Secular Chaplains And A Tale of Two Service Members

Secular Chaplains And A Tale of Two Service Members July 29, 2013

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…

A few days ago, the House of Representatives of the United States set aside work on real problems so that they could pass a ban, sponsored by Rep. John Fleming, to prohibit the armed forces from appointing atheists or secular humanists to the chaplaincy.  Rep. Fleming had this to say:

“The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron. It is absurd to argue that someone with no spiritual inclination should fill that role, especially when it could well mean that such an individual would take the place of a true chaplain who has been endorsed by a religious organization.”

Really?  Let’s examine that statement a little closer.  Why shouldn’t someone with no spiritual inclination fill that role, which incidentally doesn’t simply involve chaplains conducting religious services for their own faith group?  Instead, chaplains are expected to support all service members, regardless of their personal faith group.  A Jewish chaplain is expected to be able to lead Christian services and a Catholic chaplain is expected to be able to hold Muslim services when needed, so why does Fleming assume a Secular Humanist chaplain can’t also do these things? Further, and more critically for this discussion, chaplains are called upon to provide religious and secular counseling for a variety of problems, including marital issues, domestic violence, anxiety, suicide prevention, and many other problems.  Again, why can’t these services be provided just as well by a Secular Humanist?

Now, some might ask why non-religious service members might want or need to talk to a chaplain, especially when secular mental health services are available. Here’s the critical difference:  when a service member sees a chaplain, there is an expectation that this is privileged communication and that conversations with chaplains are private and will not be disclosed to commanders or others.  However, there is no such guarantee when seeking mental health services outside the chaplaincy.  Not only is there an unfortunate social stigma associated with receiving mental health services, there is no expectation of privacy because the content of discussions can be disclosed to commanders and to investigators doing background investigations for security clearances.  See a chaplain and you are guaranteed privacy; see a secular counselor and risk your security clearance, your reputation, and even your career.

Here’s a couple of stories to demonstrate my point.  Both these stores are true stories from real people that I personally know, although their names have been changed.

The believer

Service member one, who I will call Mike, is a Christian at a large military base.  Mike just returned from deployment and he is having trouble communicating with his wife and reintegrating into his household so he realizes he needs counseling.  He seeks out his unit chaplain, who is most likely a Christian like himself because most unit-level chaplains are, and asks for assistance, which he quickly receives.  Through the work of the chaplain, which included both Mike and his wife, Mike received counseling supplemented with prayer, and was able to receive as many sessions as he needed to resolve his issues to the great benefit of his family and his mental health.  He did not have to discuss his sessions with his commander and when his next security clearance investigation came up, he did not have to disclose he had sought and received counseling.

The non-believer

Service member two, who I will call Jenny, is an atheist at the same base and unit as Mike.  Jenny also just returned from the same deployment and its also having trouble reintegrating with her family at home.  She knows the only way she can get secular counseling is to risk the stigma associated with seeking out mental health services so she elects to also see the chaplain.  During her first and only session with the chaplain, the chaplain tells her there are no such thing as atheists, because people who are atheists are simply people who have lost their way to God.  He further tells her that he has a duty to help her accept Jesus into her heart and until that’s done, he cannot help her resolve her marital and family issues.  Because she’s worried about her family, she seeks out and receives competent counseling through her installation’s behavioral health center but to do so, she had to inform her chain of command that she was seeing a counselor and when her next security clearance investigation came up, she was required to disclose that she had sought counseling and what that counseling was for!  She was subsequently informed that the content of her counseling sessions would be obtained from her counselor and reviewed for any material that could cause her to be a security risk.  Also, since her installation behavioral health services department was overextended by the critical need to treat service members with post traumatic stress and brain injuries, she was referred off-post to see a counselor but was limited to the handful of sessions her insurance, TRICARE, would cover and was advised if she wanted more services, those would have to be paid for out of her own funds.

Seems unfair, and it is.  I ask again, why shouldn’t someone with no spiritual inclination be allowed to fill the chaplain’s role for service members like Jenny?

You can reach Rep. Fleming here:

Please do reach out and inform him yourself of why this amendment is such an egregious violation against non-believing service members.


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  • Ryan Jean

    The confidentiality and privileged status of communications with Chaplains is a bigger deal than most realize. Under every state’s laws, any legally-recognized clergy (which includes Humanist Society Celebrants, by the way) can conduct confidential communications with their lay audience, but there are certain stipulations for information which even then are not entitled to total confidentiality. The most common example is “imminent harm” to themselves or another, but depending on state law there are often other exemptions.

