Freethought NOW!

It’s time to “convert” military chaplaincies

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Nonreligious veterans and military members celebrating the unveiling of FFRF’s “atheists in foxholes” memorial – yet the military can’t be bothered to accommodate their needs

Since President Obama used his veto power (for only the fifth time) on October 22 to scrap the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, now is the perfect time for the United States to take a good hard look at its military. Opponents and proponents of the NDAA are falling back on tired rhetoric about “supporting our troops” in order to justify their positions, but there has been little discussion of what it might actually mean to increase support for the members of our armed services.

So here is one concrete idea for supporting our active duty military without increasing the military budget: convert our military chaplaincies. We need to modernize military chaplaincies to better accommodate the diverse range of religious and nonreligious beliefs that our service members hold.

Each branch of our military has a chaplaincy program, ostensibly in order to accommodate the spiritual needs of service members serving abroad and in remote areas. But the need for such accommodation is questionable. Isn’t that why tax-free churches exist and support missionaries at home and abroad? Why aren’t churches providing such services?

Even if you accept the accommodation argument, the benefits of military chaplaincies are questionable, given the propensity of military chaplains to prefer “winning souls for Jesus” to performing their actual duties. James Madison, the father of our Constitution, noted this very problem with military chaplains in his call to have them disbanded:

Better also to disarm in the same way, the precedent of Chaplainships for the army and navy, than erect them into a political authority in matters of religion. … Look thro’ the armies & navies of the world, and say whether in the appointment of their ministers of religion, the spiritual interest of their flocks or the temporal interest of the Shepherds, be most in view.

To put it plainly, military chaplains do not meet the needs of all service members.

It probably comes as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of military chaplains are Christian. But that’s not how the demographics of our service members look. This Christian dominance conflicts with the religious preferences of service members, 23% of whom are atheists, agnostics, or have no religious preference.

The discrepancy is no accident. Advocacy groups like the Orwellian-named Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty actively lobby to exclude secular advocates from becoming military chaplains. And their efforts have been extremely effective. For instance, you may recall last year that the Navy blocked humanist Jason Heap, who holds master’s degrees from Brite Divinity School and Oxford University, from becoming the first humanist chaplain in the Navy.

A secular chaplain is not oxymoronic and having secular points of view well represented in the military’s chaplaincy program would have real, immediate effects for the nearly one quarter of military personnel who have no religious affiliation. Currently, chaplains provide basic counseling services to many military members, despite their lack of relevant background or counseling credentials. The best practice would be to have licensed, secular counselors providing these services to all military personnel, regardless of religious identification. This would be a neutral solution.

Under the current framework, Christian chaplains often use meetings as opportunities to promote religious doctrine, rather than comfort a nonreligious service member. This inappropriate overreaching perpetuates a culture that is hostile toward non-Christians and the nonreligious within the military. Faced with a choice between dealing with their issue by themselves or working with a chaplain who is primarily interested in proselytizing, many atheists and agnostics forego counseling altogether.

Nonreligious service members should have the right to be counseled by a person who understands what it means to be an atheist or agnostic and can speak to a service member’s secular values rather than trying to change them. As long as the chaplaincy program continues to exist without equal access to secular counseling services, we owe our military members a nonreligious option. To not provide a secular alternative is not only disrespectful, but likely constitutes discrimination.

This brings us back to the NDAA bill that Obama just vetoed. One provision in the 2016 NDAA called for a deferral of the mandatory retirement age for “an officer serving in a general or flag officer grade who is the Chief of Chaplains or Deputy Chief of Chaplains of that officer’s armed force.” This provision is designed to allow those responsible for the gross oversaturation of Christian evangelicals in the military chaplaincy to keep their jobs well beyond the military’s standard retirement age. This is exactly the wrong approach if the goal is to support our troops.

How about we stop fighting against our country’s shifting demographics by denying adequate services to the nearly one in four military members who have no religious preference? Let’s get some fresh blood into the military chaplaincy and turn it into a program that’s actually responsive to the needs of our service members!

In other words, let’s convert the military’s chaplaincy program from an aggressive, proselytizing brotherhood of evangelical Christians into a service that actually meets the needs of our troops.

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