Congress is debating a large defense authorization bill, and yesterday an appalling discussion took place over the issue of non-theistic chaplains in the military.

Our Armed Forces, mirroring the rest of society, are becoming more diverse. Military personnel come from all versions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, etc.

Of course, some of these men and women adhere to no faith at all. This has led some people to speculate that the day may not be far off when a non-theistic, or humanist, chaplain wins official approval to serve in the military.

It looks like that won’t happen without a great deal of resistance from some quarters. During a Wednesday meeting of the House Armed Services Committee, U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) offered an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act specifically stating that humanists and members of other non-theistic faiths could join the chaplaincy.

The move didn’t go down too well.  

“They don’t believe anything,” groused U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas). “I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, ‘You know, that’s it – your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food.’”

U.S. Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) chimed in with, “This, I think, would make a mockery of the chaplaincy. The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they’re at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, ‘If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.’”

You would have to be a pretty lousy chaplain to say things like that to grieving family members. It would be akin to a fundamentalist Christian chaplain telling the mother and father of a fallen soldier that he is roasting in hell because he hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) attempted to set the record straight.

“To say that an atheist or a humanist doesn’t believe anything is just ignorant,” Smith said. They have very, very developed beliefs and value systems and there are many, many of them serving in the military….So basically, if you are an atheist or a humanist in the military, the military’s response is ‘We got nothin’ for you. There’s no hope for you.’ [Atheists] believe in a system of values. And that system of values is worth as much to them as our Christianity is to us. The response to the gentleman’s amendment makes me feel all the more the necessity of it.”

Despite Smith’s eloquent plea, the amendment failed on a vote of 43-18.

The ironic thing is, there may already be a non-theistic chaplain serving in the military. The Army has a Buddhist chaplain, and Buddhism is often described as lacking belief in a personal god.

Non-theistic chaplains are also serving in other contexts. During a recent visit to San Diego, I met Binyamin Biber, who serves as a humanistic chaplain at American University. Harvard also has a humanistic chaplain. As far as I know, these guys aren’t in the habit of running around telling people that they are worm food.

Change is always difficult for the right wing. When the Armed Forces were racially integrated, some people opposed the move. When “don’t ask, don’t tell” was abandoned and gays were allowed to serve openly in the military, the Religious Right was sure that the end was nigh.

Change will eventually come to the ranks of the military chaplaincy as well. The Religious Right may not like it, but it will come. A system that favors fundamentalist Christians can’t stand in the face of evolving cultural and religious trends.

Sooner or later the military will have a humanist chaplain, and our Armed Forces will be better for fully embracing diversity.   

P.S. This bill is becoming a flashpoint for other church-state controversies. Yesterday there were two votes on provisions that threaten church-state separation. One centers on a so-called “conscience clause” that many believe would allow service personnel to harass gays and lesbians in the military and the other would permit chaplains to engage in coercive proselytizing. AU’s Legislative Department is closely monitoring developments and will press to have these items removed in the Senate version of the bill. Also, during the debate, U.S. Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) was one of the few representatives who stood up repeatedly for separation of church and state. Kudos to her!