As we celebrate the 235th anniversary of our existence as a nation, we have many things for which to celebrate and be thankful. One of the bedrocks for our country which I most appreciate is the way we have maintained our sense of religious freedom and kept to the tenets of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Through life experience I have learned that our commitment to religious freedom requires renewal with each successive generation. Never can we take for granted that all of our citizens will understand and appreciate this crucial component of our history.
In the current era of expanding religious diversity and pluralism, a striking number of our fellow citizens are voicing their opinion that we are an exclusively Christian nation with little room for other faith traditions. I have often wondered if there is something more to this attitude than a simple quest for religious purity. Scott Bader-Saye partially addresses this question for me in his book Following Jesus in a Culture of FEAR (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids: 2007). Bader-Saye raises for me the question of whether such Christian exclusivity could be built upon a foundation of fear, a fear that other religions will push Christianity from the center of the public square. As I read Bader-Saye's book I wonder if such ways of thinking are symptoms of the ever-present fears of life in a post 9/11 world. It seems to me that we may be at a societal crossroads at which we are faced with a choice between the embrace of religious diversity or the development of a Constantine-like city-state that is governed by the tenets of the scriptures. Yes, I recognize that life will never be as simple as an either/or decision, but the implications of these decisions are significant for me.
During the early years of my professional career as a Navy chaplain I learned a very important lesson about religious diversity. In 1980 when I was a young lieutenant chaplain I was asked to participate in a retirement ceremony for a Navy captain. Without thinking very much about my constituents at the ceremony, I offered a prayer with a closing something like: "In the name of Christ our Lord." Afterward the newly-minted retiree came up to me and calmly said that though he was thankful that I had participated, he was a practicing Jew who did not appreciate my prayers for him that were concluded in Jesus' name. That day I became aware of how much I had offended one of God's children. Through this experience I learned that the context of ministry for a military chaplain, who in this case happened to be a priest of The Episcopal Church, was radically different than that of the parishes I had served in preceding years.
During the next 24 additional years of my active service to the men and women of the Armed Services I became mindful that my vocation was to be a religious leader called to care for all uniformed men and women, regardless of their religious affiliation, or lack of same. As a practicing Christian chaplain I learned to be very judicious to distinguish between prayers offered in public government and military command functions from prayers offered for my own Christian faith community.
When I took the commissioning oath as a Navy Chaplain Corps officer I began to realize that I had made a commitment to care for the religious needs of all those committed to my care, not just the Christians. Over time I learned to ensure that my people always had access to appropriate religious support and simultaneously could be protected from inappropriate religious incursions. I learned that the religious needs of each Marine, Sailor, Coast Guardsman, Soldier, and Airman always took precedence over my own needs. Though on occasion, I have offered prayers that would not include the name of Jesus, this by no means implied that I had any less of a commitment to the Lordship of Jesus in my life. It only meant that I was mindful of the diversity of religious traditions of others for whom my prayers were offered.
Within the public square, whether it is in the local city hall or in an Army battalion formation, I have come to believe that the religious needs of the person or persons to whom I offer ministry are of higher importance than my own religious needs. Prior to granting my ecclesiastical endorsement to Episcopal clergy who seek to serve as military chaplains, they must affirm for me that they are so well formed and mature in their Christian beliefs that they are not threatened by those whose beliefs may be different from theirs. This part of their Christian formation includes an understanding that they are not overwhelmed by a need to impose their beliefs upon another person within the military service.
Frequently I hear the supporters of religious diversity calling for tolerance and coexistence. I have concluded that in our country the demands of dynamic pluralism render religious tolerance and coexistence as inadequate. If our country is to continue to be the celebrated nation many of us have come to cherish, I realize that we may want to take our attitudes about religious diversity to the next level. That next level is the embrace of religious respect and intentional inclusion. With an appreciation of American history, there are plenty of reasons to believe that through the exercise of religious respect and inclusion that we will be a stronger and more united country.
I recognize that the tension between religious diversity and Christian exclusivity can at times be difficult. My best hope is that this tension will be marked by a spirit of creativity. I believe that as long as we ensure that there is an honored place at the table of civic life for all persons of all faiths, we will fulfill our responsibility to continue to make our great country a place where all citizens are valued and appreciated.
Bishop James "Jay" Magness is Bishop Suffragan for Federal Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Based in Washington DC, he is responsible for the pastoral care and oversight for armed forces chaplains, military personnel and families as well as oversight of federal hospitals, prisons, and correctional facilities. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2003 in the rank of Captain, serving as command chaplain of U.S. Joint Forces Command and fleet chaplain for the U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Prior to those assignments, from 1997 to 2000 he was on the Navy Chief of Chaplains' staff as personnel manager of the Navy Chaplain Corps.