Fighting Words

GI Jesus

The real problem with military chaplains.

James Madison

That was a very narrow and underreported squeak in Congress last Friday. For some while, the vote on the nation’s defense budget was held up by a preposterous wrangle over the rights and duties of military chaplains. Now, a reluctant compromise has been reached, and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2007 has been passed in time for the House and Senate to leave town. But imagine how the media might have covered this argument if it had taken place in an Islamic republic: Lawmakers arguing seriously over how much religious instruction and rhetoric should be permitted in the ranks and how explicitly monotheistic that instruction and rhetoric ought to be. See how these primitive societies lack our freedom and tolerance!

The contested proposal had come from three conservative Republican House members: Todd Akin of Missouri, Randy Forbes of Virginia, and Walter Jones of North Carolina, all of whom wanted military chaplains to be able to specify the name of Jesus when offering prayers. They felt that nondenominational invocations were not enough, and that identifiably Christian views should be available from identifiably Christian pastors. At the very last moment, they agreed to withdraw this proposal (which was supported by Focus on the Family and other evangelical groups). But they did so in exchange for a deal, whereby the Air Force and Navy “guidelines” on religious expression are to be abrogated. This compromise is in many ways worse than the original proposal that sectarian observances be financed, in our armed forces, by public money.

To refresh your memory: The guidelines were imposed after the disclosure in 2004 of an atmosphere of religious coercion at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. It was asserted by staff members, alumni, and cadets of the academy that evangelical propagandists were harassing agnostic and Jewish cadets and insisting that only those who accepted Jesus as a personal savior were fit to serve. The deputy commander of the academy, who one might have thought would have more pressing duties in time of war, sent out e-mails proselytizing for a national day of (Christian) prayer. A chaplain named MeLinda Morton, who complained about this bizarre state of affairs, was abruptly transferred to a distant base in Japan. Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat and member of the House armed services committee, was made aware of what was going on and managed to raise enough hell about it to get it—temporarily, as it now seems—stopped. (One can imagine the expressions on the faces of the Colorado Springs crusaders when they learned the name of this lawmaker.) Over the weekend, Rep. Israel said that while the latest compromise fell short of endorsing specifically denominational activity, it nonetheless reopened “old loopholes that permitted some acts of coercion and proselytizing.”

This is absolutely scandalous. We are engaged in a war with theocracy, and we have at our back the armor of the U.S. Constitution, which expressly forbids the establishment by the state of any religion or (no less important) any “religious test.” There is no possible splitting of this difference. Let me quote from an e-mail I received from Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, a serving infantry officer, strategist, and military historian who has recently returned from an uninterrupted year of service in Iraq:

As a professional officer, should such a law be passed, my solution is simple in the extreme. I will stop allowing chaplains to give prayers in public military ceremonies or events in which I am involved.There are, after all, no regulations that require the military to allow the chaplains to give a moment of prayer at the opening of one of these events. … So, if I am a commander, I just dump the chaplain. He can still have his office, his position, his weekly prayer service in any spot he can find, and access to the troops if they choose to come to him. But he won’t be giving public prayers at any military functions for me anymore (which is what this law is about), regardless of his denomination, because I cannot afford the possibility that he might accuse me of religious bias in favor of one sect or another. Because there are now more evangelical Christian ministers, this will naturally damage their efforts more than any other sect, but such is the law of unintended consequences.

Good for Lt. Col. Bateman, who understands that the Constitution forbids all because it protects all and favors none. But now we are on the subject—why are there official chaplains in the armed forces at all? Is not their very presence, paid for out of the public treasury, an affront to the establishment clause of the all-important First Amendment? The author of that amendment, James Madison, certainly thought so. His “Detached Memoranda,” which also opposed the use of chaplains to open the proceedings of Congress, were very clear about clerics in the armed forces:

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.

Madison also thought that such appointments would lead to majority tyranny, as indeed they mostly have. He could not believe that even a Catholic chaplain could ever hope for preferment in the U.S. armed forces. But it may not be long now before we hear demands that Muslim chaplains be allowed to conduct separate (and perhaps sexually segregated) ceremonies in the ranks, and what I want to know is: What will our Christian, godly campaigners say then? Defense of the Constitution and of Madisonian principles, if invoked at that too-late point, will be portrayed by Muslims as discrimination. The evangelicals have already prepared the way for such a stupid outcome, with all the litigation and time-wasting in Congress that it will require. Their activity is a clear and present danger to the national defense, and ought to be regarded and treated as such.