A Humanist as a Military Chaplain? Why It Doesn’t Work.

John Elliott | March 28, 2018

A Humanist as a Military Chaplain? Why It Doesn’t Work.

The Navy Times reports that the U.S. Navy has rejected the application of Jason Heap to become a Humanist chaplain. This decision comes after 67 lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives sent a letter to the Navy’s chief of chaplains protesting the potential appointment of a man who describes himself as a “non theist.”

“We are concerned that the Navy is taking steps to expand the chaplain corps beyond its focused purpose,” the lawmakers wrote; “the chaplaincy was designed to facilitate the exercise of religious belief, not philosophical belief.”

The American military now has Muslim chaplains and Hindu chaplains, and the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists are represented along with the traditional Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches.  

So why not have a “Humanist” chaplain?

The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers asserts that there are more than 24,000 professed non-believers in the services today. If there is already this much religious diversity, shouldn’t non-believers in the military have access to their own chaplain?

This invites an important question: What then does a chaplain in the US military actually do?

Tanya Bindernagel, the first female Adventist Chaplain in the U.S. Army, described her job during a deployment to Afghanistan in an interview with Spectrum magazine:

“Most of my job involves simply being a 'ministry of presence,' going where my soldiers are and doing what my soldiers do, and in that bringing God into their experience, not by force but by gentle example. It’s exactly what Jesus did – spend time with people where they were at, subtly planting and nurturing seeds until they were ready to come to him on their own terms. Much of my time is spent visiting with soldiers at work sites, motor pools, ranges, and other training and/or combat locations such as convoys, where I simply hang out with them. I also spend a lot of time counseling soldiers on a variety of issues including spiritual mentorship, relationships, work stress, battle fatigue, and post-traumatic stress. I provide chapel services, conduct Bible studies, pray over and ride on convoys, teach classes on a variety of topics, and serve as an advisor to my commander on counseling trends and spiritual fitness needs within the battalion. I also assist in traumatic events, conduct critical incident stress debriefs, and help with memorial ceremonies.”

One of my ministers, Wayne Jamison, spent a tour as a chaplain during the Vietnam War. He was assigned to a transportation unit which drove out to resupply fire bases on a daily basis. Wayne said that he would gather the 100 or so men before daylight for prayer and a short sermon. The unit would then move out and Wayne always rode along. The North Vietnamese attacked the convoy every day. Some of the men who heard him in the morning did not return in the evening.

If you look at what Bindernagel or Jamison describe, much of it could be done by a ”Humanist” chaplain. Jason Heap could visit soldiers at work sites and motor pools, ride along with convoys and get shot at.  But what about “providing chapel services, conducting Bible studies and praying over. . . convoys”?

That is perhaps the crucial difference.   

Military duty often makes it difficult for a soldier to exercise his religious faith. If he is posted to Afghanistan, for example, he cannot leave base for church services or a mid-week Bible study. If he is on a ship at sea, he cannot call on his parish priest for confession. And even if he is stateside, his duty roster may make regular attendance at worship services impossible. 

This is where the chaplaincy comes in. The chaplains direct public worship, Bible studies, pray, and receive confession which the soldiers would otherwise not be able to receive. Title X of the U.S. Code regulating the duties of chaplains is very specific: “Each chaplain shall hold appropriate religious services at least once on each Sunday for the command to which he is assigned.” 

How would Jason Heap, the “non-theist,” lead a Sunday religious service?

The American military has lots of positions for counselors and social workers. There is plenty of work for Jason Heap, just not in the chaplaincy.

[Image Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David M. Votroubek, Public Domain]



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