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The Chaplain's Complaint

This column originally appeared as part of the Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

Navy Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt has a complaint. As noted in Laurie Goodstein's July 12, 2005 New York Times story, Evangelicals Are a Growing Force in the Military Chaplain Corps, Klingenschmitt is one of fifty chaplains from Evangelical churches who have filed a class action suit against the United States Navy. This suit charges that these chaplains were unfairly dismissed from the Navy or denied promotion.

Klingenschmitt, a minister in the Evangelical Episcopal Church, first drew the ire of his Commanding officer during a memorial service for a fallen Catholic sailor. In his sermon, he warned everyone who had yet to accept Jesus as his or her savior that “God's wrath remains upon him". The chaplain was subsequently advised that his pastoral style was insufficiently inclusive, and after several such incidents, it was recommended that he not be retained. Klingenschmitt has another view. As he argues in Goodstein's story:

"The Navy wants to impose its religion on me. Religious pluralism is a religion. It's a theology all by itself."

Let me first address the military readiness component of this story. Consider the context within which a military chaplain performs his or her function.

Servicemen are not segregated by religion. They defend this country, first and foremost, as Americans – not as Evangelicals, Presbyterians, Mormons, Catholics, Southern Baptists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Scientologists, atheists, agnostics, or representatives of any other religious or intellectual persuasion.

They are trained to think of each other as family. When in harm's way, they are dependent upon each other in a way that we civilians cannot possibly appreciate. Servicemen are also required to remain at a high state of mental alertness, and be completely focused on their assigned tasks.

Now, imagine that within this necessarily close-knit community, a divisive religious element is introduced – like Lieutenant Klingenschmitt's theme that only those who accept Jesus will enjoy God's favor. This kind of assertion, if given any credence at all, immediately introduces a discordant, and completely subjective and superfluous, element into the equation.

The proper role of a military Chaplain is to provide comfort to these troops. It is not to seed doubts in the minds of men and women who may well be forced to make the ultimate sacrifice in the days or years ahead. It is decidedly not to sabotage the morale of men and women whose conscience and intellectual process may have led them to a very different conclusion about the nature of ultimate reality than a given minister.

Anything that might be deemed a distraction – like a Chaplain implying that an American soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who dies in his country's defense, but hasn't accepted Jesus, is headed for hell – should be considered completely out-of-bounds, and utterly outrageous behavior. It brings into question a Chaplain's basic pastoral competency, not to mention their emotional intelligence.

Let me next address the historical component of Klingenschmitt's complaint. As I've pointed out in previous columns, the Founders and Framers were a spiritually diverse group. Some were Deists, and others were members of various Christian denominations. At the time of the Revolution, many States still retained official religions. This official religion would have been different from state to state. Thus, religious pluralism was not only an ideal for the Founders and Framers, but also an inescapable reality. As James Madison writes in his Journal, from June 12, 1788:

"Happily for the states, they enjoy the utmost freedom of religion. This freedom arises from that multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society."

As I've also pointed out in previous columns, when given the chance at the Constitutional Convention to endorse Christianity as the official religion of the new nation, the Framers refused. In the Convention's aftermath, they began work on the First Amendment, which added a specific guarantee of religious freedom. Hence, the alleged “theology” that Klingenschmitt takes issue with has long been an integral component of the American experience.

This same First Amendment grants Lieutenant Klingenschmitt the right of Freedom of Speech, and with it the liberty to hector unlucky pedestrians on street corners throughout America – and then be confronted with equally vehement arguments by opponents of his subjective religious views. While the resulting spectacle might constitute a mildly entertaining form of street theatre in civilian society, a similar confrontation occurring between Chaplain and seaman, or two Chaplains, or two seamen, could only have a deleterious effect on military decorum, morale, and readiness. It would doubtless lead to divisiveness within a unit, and unnecessary confusion in the minds of young men and women who, when in harm's way, are called on to make split-second life-and-death decisions.

When in his nation's service, a minister like Klingenschmitt has an obligation to put the pastoral needs of America's diverse military population front and center. If he cannot be a true team player, and honor this nation's long tradition of religious pluralism, then in my opinion he deserves neither promotion nor continued employment.

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on July 17, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.