The Government Must Not Define Religion

It is a dangerous thing for the government to start defining what is and what is not religion. And that’s true whether the government leaders seeking to do so are liberal or conservative.

The Obama administration erred when it tried to say religious freedom is merely “freedom to worship,” and sought to restrict the rights of religious hospitals, colleges, and social ministries.

Now, under pressure from political conservatives, the Navy has excluded a candidate for chaplaincy because he and his endorser do not meet someone’s definition of religion. He’s a Humanist.

This is not the first time this has happened in the history of the US military chaplaincy. Back in 1775, the very year the chaplaincy was founded, some other chaplains were outraged when John Murray, the founder of Universalism in America, was appointed chaplain of the Rhode Island Brigade. His rationalistic theology which denied hell and the Trinity was offensive to them. George Washington had to personally intervene, issuing an order that “The Revd Mr John Murray is appointed Chaplain to the Rhode-Island Regiments and is to be respected as such.”

It is the mission of the chaplaincy to provide for the free exercise of all. That’s the grounds upon which chaplaincy leaders have defended it against the legal challenge that it is an establishment of religion. The Department of Defense has expanded the faiths represented to include all varieties of Christian (including Catholic, Orthodox, Quaker, Christian Scientist, Mormon, liberals and conservatives, gay and straight), Jews (of many kinds), Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. The message that we are about religious pluralism seemed to be self-evident. Now the Navy undercuts their own legal case.

The issue is how to define what is “religion”–and whether the government has the competency to do so. The critics argue that Humanism is a philosophy. And they say, let Humanists go to other professions where you can be an atheist. Go be a psychiatrist, or a counselor. But these other professions do not provide religious support or spiritual support. They do not do rituals for birth, marriage, and death.

Jason Heap wants to be a chaplain, not a counselor. He has a Master of Divinity degree from Brite Divinity School (Texas Christian University) and a master’s in history and religion from the University of Oxford. He “worked as a Minister of Music and Students in a United Methodist Church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, plus interim pastorate work/pulpit-fill in various churches in north central Texas.” He’s endorsed by a faith group that accepts tenets Jefferson and many other American founders shared. He is a Humanist celebrant, which the Humanist Society defines as “clergy,” and says “celebrants are religious leaders in every legal and practical sense.”

There are Humanist chaplains in every other field of chaplaincy. The Association of Professional Chaplains recognizes the Humanist Society as an endorser, and Humanist chaplains receive Board Certification through APC. In the Netherlands, Humanists are a third of the military chaplains, and have served since 1964.

I’ve met the Dutch chief of chaplains. I’ve met the head of their Humanist chaplaincy. Over dinner one night and breakfast the next we bonded as chaplains. We shared stories of ministry, of care of service members and their families, of deployment and redeployment. I felt I had more in common with them than with a Protestant chaplain who told me he didn’t feel comfortable praying with people. Or the Protestant chaplain who told me Adventists can have a service on his post if they agree to have it on Sunday–his day of worship. Or those chaplains who try to argue Adventists out of their belief in the Sabbath when they request religious accommodation. Or those who block from chaplaincy someone who as an enlisted service member wanted to be a noncombatant, like Desmond Doss.

I’m disappointed in the Navy Chief of Chaplains. She apparently overruled the CARE board, bowing to pressure from religious and political conservatives, and refused to stand up for religious freedom. This can’t be seen in isolation from the issues I mentioned above. The question in each is whether chaplains will defend and protect the rights of all, which the chaplaincy claims to be its purpose.

The Navy chaplaincy leadership needs to do some self-examination. It has also failed to fight for religious accommodation for faiths whose leaders wear beards, echoing instead the arguments of commanders that beards are dangerous in combat. At a recent meeting I attended, they brushed aside the pleas of Jewish and Muslim endorsers who pointed to the example of CH (COL) Jacob Goldstein, a Chabad rabbi with a full beard who served multiple combat tours with no ill effects (and let’s not forget those SEALs and Special Forces who grow beards in the desert).

The Navy’s decision also opens the door to examining the religious beliefs of current chaplains. I am quite sure there are atheists and Humanists currently serving as chaplains, with or without the knowledge of their endorsers. I suspect some chaplains have seen their religious convictions crumble due to Moral Injury, and yet they continue to serve. Will the Navy start asking its chaplains what they believe?

I saw where someone compared Humanists to Mikey Weinstein, saying they want to get rid of religion. No they don’t. I know Mikey. I’ve had good conversations with him. He applauds Adventists, and our commitment to separation of church and state and religious freedom for all. He protests violations of both the free exercise clause and the establishment clause.

And that’s what this decision is, I believe–a violation of the establishment clause. Only those faiths acceptable to conservative theologians and politicians need apply. It makes a military branch the arbiter of theological beliefs. This is extremely dangerous, and places the entire chaplaincy at risk.

Those truly committed to religious freedom must fight for the rights of all, including those with whom they differ. I have done so, and will continue to do so.