The recent flurry shit-storm of news surrounding the myth of Christian persecution in the military has left many of our representatives in congress deluded about the realities of the aims of secular activists. Through this conflagration, one story of hope has floated to the surface. The story I’m referring to was the recent submission of an amendment to H.R. 1960 which would allow Humanist Chaplains to serve in our military. After I saw this I was inspired to take a few seconds of my life to click send, along with many others, on a message to my representative prepared by the Secular Coalition for America. I never expected a response from my congressman (he is a Republican after all) but much to my surprise, I got one! What follows is a brief e-mail exchange between myself and (most likely an intern or computer representing…) Congressman Erik Paulsen (R-MN 3rd District).
“I am writing to urge you to support Congressman Robert Andrews’ (D-NJ) amendment to H.R. 1960, which would allow nontheistic chaplains in the Chaplain Corps of the Armed Forces.
Military chaplains are crucial for nontheistic and religiously unaffiliated service members—who make up 23 percent of the armed services.
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.
Our nontheistic service members sacrifice for all Americans daily. The very least we can do is make sure all of our service members have access to those who can offer them needed help. It’s the least we can do. They absolutely deserve it.”
Thank you for sharing your concerns about religious freedom in our Armed Forces and the leadership of Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
As you may know, there have been reports of religious intolerance in the military, including the removal of bibles from airmen’s rooms and the Air Force Academy dropping “Operation Christmas Child” from its officially sponsored charity drives. In response to these concerns, my office has made an inquiry with the Air Force Liaison’s office.
According to the Air Force, while Bibles are no longer included on the standard checklist provided for each Air Force-approved lodging facility, no one has ordered the removal of Bibles and the majority of the rooms at these facilities still contain copies of the Bible. In addition, the Air Force Academy no longer includes “Operation Christmas Child” as an officially sponsored charity drive, but the Air Force insists that students are not only still allowed to donate, but are actively encouraged to participate in drives like “Operation Christmas Child.”
I will continue to support the protection of religious freedom for our service members and will oppose any legislation that infringes on those rights.
Thanks again for sharing your concerns, as I appreciate hearing from you. Please let me know whenever I can be of assistance.
Member of Congress
Thank you for your response. It does appear to be an out of date pre-fabricated response e-mail though. Leon Panetta is no longer the Secretary of Defense. Aside from that, your position as described is something of great concern to me and I hope that you take the time to read and genuinely consider what I have to say.
I have worked closely with several of the organizations (most closely with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation) which have been the drivers of these changes that you claim to be examples of religious intolerance and am a veteran myself. Your characterization of the distancing of command from endorsement of Christianity as “intolerance” is misguided. While I am sure that you identify as a Christian yourself, I do not. I am a Humanist. Imagine if the United States had as its majority Humanists instead of Christians. In this world, would you consider it “religious freedom” for Humanist leaders in the military to use their authority to encourage people to join Humanist groups, celebrate Humanistic values or donate to Humanist charities? Would you respect the decision of leaders who share my beliefs filling government buildings or lodging with Humanist literature to spread the word of the happiness that comes from a naturalistic understanding of the world? Would you call it an infringement on the freedom of the majority in this theoretical world if Christians demanded that their leaders stop endorsing Humanism above all other religions? I have my doubts.
Many people, like yourself, erroneously believe that a secular government is an atheist government. This is simply not true. The opposite of “In God We Trust” is “There is no God” not the neutral stance which is demanded by our constitution. For our military to truly defend the founding document of this country its leaders can neither profess or deny any religion through the use of authority. A pluralistic society cannot operate effectively under the tyranny of the majority. How can you truly believe that it is “intolerance” that prevents our military from fighting our wars under the Christian flag instead of the American flag?
Imagine if the military refused to have Christian chaplains or did not allow Christians to self-identify as such. Would you find that just? Yesterday the House Armed Services Committee vehemently opposed allowing Humanists equal access to the myriad services offered by chaplains, and we are still not allowed to acknowledge our beliefs on our service records. That, Mr. Paulsen, is intolerance. That is the active denial of freedom, that is bigotry, and sadly, that is our present reality.
I have no interest or desire to live in a country where people of any religion are told that they are not good enough because of their personal philosophical beliefs (so long as those beliefs do not include the infringement of liberty of others). I will continue to actively defend the rights of all service members to practice the religion of their choosing free of interdiction from their superiors. I hope that you can one day find the courage to do the same. If you have any interest in learning about the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and what our real mission is, free of the veneer of media bias, I would be more than happy to talk with you over the phone or in person.
Blake A. Page
Military Religious Freedom Foundation
Special Assistant to the President
Director of West Point Affairs
Perhaps Mr. Paulsen can’t empathize with those of us who would appreciate a Humanist chaplaincy. Regardless, the need for them will continue to exist. As a soldier, I experienced several instances where a Humanist chaplain would have been a godsend (pun intended). The most jarring example was after my dad killed himself. I was given an order by a superior officer to go meet with a chaplain immediately after returning from emergency leave. Admittedly, I needed some counseling, but that meeting went from one of genuine concern to one of shaming very quickly.
- “Well you know if you just let the lord into your heart he will take the pain away.”
- “Why can’t you just accept Jesus? If you really try to believe this time won’t be so difficult for you.”
Being told that you are not, and never will be, strong enough to overcome a loss without religion at a time like that is nothing short of abusive. Every day there are other soldiers, airmen, marines, or sailors given the same choice: seek help from a chaplain and be berated for not having faith, go to mental health at the risk of shaming by peers, or keep your troubles to yourself. In an Army with record high suicide rates, how can any leader justify refusing to offer Humanists this valuable resource?
The vacuum of support for non-believers in the military is something that has impacted my life directly. Maybe it hasn’t caused you trouble yet and you are on the fence about the utility of Humanist chaplains, but I assure you that there are thousands of real people in genuine need of them. I hope you can do your part to help by reaching out to your representative and asking why they would deny us equal treatment under the law. If you happen to live in MN 3rd, or would like to help me sway my representative’s stance, Erik Paulsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.