Mar 22, 2018

A U.S. senator reported yesterday that the Navy has rejected the application of what would have been its first Humanist chaplain. As a military family member, I’m disappointed. I think a lot of people outside the military might not understand the role that military chaplains play and how a Humanist chaplain can carry out those duties.

During my personal experience with the military, first as a cadet in the Reserve Officer Training Corps then as an Air-Force girlfriend, fiancée and wife, my perspective on chaplains has shifted. As an agnostic person who grew up Jewish but attended a nondenominational Christian church, graduated from a Jesuit law school and has explored an interest in Buddhism, I was a bit uncomfortable with chaplains for a long time. After college, I moved from New York City to San Angelo, Texas, and I was completely disoriented and overwhelmed. The culture in my new locale was foreign to me, I was a world away from my family and friends, I was facing an uncertain future in terms of my relationship and my career and the fact that everyone openly assumed I was Christian made me feel even more like an outsider. And it happened all over again six months later when I moved to Omaha, Neb.

Military chaplains provide religious and spiritual leadership, but that’s only a part of their duties. Yes, they serve as a religious leader for members of their own faith, but they also assist service members and families of different faiths and beliefs in their observance. For instance, chaplains provide hymnals, prayer books and readings and places to meet; they sponsor lay leaders who can conduct services and, from time to time, may even lead a service themselves.

But in addition, as I eventually learned, a chaplain is a friendly face, a counselor, and a confidant for all service members regardless of their beliefs. From day one in the military, service members are encouraged to visit with chaplains for help with a wide range of personal struggles, often secular in nature. Chaplains provide counseling for deployment, suicide, grief and other important issues, which is sometimes mandatory.

Further, chaplains give service members a safe space when they otherwise might not seek help from mental-health providers. Conversations with them are protected by absolute confidentiality. (Even mental-health providers are required to report any admitted violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.) And many service members fear that they will lose their security clearance or approval from a flight doctor if they admit to a health provider that they are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety or even just stress. Chaplains are trained and experienced in trauma counseling and are an important resource in the military’s battle against PTSD and other mental-health challenges.

Without question, a Humanist chaplain could carry out all these duties and serve service members and their families well. And what’s more, having a diverse chaplain corps would make those services more inviting to more military service members and their families.

I now understand that I could have benefited from the resources that chaplains offer during my years of isolation. Eventually, I realized chaplains are in a position to get to know service members and their families and to provide us with personal attention, helping us deal with deployments, grief, acclimation to new places and the extra stress of family life in the military. But it took a long time before I felt comfortable doing that because, despite the great diversity of beliefs in the military (including over 241,000 service members self-identified as atheist, agnostic, or no preference in 2009), I only ever met chaplains belonging to Christian denominations; I felt that my beliefs would not be understood and feared that I would be pressured to take part in religious practices that I do not necessarily believe in.

Diversity in the chaplaincy is important because it tells service members of minority belief systems that there’s a place for them. And it tells members of the majority faith that religious tolerance is an important value. Because they often deal with service members and families when they are most vulnerable, chaplains have the greatest responsibility to be neutral toward religion and accommodating of all beliefs. There can be no unit cohesion, no mutual trust and little effective care for military members and families if some aren’t treated as equals because of their faith or beliefs.

Yet several dozen members of Congress took a narrow view of religious equality when they signed letters urging the Navy to reject a Humanist chaplain. The letters spoke in elevated rhetoric about the military’s duty to give service members the opportunity to meet their religious needs – and then went on to reduce Humanists to second-class citizens because they’re not “religious” enough.

While many members of secular belief systems may shy away from labeling themselves as “religious,” it is crucial that we recognize Humanism and other beliefs as religions for purposes of the Constitution, which protects religious and non-religious beliefs alike. It is the antithesis of religious freedom for government to decide which belief systems are deserving of exercise and support and to find that the many secularists in the military don’t deserve those rights.

Humanists and other secularists in the military have just as many spiritual, emotional and psychological needs as other service members, and they have an equal right to access the services of the chaplaincy. It causes real harm to the cohesion and overall spiritual and mental health of the military to act otherwise.