldn’t get any weirder and darker for the U.S. military and, in particular, for military veterans. I’ll get to the chaplains in a minute.

First of all, here’s a shout out to NBC News for covering this story and, whether it was intentional or not, including the highly relevant religious angle.

So what’s the lede? A branch of the U.S. Department of Defense has, for seven years, been holding fake memorial rites marking the “arrival” of the remains of soldiers who died in battlefields during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, etc.

After NBC News raised questions about the arrival ceremonies, the Pentagon acknowledged Wednesday that no honored dead were in fact arriving, and that the planes used in the ceremonies often couldn’t even fly but were towed into position.

The solemn ceremonies at a military base in Hawaii are a sign of the nation’s commitment to returning and identifying its fallen warriors. The ceremonies have been attended by veterans and families of MIAs, led to believe that they were witnessing the return of Americans killed in World War II, Vietnam and Korea.

The ceremonies also have been known, at least among some of the military and civilian staff here, as The Big Lie.

The reality on the ground is actually quite complex, because the flag-drapped “coffins” are not empty.

But the remains are not “arriving” and the remains of the soldiers in the transfer cases may or may note be from the battlefields that are announced in the ceremony. Or the remains may have come from those battlefields months earlier. Or, or, or — you get the picture.

So the tears in the eyes of the elderly veterans watching the rites are real, but just about everything else in these (warning, bureaucratic speech alert) “symbolic tributes” is a mixture of fiction or, at best, vague information.

Check this out:

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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?

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So, what do Southern Baptists have to do to get some ink?

A couple of years ago the Southern Baptist Convention explored the option of changing their name to better reflect the national and international nature of the denomination. I thought at the time that it might be helpful to change the name to the “The Episcopal Church” so that the national news media would finally acknowledge the massive SBC’s existence.

Well, tmatt once offered some helpful theories for explaining why Episcopalians get so much ink by the elite press, but I’ve yet to hear a reasonable explanation why America’s largest non-Catholic flock is all but ignored.

A prime example is a story that has — so far — only been picked up by one mainstream media organization, The Tennessean in Nashville, the city in which the SBC headquarters is located:

Two Southern Baptist leaders said Monday that they reject conspiracy theories that the U.S. military will punish Christian soldiers who share their faith.

But they are worried about religious freedom in the military.

Kevin Ezell, head of the Baptist’s North American Mission Board, which endorses military chaplains, and Russell Moore, president-elect of the Nashville-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, issued a statement Monday about religious freedom in the military.

The full statement (which can be found at the Baptist Press news site) offers a number of hooks for reporters who are late writing about the story that was discussed in churches and on military bases across the country.

The fact that such sober-minded, media-friendly and thoughtful Baptist leaders as Kevin Ezell, president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, and Russell Moore, president-elect of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, felt compelled to write about this issue is a signal that there’s a story out there that needs some calm, nuanced, informed reporting.

What, for instance, are the conspiracy theories they’re attempting to debunk?

If you’ve been following Smietana at The Tennessean you’d know.

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Nidal Hasan’s mysteriously religious beard

A few months ago, I looked at coverage of a judge’s order that the beard of alleged Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan must be shaved. We have a bit of an update to that story from the Associated Press:

The military’s highest court ousted the judge in the Fort Hood shooting case Monday and threw out his order to have the suspect’s beard forcibly shaved before his court-martial.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled that Col. Gregory Gross didn’t appear impartial while presiding over the case of Maj. Nidal Hasan, who faces the death penalty if convicted in the 2009 shootings on the Texas Army post that killed 13 people and wounded more than two dozen others.

But the court said it was not ruling on whether the judge’s order violated Hasan’s religious rights. Hasan has argued that his beard is a requirement of his Muslim faith, although facial hair violates Army regulations.

To be honest, the entire story left me a bit confused in the particulars. The general idea, though, is that the appeals court was worried that it had become a battle of wills between Gross and Hasan. One issue involved a medical waste bag and an adult diaper in the bathroom … but I was a bit confused about what was going on.

In any case, I’m reminded once again of how poorly the religion angle to this story has been covered. I’m just going to quote what I wrote months ago:

But more than anything I wonder why not a single expert on Muslim grooming could be cited. There have to be various schools of thought on this issue, right? What do they say? Do they say nothing? If nothing, that should be mentioned, too. Did Hasan just make this beard thing up? Did he have any justification? What did his defense argue? Shouldn’t these things be included in the story?

That’s one angle I’d like to see covered. Another comes from what one commenter to the previous post wrote:

As an Army Chaplain the issue surrounding Hasan’s beard is at its heart a religious freedom issue. With that said there is no inherent violation of his rights. All Soldiers, including Christian, Jewish or Sikh (among many) who desire to follow structures of their faith that collide with Army policy must, I repeat must, follow a process called “accommodation of religious practices.” The Soldier in question must go through an interview process, that includes a Chaplain, to verify the truth and reality of the claim and request for exception to Army policy, in this case a beard. Hasan, to my knowledge, has not followed the process, so whether he is in uniform or in civilian clothes he is still an Army officer required to follow Army grooming standards.

Has Hasan gone through the accommodation process? If not, why not? What do Hasan’s lawyers say about why he changed his mind about what his religion says about facial hair? Since the entire progress of the trial rests on answers to these questions, isn’t it kind of weird that we’re not seeing more about what’s going on? Why the sparse coverage of the key religion angles here?