If You Serve Your Country, Do You Have to Serve God?

Recent debates about the role of humanists in the military have sparked strong emotions.
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Jason Heap didn't get the job.

Last summer, he set off a small flurry of media coverage when he submitted his application to join the U.S. Navy's chaplaincy. He has an Oxford degree in ecclesiastical history and more than a decade of experience in teaching and pastoral work. He's physically fit, 38 years old—by all accounts, a pretty normal candidate for this kind of position.

Except for one thing: Heap doesn't believe in God. If his application had been accepted, he would have become the U.S. military's first humanist chaplain.

He's just one guy, and hiring is complicated. "It's a very competitive process," said Christianne M. Witten, the Navy spokesperson who confirmed the rejection. She mentioned that there were other candidates in his cohort of applicants who didn't get jobs either.

But in many ways, Heap's rejection is symbolic of how the culture of the military is changing—or not changing. Last month, the army announced that it would allow soldiers to formally designate themselves as "humanists." Among other things, this could help servicemen and women find others who share their beliefs and values more easily; perhaps most importantly, it could affect funeral arrangements for those who die in service. Several years before that, the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ushered in a different kind of cultural change: Servicemen and women can now be openly gay, but that also means there might be more open discomfort when they seek out counsel from a chaplain trained in certain faith traditions, particularly evangelical Christian denominations. For this reason and many others, people like Jason Torpy, the president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, have pushed for the services to hire atheist or humanist chaplains. "It would be nice if they had training and resources to meet people on their own belief," he said. 

But the idea of a military chaplain who doesn't believe in God still seems to spark a lot of emotion. As the military changes to accommodate more and more diversity, will "for God and country" remain the standard for service members?

***

In some ways, having a job in the military is like having a job anywhere else: There are cubicles, bosses, and paperwork; there's excitement for vacation days and having a great sandwich at lunch. But when you work for the armed services, you can also be stationed across the country or the world from your family. You might be part of base life, or you might get deployed to a war zone. You might die on the job.

Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

The stakes are higher. That's why chaplains are so important: They're there to listen and offer advice to servicemen, servicewomen, and families who face pretty intense everyday challenges. "Military life adds stressors that aren’t dissimilar from civilian life, but are sometimes augmented, both for soldiers and their families," said Ray Bradley, an Army major who started out his career as a reservist at age 19. "A lot of those deal with deployments, separations, and financial hardship." He spent more than two years pushing for soldiers to be able to formally designate themselves as humanists. "It helps to have a figurehead like a chaplain as a focal point to develop your own humanism," he said.

Chaplains in all branches of the military are trained to serve people of many different faith backgrounds, said Ron Crews, a veteran and executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty. "You serve everyone who walks through your door with grace and dignity, no matter what lifestyle they may be representing," he said. If someone is uncomfortable talking to a chaplain of a certain faith, they can request an accommodation—the chaplaincy will coordinate a connection with another spiritual adviser, often from a different unit or a local religious community. 

Across the services, more than 100 different faith groups are represented in the chaplaincy, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Of course, these are small minorities; out of the 2,856 chaplains who were employed by the military as of April, only 40 hailed from any of these faiths. At least 93 percent of chaplains represent Christianity; at least 50 percent are from evangelical denominations. Witten, the naval spokesperson, noted that the religious breakdown among chaplains doesn't represent the overall breakdown in the military because "the navy is not openly allowed to ask about faith group or sexual orientation." They do target certain seminaries for recruitment, though, and organizations like the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty help funnel candidates to the service.

It's hard to know just how many people of alternative faiths are in the military; since the "humanist" designation is fairly new, there isn't any data about how many there are across the services. Before, humanists only had the option of designating themselves as atheists or saying that they had no religious preference, which didn't offer much nuance about what people actually believe. There are a handful of chaplains who represent alternative designations: four Unitarian Universalists, four from "unclassified religions," and seven who have "no religious preferences." 

"When you say you’re a humanist, it’s your life system, belief system; it’s what drives you."

Bradley thinks specificity is important, though; not all non-theistic religions belief systems are created equal. "When you say you’re a humanist, it’s your life system, belief system; it’s what drives you," he said. "Being a humanist means as much to an individual as being a Christian or a Muslim." 

But he's not convinced that atheists need their own chaplain. "I would fully agree that an atheist chaplain is an oxymoron," he said. "A-thesism is antithetical to the idea of chaplaincy." 

Crews agreed. "I would question how an atheist chaplain could fulfill his duties," he said. "The motto [of the Army chaplaincy] is 'for God and country'—how could an atheist fulfill that motto if by definition he does not believe in God?"

