Jason Heap, a graduate of Texas Christian University's Brite Divinity School and Oxford, has applied to the U.S. Navy for commissioning as a chaplain. What makes Heap unique is that the faith group endorsing him is the Humanist Society. A former Christian minister who no longer believes in God, Heap is now an atheist and a humanist. By every standard, except possibly believing in God, Heap appears an exceptionally well-qualified chaplain candidate. (For more, cf. the NPR feature, "Should Military Chaplains Have to Believe in God?")
Should military chaplains believe in God?
Prominent universities, including Harvard and Stanford, have concluded that faith in God is not essential for a chaplain and now, in addition to chaplains from traditional religions, have humanist chaplains on their chaplaincy staffs.
On the other side, the U.S. House of Representatives last week approved legislation requiring military chaplains to believe in a higher power. The bill seems problematic because it appears to legislate the establishment of religion and because some Buddhists deny believing in a higher power. Banning some Buddhist chaplains is perhaps (or not, depending upon how influential one believes evangelical Christians to be) an unintended consequence of the proposed bill.
Who is right? Should military chaplains believe in God?
The larger issue, it seems to me, entails defining the chaplain's role. If the chaplain's role is to be a caring friend, relied upon by commanders and troops alike, to render assistance to personnel in cases that one might typically refer in a civilian context to a psychologist or social worker, then allowing humanists to serve as chaplains makes sense.
I object to this understanding of the chaplain's role on two grounds. First, this shortchanges our military personnel. They deserve the best. Too many chaplains lack the skills that social work and counseling require. Commanders sometimes prefer chaplains to trained professionals because commanders believe that chaplains are more susceptible to command influence than are social workers and psychologists. Sadly, that assessment, in my experience, was all too often correct. Troops sometimes prefer chaplains because conversations with a chaplain are completely confidential. Conversations with social workers and psychologists are most confidential, though these professionals must report individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others, or who have a medical problem that may affect unit readiness. Confidentiality, in either situation, imposes a threat to well-being or contributes to ill health.
Second, the Constitutional justification for funding military chaplaincy is to ensure military personnel the ability to practice their religion in the absence of civilian religious resources. Troops assigned overseas are generally distant from English faith communities and personnel in boot camps, military hospitals, and some other settings may not have ready access, for good military reasons, to local faith communities. Chaplains provide religious ministry for personnel of their own faith community, for as many others as the chaplain can accommodate with integrity, and facilitate free exercise for others.
For example, the Bishop for Federal Ministries instructed Episcopal military chaplains that any non-Eucharistic Christian worship was acceptable as a form of morning or evening prayer. This permitted Episcopal chaplains to lead services in rotation with other chaplains without having to impose Episcopal formats or wording. When stationed on Adak, a remote Aleutian island with no civilian community, a Jewish sailor asked me to conduct a Passover Seder for him. I declined. If I conducted the Seder, the Seder would be, by definition, a Christian Seder. However, I told him that if he led the Seder, I would provide the space, the food, advertise the event, and ensure that we had at least a dozen attend. He was grateful; I was simply doing my job, facilitating for someone for whom I could not directly provide.
Buddhist chaplains, similarly, conduct religious rituals according to the teachings of their school of Buddhism. Anyone who has visited a Buddhist temple in the States or abroad may have seen one or more of these rituals. Buddhist chaplains would, as I did, facilitate for people of other religions (helping a Jew organize a Seder, a Roman Catholic to find a priest or lay Eucharistic minister, etc.).
What would a humanist chaplain do? Do humanists have any distinctive rituals or practices? If not, why do atheist and agnostic military personnel (who certainly number more than the 1% of the force who have self-identified as agnostic or atheist) need a chaplain?
Requiring chaplains to believe in God unnecessarily and inappropriately entangles the government with religion. Equally important, the current practice of military chaplaincy shortchanges the nation, its military personnel, and their family members. Perhaps Jason Heap's vital contribution to the military chaplaincy is to be the catalyst for restoring the chaplaincy to its real mission of providing religious ministry so that armed forces personnel can exercise, when and as militarily feasible, their right to religious freedom.