Alexander Griswold is a research assistant at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Alexander graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in political science and a minor in philosophy. @HashtagGriswold
Soldiers pray with a chaplain in Afghanistan. (Photo credit: National Public Radio)
Religious opponents have often framed gay marriage as a redefinition of a term that for millennia has meant a union of a man and a woman. But in the wake of two major Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage, religious Americans ought to take note of another political battle being waged over whether to redefine another state-recognized religious institution: military chaplains.
Last month, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have allowed for atheist and humanist military chaplains. The amendment was voted down largely on party lines, and just this past week the House approved an amendment codifying the existing military requirement that all military chaplains are endorsed by a religious organization. According to the bill’s sponsor Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), “The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron,”
A cursory search of easily available online dictionaries shows that Rep. Fleming is correct. The relevant Merriam-Webster definition claims a chaplain is “a clergyman officially attached to a branch of the military, to an institution, or to a family or court.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines ‘chaplain’ as “A member of the clergy attached to a branch of the armed forces. “ Collins English Dictionary is even more restrictive than most definitions, specifying that a chaplain is a “Christian clergyman.” All definitions accept that a chaplain is first and foremost a member of the clergy. And who’s ever heard of an atheist clergyman?
Pushes for irreligious chaplains don’t just change the traditional definition of what a chaplain is; it clashes completely with their function within the military. The military has counselors and psychologists that soldiers can bring their troubles to and ask for advice. But the military employs chaplains recognizing that religious troops often require spiritual and religious counseling consistent with their personal beliefs. Chaplains also preside over religious ceremonies, such as masses and weddings, and take confessions. The constitutionality of chaplaincy has always been justified by the need for religious Americans to take part in these rituals when stationed with the Armed Forces.
The very concept of chaplaincy is cloaked in the idea of religious belief and orthodoxy. It is difficult to even conceive of a function an atheist chaplain could provide that the Armed Forces’ secular services can’t provide. How many atheists really desire an irreligious thought leader to preside over their weddings? How many of them cannot bear to have a conversation with a therapist without constant invocations of “And of course, there is no God”?
There’s also the inconvenient fact that self-described atheists make up a minute part of the Armed Forces. Department of Defense statistics place the number of atheists at 9,600 out of an active-duty force of 1.4 million, or 0.7 percent of the United States Armed Forces. Proponents of nontheistic chaplains have pointed to the more than 20 percent of military personnel, who say they have “no religious preference.” But “no religious preference” does not a disbeliever make. If military personnel without religious preferences are anything like the “nones” in Pew’s 2012 religious affiliation survey, over two-thirds believe in God (including 30 percent who are “absolutely certain” of His existence) and 41 percent pray at least once a month.
With little demand and virtually no supply (right now, there is one chaplain awaiting approval, sponsored by the Humanist Society), why are many people pushing the idea of nontheistic chaplains? Most proponents see it as a simple matter of fairness and religious equality. But these arguments would only work if there were no limit to the amount of chaplains the military chooses. When a finite amount of resources is set aside for the hiring of military chaplains, the exclusion or minimization of some religious traditions is inevitable. The military cannot be expected to cater to every conceivable religion when doing so keeps out chaplains that are actually needed for religious purposes. Especially if the unrepresented religion lacks any sort of rituals, doctrine, or sacraments.
So to reiterate, progressives in Congress are pushing for chaplains who contradict the longstanding definition and purpose of military chaplains to cater to a very small percentage of soldiers in a manner that secular counselors almost certainly already can. I think it’s pretty clear the push for these chaplains has little to do with a concern for our soldiers or sound military policy and everything to do with creating larger acceptance of irreligion. As in debates over Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and women in combat positions, it seems that once again the military is treated as just another frontier in the battle for acceptance of liberal constituencies.Google+