Recent allegations of religious bias at the Air Force Academy in Colorado
Springs may be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to religious pluralism
in the military.
A recent front-page New York Times article paints a troubling portrait
of the military chaplaincy generally, noting that evangelicals who insist on
their right to engage in aggressive forms of proselytism are a "growing
force" in the military chaplaincy.
In that report, the Times noted a recent "Spiritual Fitness
Conference" hosted and paid for by the Academy at a cost of $300,000.
The conference was open to U.S. military chaplains and their families, and,
although military chaplains pledge to serve all soldiers' religious needs,
the four-day conference was clearly intended to help evangelical chaplains
hone their ministerial skills.
Attendees were treated to "workshops on 'The Purpose Driven Life,' the
best seller by the megachurch pastor Rick Warren, and on how to improve their
worship services." Strewn throughout the hotel's hallways, according
to the Times, were vendors from Focus on the Family, James Dobson's
evangelical self-help ministry, which is headquartered in Colorado Springs.
The spiritual fitness event was "just one indication of the extent
to which evangelical Christians have become a growing force in the Air Force
chaplain corps, a trend documented by military records and interviews with
more than two dozen chaplains and other military officials," the newspaper
Military statistics show a major spike in the number of evangelical denominations
that are now represented in the chaplaincy and a continued dwindling of Catholic
and mainline Protestant groups. Things have gotten so bad that some non-evangelicals
in the military say they are finding it increasingly difficult to practice
their own faiths.
Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, the Air Force deputy chief of chaplains,
told The Times, "We will not proselytize, but we reserve the
right to evangelize the unchurched." Richardson attempted to draw a distinction,
arguing, as The Times put it, "that proselytizing is trying
to convert someone in an aggressive way, while evangelizing is more gently
sharing the gospel."
Horror stories abound. A Mormon in the Marine Corps told The Times that
during his service his fellow marines and some of his commanders often denigrated
his religion. He said several chaplains tried to convince him his faith was "wicked" or "Satanic." He
is now looking to become a military chaplain, in part, to help turn the tide.
He said he wants to become a chaplain to help those religious service men and
women who are now "underrepresented" and to make the military "a
more spiritually accepting environment."
In the Navy, Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt, of the Evangelical Episcopal
Church, complained that he was terminated after he used a funeral service for
a Catholic sailor to warn attendees that for those who did not accept Jesus, "God's
wrath remains upon him." Amazingly, Klingenschmitt insists he did nothing
wrong, remarking, "The Navy wants to impose its religion on me. Religious
pluralism is a religion. It's a theology all by itself."
A chaplain must be prepared to offer any religious service requested, or
find someone who can. Clearly, some evangelicals are unwilling to do this and
instead see their taxpayer-financed positions as launching pads for evangelism.
Members of the armed services stationed overseas where churches are few must
have their religious view accommodated. At domestic bases, where houses of
worship often abound in the surrounding community, the need seems less compelling.
Perhaps it is time to heed the words of James Madison, who in one essay warned
that it might be "better to disarm...the precedent of Chaplainships
for the army and navy, than erect them into a political authority in matter
of Religion. The object of this establishment is seducing; the motive to it
is laudable. But is it not safer to adhere to a right principle, and trust
to its consequences, than confide in the reasoning, however specious, in favor
of a wrong one?"