    Just last week, however, in a conversation with a Chaplain’s Assistant (that I frequently debate) about this very subject, she led me to re-read AR 165-1 (Army Chaplain Corps Activities), Chapter 16-2 (Confidential and privileged communications). She pointed out the following:

    1). the Chaplain confidentiality privilege is *absolute*; it applies even to cases where the Chaplain is told the individual plans to commit suicide or homicide. The only thing the Chaplain can do is try to talk them out of it, sabotage an attempt (she gave taking away a weapon’s firing pin as an example), or get them to disclose it of their own volition to proper authorities.

    2). the confidentiality extends to everyone working in the Chaplain’s office, even Chaplain Assistants who are not ordained as clergy.

    The other services have similarly-worded provisions.

    While some would (rightly) point out that this is actually in some ways a burden, the simple fact is that such a complete, comprehensive policy on confidentiality is meant to ensure that people have a place to turn. A non-religious person, as you point out, may not (and from personal experience often does not) feel comfortable talking solely with religious Chaplains, but there are no non-religious ones to turn to. As long as there are no non-religious Chaplains, only religion is afforded this unearned and undeserved special condition and status.

    People like Rep. Fleming, though, believe that only the religious should even be *entitled* to such care. As far as I’m concerned, that makes him a moral monster.

    • Kathleen Duncan Johnson

      Nice post, thanks for adding this. Moral monster, indeed!

    • Paul Loebe

      Moral Monster. I think I will refer to Fleming as the Moral Monster from now on. Let’s make it catch!

    • Jennifer Anker

      When you state the chaplain confidentiality privilege is absolute, you mention risk of suicide or homocide being included. What I’m wondering is if there is still exception for child abuse or if that, too, is allowed to be kept confidential.

      • Ryan Jean

        According to the regulation, there are no exemptions to confidentiality and other privileged communications, except the explicit permission of the individual*. Part of the idea with the chaplaincy is that by giving you absolute coverage, you are more likely to reach out when in need. When people feel uncomfortable, or like the Chaplain won’t seek their best interests because religion is actually in the way, however, that comfort in having a place to go is eroded.

        * The explicit permission section is remarkably specific: it needs to be granted after the communication in question, describe what subject can be discussed (and blanket permission is not allowed) and to whom. Without all of that it is automatically invalid, except for communications between that Chaplain or assistant and other Chaplains/assistants explicitly helping with the issue, to whom the confidentiality gag will also be extended. It is also preferably written and signed, with a witness.

        • Jennifer Anker

          Ugh, that is just all kinds of f-ed up then.

    • Paul Loebe

      These exemptions for physical harm and/or suicide/homocide are not absolute. That is one measure where they can take action.

  • Stev84

    Regardless of the chaplain situation, it’s obvious that they need to change the confidentiality regulations about mental health professionals. It’s absurd that such conversations aren’t protected better.

    • Paul Loebe

      If you see a chaplain it’s entirely confidential (or supposed to be). If you see a counselor it can cost you a security clearance, which can cost you your job. THAT is absurd!

      • Stev84

        Yeah, but that’s just an extension of what I said. It doesn’t really matter whether some random other person or the security clearance people are prevented from accessing your mental health records. Confidentiality is confidentiality.

        • Paul Loebe

          The chaplains are also embedded in every unit and easily accessible without the need to make an appointment, can be accessed during field ops, training events, and even while deployed on the front lines. I like the Chaplaincy program. It’s much different than just a counselor and just a pastor.

  • Bill Bright

    Possibly there should be no confidentiality, no matter WHOM you talk to. As an atheist, I think the day is coming that your religion and conversations with a religious leader will be the stigma, just like the stigma associated with talking to a counselor. And so it should be. Religion is ignorance and craziness. We’re talking about the military, for chrissakes. It’s not a social club, and certainly not a democracy. If somebody’s plotting carnage, command should know. If you want touchy-feely confidants, go to the bawdy house outside the gate. I’m sure somebody would like to listen to you there.

    • Paul Loebe

      Confidentiality is a must. Why would anyone approach someone for mental help if they knew they would just be ratted out? I knew a Chaplain that did that. He would run and tell the Colonel anything anyone told him. Eventually, no one went to the Chaplain…

  • quickshot

    Interesting take! As others have noted, I think this is an imperfect solution to a larger problem. Still, I can’t help but get nervous when we start to blur the lines between atheism and religion.