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Meditation 1130
Military Chaplains

by: John Tyrrell

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It was reported this week that the US Navy had turned down and application by Jason Heap for a Navy commission as a chaplain – a humanist chaplain – a chaplain with no belief in a deity.

The Navy did not provide reasons, citing privacy, but did note that less than 50% of those who applied were approved.

Heap, with master’s degrees from both Brite Divinity School, part of Texas Christian University, and Oxford University, with several years of teaching religious studies under his belt, and who met the required physical standards, seems on the surface, quite qualified to be a Navy chaplain. Was his rejection because he is a humanist? The Navy isn’t saying.

If the US Navy is not prepared to commission a Humanist chaplain to serve the needs of the many non-believers in its ranks, then why should it be providing believing chaplains to serve the believers in its ranks? That does not seem equitable. Should the chaplaincy be done away with?

I first became aware of military chaplains back in the mid-1950s. I’m not sure of the year – I would have been around 10-12 years old at the time. We were on a family camping trip, driving between parks in rural Virginia, on a Sunday. And the only thing on the radio was a local station broadcasting a local hell-and-brimstone preacher.

He had two bees in his bonnet – women bashing their babies' heads against mailboxes (see Meditation 1131); and military chaplains. And while he never made a connection between the two, he ranted on and on, switching back and forth between these two issues for a good half hour.

His problem with military chaplains was simple – they were hypocrites.

Now the hypocrisy was not because they were part of the war machine while supposedly serving the “Prince of Peace.” You didn’t find pacifist preachers in rural Virginia in those days any more than you can find them today. No – his problem was that military chaplains did not stick strictly to the doctrine of whichever branch of Christianity had ordained them. Rather they adapted as necessary to meet the needs of those they worked with.

In those days, military chaplains were expected to meet the spiritual needs of all those in the unit they were assigned to. Given that there was usually just one chaplain to a battalion or a ship (or equivalent unit), each chaplain would have a multitude of denominations to work with, and perhaps even several different faiths. Yet he would be expected, not to convert them to his particular faith, but to provide each one with counselling appropriate to individual needs – and even to bury them, if necessary, with due respect to their individual rites.

Now I spent over 30 years in the Canadian military. I knew quite a few chaplains. Most of them I worked with, I considered them friends – at least casual friends. I’d drink with them in the Officer’s Mess – shoot the breeze about anything other than women, politics, and religion (the three topics traditionally off-limits while at the bar in the mess.) They tended to be pretty good all round guys (there were no female chaplains at that time) – and that was their job – to be all round – and not Anglican or Presbyterian, or Baptist, or even Catholic. While I never had reason to use their services, I feel pretty confident that if I had a personal problem, I could have discussed it with pretty well any of those chaplains that I knew without having a religious point of view forced on me.

It seemed to me that military chaplains were there to be counsellors, social workers, marital and relationship advisors. Certainly there were religious needs – but unless the individual soldier was the same denomination as the chaplain, religious needs were met with a generic Christianity – indeed, even a generic religion.

It seemed to work. And from what I can tell, it used to work that way in the USA also – which is why, about 60 years ago I heard that radio sermon in Virginia on the hypocrisy of military chaplains.

Things seemed to have changed in the US military. From reading various news reports, I’ve seen an increasing tendency for US military chaplains to proselytize and to want to serve only those of their own denomination. They even have a lobby group to defend their “religious liberty” to preach against gay marriage in the military – even in those states where it is legal.

These preachers (they are no longer acting as chaplains, in my view) are only fit to serve on large bases where there are a number of clergy of different denominations/religions each serving their own community – they are not fit to serve with a cohesive fighting unit containing a variety of faiths and lack-of-faiths. They are incapable of doing the job.

As for Jason Heap – the would-be Humanist chaplain – he has been quoted as saying:

“But at the end of the day, my job is not to inculcate my viewpoints onto other people. My job as a chaplain is to be a facilitator, someone who cares for people, someone who is a sounding board.”

To me – that’s a real chaplain. He would be far better for the US Navy than the narrow-minded fundamentalists they are actually commissioning today.


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