On the other hand, atheists also have counseling needs, and may be alienated by theistic language—this was one of the reasons why the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers was founded, said Jason Torpy, the president. With the rejection of Jason Heap's application for the chaplaincy, "the Navy seems to be going on-record as 'God-only,'" he added. "If that's the case, it calls into question the whole institution."

***

With all the diversity already present in military chaplaincies, it's a little surprising that the possibility of adding a humanist or atheist chaplain has gotten so much attention. But it has: Last summer, around the time of Heap's application to the Naval chaplaincy, the House of Representatives passed an amendment that would suspend funding for chaplaincy appointments that don't follow Department of Defense guidelines, which state that only religious groups can endorse chaplaincy candidates. "Religious groups" are defined in the same way as the IRS defines them: people who have a sincerely held set of beliefs. But while secular humanists qualify as religious groups under this standard, the Humanist Society, which endorsed Jason Heap, is not on the DoD's list of qualifying organizations. In short: No endorsements from secular humanists, or you'll lose your funding, the House said.

And there seems to be a broader perception that chaplains' religious freedom is being threatened. A new guideline was inserted into this year's Defense Authorization Act:

If called upon to lead a prayer outside of a religious service, a chaplain shall have the prerogative to close the prayer according to the traditions, expressions, and religious exercises of the endorsing faith group.

This is nothing but a reaffirmation of chaplains' rights to religious freedom—but legislators seemed to think there was enough of a threat that the new language was needed.

A paper released by the U.S. Army War College this week echoed this fear. "Service cultures have become increasingly hostile to the correct expressions of religion, perhaps to the point that soldiers of faith are now intimidated into privatizing their beliefs," the authors wrote. They cited hostile language used during training sessions, the forced removal of a cross from an army chapel, and the Department of Defense's decision to declare June as mandatory "Gay Pride month" across the services as examples of potential violations of service members' religious liberty. 

This last example is important: The repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has created a lot of new questions about pluralism in the military. The authors of the Army War College paper noted that "the DoD is rightly saying to all soldiers and their leaders that they must accommodate gay soldiers," but "Gay Pride month" suggests that "the DoD is requiring (or at least strongly encouraging) those soldiers who object on moral grounds to homosexual practices to not just accommodate gay soldiers, but to join in the institutional endorsement and celebration of homosexual behavior" (bolding in the original). 

"With a clinician, it becomes part of my official record. There's a stigma to it—there's no getting around it."

Yet, it's unclear where the line between "accommodation" and "endorsement" lies. As Ray Bradley pointed out, members of the military who are openly gay may feel uncomfortable talking with chaplains who come from a religious tradition that condemns homosexuality. "If I'm a gay soldier in the military and I talk to a chaplain or a social worker, I want to feel that they accept my life stance," he said. If someone believes that a chaplain fundamentally disapproves of their relationships and sexuality, he "may not feel comfortable approaching that chaplain—that whole process of providing counseling services, a place to turn to, is barred off from those soldiers."

Ron Crews of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty suggested that gay soldiers have a lot of resources to rely on if they don't feel comfortable talking to a chaplain, including non-commissioned officers and civilian contractors. Witten, the spokesperson for the Navy chaplaincy, also said the service's chaplains are "trained to operate in a pluralistic environment."

But there were also subtle acknowledgements of the limitations of counseling resources outside the chaplaincy. For example, Crews suggested that there's a stigma associated with seeking out mental-health counseling for everyday issues. "There are some who don't necessarily want to see a psych if that would go on their record denoting some sort of mental problem," he said.

Ray Bradley agreed. "If you're going through troubled times ... you need somebody to turn to. Yes, you can go to a clinician. The difference is that with a clinician, it now becomes part of my official record, and there's a stigma to it—there's no getting around it, there is a stigma to that." He also pointed out the clinical counseling isn't necessarily the right fit for every kind of problem. "If this is an issue of morality or something very personal, you may not feel comfortable talking to someone who doesn't have a similar life stance as you."

"As the values of American society have changed in the past, in most cases, e.g., racial integration, abortion, smoking as a health issue, the service of gays in the military, gender roles, etc., those changes have eventually had a strong influence on the culture of the military," the authors of the Army War College paper wrote. For those who don't identify with traditional forms of "for God and country," it looks like that eventuality is coming very soon—if it's not already here.

"It's in the military culture to conform," Bradley said. "Until I became more senior, older, I was always uncomfortable when the chaplain gave a sermon while we’re in formation. It took a while before I was confident enough to not bow my head."

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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