Chaplain candidate branch insignia

Chaplain candidate branch insignia U.S. Army

Applauding the Navy’s decision to turn down educated humanist Jason Heap’s application to join its chaplain corps, retired reserve Chaplain Ron Crews told RNS’ Adelle Banks, ““Chaplains, historically and by definition, are people of faith. “You can’t have an ‘atheist chaplain’ any more than you can have a ‘tiny giant’ or a ‘poor millionaire.’”

You’d think that Crews, as executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, would want to make it possible for humanist Navy personnel to have their moral and spiritual needs met by professionals who share their non-theistic convictions. But the Chaplain Alliance is not about the religious liberty of the rank and file. It “exists to ensure that chaplains [italics added] enjoy the religious liberty and freedom of conscience that are vital to their effective work with the men and women of America’s armed forces.”

The organization was formed lest chaplains’ liberty to oppose the military’s acceptance of openly gay and lesbian personnel be restricted, and it has raised alarms that chaplains would be required to perform or otherwise acknowledge same-sex marriages. It is the latest expression of the longstanding reluctance of evangelicals to accept limitations on their ability to advocate for their beliefs in the armed forces.

The constitutional reason the U.S. Government can employ military chaplains in the face of the First Amendment’s ban on religious establishments is that serving in the armed forces restricts one’s First Amendment right to religious free exercise. In other words, what matters first and foremost is ensuring that military personnel have access to such services as their consciences require, whether they are Baptists or Buddhists, Jews or Jains, Sikhs or Wiccans.

Increasingly, Americans are identifying themselves as people of no religion. In April, the Army acknowledged this by approving “humanist” as a religious preference. The Navy has refused to say why it had turned down Jason Heap’s application for a commission, citing privacy concerns. That’s an evasion. Like everyone else in the military, humanists should be afforded the chaplaincy services they need.

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

10 Comments

  1. Retired USAF CMSgt

    The current chaplaincy is rapidly becoming irrelevant as the military takes on more religiously unaffiliated young people. The resistance to humanist chaplains is a sure sign that the current leadership is out of touch with reality.

  2. Lynne Newington

    Maybe humanists can’t be co-erced that’s the problem, and coupled with ethics.
    To take on the Vatican and bring them to account before the UN in September 2009 is one instance and a hell of a one at that; for breaches of the United Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  3. Humanist chaplains aren’t going to be much good when it’s foxhole time.

    America is not going to be free from war much longer, especially as it continues to turn its back on God. Things are seriously going to get rough soon.

    Therefore American soldiers are going to need real chaplains who can really get a prayer through, right on the spot. And by definition, humanist chaplains (which is just a euphemism for “atheist chaplains”), just AIN’T up for that last-chance gig.

    • Because there are NO humanists in the military asking for such things?

      Oh wait there are. There are quite a number of them whose needs are being ignored by the Navy in favor of under the table illegal endorsement of religion.

      The excuse used by the Navy is not that Humanist chaplains are wrong but that they have no “need of them right now”. Of course its a pretty bad lie. They just don’t want to bother upsetting Bible thumpers among the higher-ups.

    • Samuel Johnston

      Hi Doc,
      Endless repetition is not evidence, indeed it is not even argument.
      The original statement is just an aphorism and not a fact. See the site below.

      http://militaryatheists.org/atheists-in-foxholes/

  4. Jonathan J. Turner

    Mark Silk wants to “make it possible for humanist[s] to have their moral and spiritual needs met by professionals who share their non-theistic convictions.”

    This means that Mark Silk supports the idea that atheism/humanism is hierarchical, as in leader/follower, pulpit/pew, shepherd/flock.

    The idea that atheists/humanists have moral and spiritual needs that can only be serviced by professional atheist/humanists seems to have little application in the civilian world; why would it be necessary in military life?

    In the last two paragraphs of Mark Silk’s article, Silk asserts that “what matters first and foremost is ensuring that military personnel have access to such services as their consciences require,” followed by a list of RELIGIOUS SECTS (presumably without chaplain services).

    Here, in a single phrase Silk has moved from representing atheists/humanists to ambiguously speaking for ALL military personnel, and OTHER RELIGIONS as well. Jefferson’s phrase comes to mind: “the subtle art of shifting.”

    But again here, the hierarchic model is assumed, even of “conscience”: lower-consciences “need” the “services” of “professional” higher consciences, as if the consciences of Jacoby and Fichte needed the professional services of Kant to quiet their transcendent minds at bedtime.

    Those with “non-theistic convictions” who have “moral and spiritual needs” that bother their “conscience” should take comfort knowing that your religious freedom guarantees NO HIGHER PROFESSIONAL AUTHORITY to tell you or convince you that no god loves you.

    • In most cases, chaplains act as de facto therapists. Since seeing a psychiatrist could potentially damage one’s career, it is far easier to seek counsel in a chaplain.

      Humanists are demanding chaplains because they have needs in this regard which are being willfully ignored. Are humanists less deserving of counsel than everyone else? I guess you think so.

    • Samuel Johnston

      Hi Jonathan,
      I sympathize with your feelings, but not your prescription. The military is by necessity hierarchical. It is also mobile, with positions constantly being shifted and filled by new personnel. A chain of responsibility and predictability is essential. No one should eve be required to see a chaplain, but if they do, he must also be a part of the military structure and not someone who has total discretion of method and content.

  5. “…the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction….” -Jefferson in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

    All this talk about the merits of atheism is irrelevant. The primary consideration in providing such a service should be the number of servicemen and women who want it and would benefit from it, just as others want and benefit from chaplains who minister to their particular worldviews.

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