This week, I received an email from an organization I track, known as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. It is an organization that advocates both legally and in the media, for the protection of the Free Exercise of Religion in the military, often with more passion than restraint. Yet, over the last few years that I have read their press releases, legal briefs, and articles, I have been amazed at the amount of restraint they have shown in not directly targeting the behavior of military chaplains.
I know that many of my chaplain colleagues would not see MRFF as operating with restraint, but I could see it. With the closeness with which they have tracked and spoken out about military commanders using their authority to promote particular religions, and with the way they have advocated for people of minority religions (and the non-religious) who have been discriminated against (and sometimes verbally and physically abused), I knew that MRFF had to be receiving complaints on the actions of some military chaplains. Probably many times many complaints.
Now, let me just say that I believe that most military chaplains fully understand, respect, and agree that their role in the military is primarily the protection of the free exercise of religion. Most military chaplains do that job well, balancing the expectations of their endorsing denominations with the need to serve in one of the most pluralistic ministries one can be called to. Though some face pressure from their endorsers to proselytize, many resist that pressure in order to meet the necessities of the role of the military chaplain, and to be true to the oath that they took to “support and defend the constitution, against all enemies, foreign and domestic”.
And… it is not true of all military chaplains. Some chaplains that I have met, and others I know of through soldiers, have used their authority and access as military chaplains to advocate for their faith. They have at times discriminated against soldiers of minority faith traditions, as well as soldiers who are Lesbian, Gay, or Bi-sexual (discrimination now allowed officially in the DADT repeal policy*). Some chaplains I have spoken with have blatantly told me that their reason for serving was to proselytize for their faith tradition, and that they did not feel bound to their oath to the constitution because their faith was “a higher law”.
Under a Federal Court decision known as Katkoff v. Marsh, military chaplaincy remains constitutional only if the primary role of the military chaplain is the protection of the free exercise of religion in the military. Now, all of the training that a military chaplain receives reinforces this… and even directly says that proselytization by a military chaplain is against regulations. This decision was made by a U.S. Court of Appeals, and though it is the law, it could still be challenged in two ways. It could be appealed to the Supreme Court, or a new case could be filed claiming that the military chaplaincy is failing to make protecting the free exercise of religion its primary mission.
Knowing what I know of some of my military chaplain colleagues, and knowing how closely the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has been tracking the behavior of commanders and others in positions of military authority proselytizing for their faith, I just knew that MRFF has received thousands of complaints of chaplains for whom the protection of the free exercise of religion is not their primary mission in this “mission field” of the U.S. Military.
And yet, they have been amazingly restrained. Where a memo recommending a religious concert by a commanding officer would launch MRFF into a blitz of media interviews and legal briefs, the organization seems to have been keeping much of what they have heard about military chaplains more confidential. Now, that is not entirely true… when a Chaplain was less than helpful after an Atheist solder was threatened while deployed, they did mention it in their media contacts. They also have been very critical of a few senior command Chaplains, such as the Command Chaplain at the Air Force Academy. They have called out some anti-Semitic teachings by Chaplains at Ft. Leavenworth. They even have focused on the blurring of the line between evangelism and proselytization throughout the Corps. Though I don’t know for certain, I suspect that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has for years been in contact with the offices of the different military branch’s Chiefs of Chaplains about the concerns that are being raised.
But these mentions have been the exception, not the rule… and I know that with the stories of chaplains that come to me, even when I’m not looking, because soldiers read my articles here at Celestial Lands, I knew that MRFF had to be receiving literally thousands of complaints.
This is something that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation confirmed, perhaps inadvertently, last week. What they also confirmed for me, perhaps also inadvertently, was that they have indeed been showing remarkable restraint where the different service’s Military Chaplain Corps are concerned.
Last week, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation announced their “Bad Chaplain” awards. They named two chaplains, one the senior chaplain at the Air Force Academy (again, sigh) and the other the Command Chaplain for the Army’s 1st Recruiting Brigade. While neither of the cases that were named in the “Bad Chaplain” award were surprising to me, what was surprising was that MRFF has finally moved into targeting Chaplains specifically… and that realization made my heart sink.
I believe that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and a few other organizations have showed restraint in going after the excesses of some military chaplains because they have been giving the different military chaplain corps the chance to get their houses in order. MRFF has shown the restraint it has shown because I believe they see the value in having military chaplains, dedicated to protecting the free exercise of religion, on the battlefield with our soldiers. They have focused on the actions of military commanders and those who write policy at the Pentagon not because there have not been abuses in the chaplain corps, but because they know that the court decision that keeps military chaplaincy constitutional is fragile, at best.
I believe we have reached the end of that patience and restraint. It is my belief that, unless there is a major effort to reform the Chaplain Corps in the immediate future, there will soon be a court challenge, perhaps filed by MRFF, as to whether or not our military chaplain corps as currently staffed and structured is constitutional.
And, I have no idea what the outcome of such a court case would be. I’m just glad my primary income comes from Parish Ministry…
Yours in Faith,
Here is a link to other articles I have written on military chaplaincy…
*The DADT Repeal policy allows military chaplains to decide that they will not perform religious services for anyone who is LGB. They are still required to find another chaplain or a civilian minister to provide such services (as requested) for LGB servicemembers, but there is no formal structure in place for them to do that.