Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

I’m Sick Unto Death of Hearing about Protecting the Religious Liberty of Military Chaplains

I remember something that my Drill Sergeant said to me, my first day of Basic Training some 20 years ago, when I was an 18 year old private at Ft. Leonard Wood Missouri.  We were all in one of our first formations, and he asked us if any of us would like to take a vote on what we were going to do the rest of the day.  A few souls either brave or naïve raised their hands… to which he replied, in such a loud voice for such a short man…

“In the United States Army, We Defend Democracy… WE DO NOT PRACTICE IT!!!  Now all of you, do some pushups!”

As I did those pushups, and in the years that have come since, this realization stayed with me… being in the military means you do not get to exercise all of the rights that you have sworn to uphold and defend.  Part of the sacrifice of military service is voluntarily accepting a limitation of some of your rights in order for the military to function and perform its mission.  You either accept that, or you leave the military.  We call it “failure to adapt to military life”.

One of the classes that we held last weekend, while drilling with my reserve unit, was a class on what soldiers can and cannot do in the political process.  This is important coming up on an election year.  Soldiers are encouraged to refrain from electioneering.  They cannot speak negatively about those who hold or seek federal office.  It is inappropriate for them to have electioneering material (such as bumper stickers and tee-shirts) on base.  They may not go to political events in uniform, and are encouraged not to be too public in their political positions.  Violating these policies (and more) can be cause of “negative action” under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  They can attend events out of uniform, and participate in ways that do not draw attention to their military service.  And soldiers are encouraged to vote.  But much of what makes up regular political involvement is denied them.  Their freedoms of speech and political participation are curtailed by their choice to serve in the United States Military.

So, to protect the Freedom of Speech, members of the military are required to sacrifice some of their own individual and corporate ability to exercise that Freedom of Speech.

The same is true of the right to privacy.  You have less right to privacy in the U.S. Military than you do in civilian life.  Just ask anyone who has ever been through a Security Clearance investigation… or a barracks inspection, for that matter.  In order to defend the Right to Privacy, military members voluntarily sacrifice some of their own right to privacy.

In the U.S. Military, it is the military chaplains who are tasked with the protection of the Free Exercise of Religion.  No military chaplain is drafted to serve… we are all volunteers.  In truth, any military chaplain could choose to leave the military rather quickly, simply by asking their endorser to either not renew their endorsement, or to even pull that endorsement.  Since they are officers, a military chaplain could even choose to resign their commission (so long as they are not about to deploy).  So, military chaplains are even more “voluntarily” in the military than almost anyone else.

As all members of the U.S. Military voluntarily sacrifice some of their rights to free speech, political activity, and privacy in order to defend those rights for the rest of us… Military Chaplains are required to voluntarily sacrifice some of the rights to their own Religious Freedom in order to defend that religious freedom for the Soldiers they serve.  The purpose of the military chaplaincy is to maximize the religious freedom of the soldiers that they serve, not to maximize their own.

I live this voluntary sacrifice every day.  As a Unitarian Universalist Minister serving as a Reserve Military Chaplain, I have had to voluntarily sacrifice quite a bit of my religious freedom.  My religion says that I should provide the Ceremony of Marriage to any two people who love one another and wish to make that commitment, regardless of what gender they happen to be… something the military does not allow me to do.  My religion says that, like Jesus, I am called to speak out loud and publically about hypocrisy that I see in the world around me, including in politics and in military leadership… a tendency I have to regularly rein in so that I do not fall afoul of military policy (a line I’m dancing even in writing this article. Notice I do not mention anyone by name, nor do I use any military title, and my website says at the top that I am speaking only for myself, and not for any official institution).  And probably most importantly, my religious faith calls me to a theological stance that is very close to Pacifism, something that I struggle with in seeking to not make my ministry about my faith, but about the religious faith and needs of those that I serve.

So, when I read articles like this one from the Alliance Defense Fund and the Chaplain’s Alliance for Religious Liberty, it makes my blood boil.  They have forgotten that the mission of the Chaplain Corps is to protect the freedom of religion for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Guardians, and Marines we serve… and like the rest of the military, protecting the rights of others often requires the voluntary sacrifice of some of our own rights.

Either accept that, or go be a civilian pastor.

Yours in Faith,

Rev. David

3 Thoughts on “I’m Sick Unto Death of Hearing about Protecting the Religious Liberty of Military Chaplains

  1. David:

    Perhaps I’m missing something here. You speak of personally opposing and exposing hypocrisies in our society (which I enjoy doing also, as you can see from some of my FB posts). Additionally, you speak of the sacrifices we in the military make. I’m with you so far. Then, you go on a limb about some endorsers (retired, so they can speak their minds with fewer consequences than we currently serving soldiers would see) speaking out about the “conscience” issues the government seems to be prepared to run over with regard to health care and religious institutions. I accept that you disagree with theological traditionalists, that’s cool. Given that one of them is my endorser, I happen to agree (to a degree) with what’s being said. There is potential future danger in what’s going on, that could affect our ministry as chaplains in the future (I speak as a fellow traditionalist, you could easily be affected differently). I see certain parts of the government seeming to abandon common sense, be overriding religious rights and conscience, which is never wise in this country. Could you do me a favor, and spell out precisely how you see differently, so I don’t feel like a total ignoramus? Thanks.

  2. Nicely done David!

  3. Great article. You make the good point that troops rather than chaplains are ones whose rights should be protected. And in truth, chaplains have a greater degree of religious freedom in that they wear their religious symbols and have the opportunity to preach as part of their job (so long as they have a volunteer audience, presumably).
    I did take exception to one thing. It says you can’t marry same sex couples. That’s not my understanding. If it’s legal in your state, then you can perform the wedding. So you might not be able to, but it’s the state, not the military restricting that freedom.

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