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Evolution in the Chaplain Corps?

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It's interesting how some things change. Evolution suggests a natural process of growth and development based on a somehow-perceived need for an entity to adapt to new or altered circumstances. The implication, since it is a natural process, is that the change, the new evolved state, will be an improvement over the old.

But what does one call it when it's not?

The question arises from a story I just read about the experience of a young soldier who was shipped home near the end of World War II. He was filled with bitterness and despair at having to be sent home due to illness because he felt he was "failing his outfit," deserting the buddies who needed him. He said he met a young chaplain on the ship, spilled his guts to him, and was greatly helped by the clergyman's tender and wise counsel. On reflection, he said, he was even more impressed by the fact that the chaplain had never asked his religion, nor had he offered his own. He simply helped.

What a difference a few decades can make.

Today, a huge percentage of our military chaplains, according to thousands of aggrieved American servicemen and women, present themselves as fevered salesmen for a fundamentalist version of Christianity rather than as simple, caring souls with a willingness to listen and no attached quid pro quo. These religious hucksters see themselves as "government-paid missionaries" and the youth under their domain "as ripe as black bananas."

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), has been sounding the alarm about the brazen sectarian assault on our Constitutionally protected separation of church and state that this cultish group's tactics represent (See here for an example). While no one disputes the individual American's right to believe -- or not believe -- as he or she chooses, the degree to which the purveyors of this particular belief system -- fundamentalist, Dominionist Christianity -- have insinuated themselves, not only in the chaplaincy but in the military hierarchy as well, is unnerving.

For the General in command of the U.S. Army's Combined Arms Center to think of himself and his co-religionists as "the aroma of Christ" is one thing, but when evangelizing from a position of authority is used to inspire an aura of "rightness" around one belief system and "wrongness" around all others -- and in a military situation to boot -- it teeters dangerously on the precipice of fostering a cult, in this case a government-sponsored-and-endorsed cult.

Of course, our chaplain corps continues to include representatives of other faith perspectives, but the size and sway of the Dominionists, who don't subscribe to the position of less-fervid Evangelicals that there is a right time and place to bring the Word to the people, has become so strategically placed and passionately embraced that many Catholic, mainline Protestant, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and other believers (or non-believers) in the military feel themselves becoming oppressed minorities. The zealous pursuit of converts to this singular view, this One Way, reminds me in part of the dragooning by glassy-eyed Moonie recruiters or seductive Scientologists whose victims and whose heartbroken families we tried to help when I was associated with the original Cult Awareness Network.

But while the Moonies, the Scientologists and their ilk do great harm, they don't have the power to get the Pentagon to buy rifles with Biblical references on their sights, attach inappropriate, emotionally loaded names like "Crusader" to units, or to issue their religious documents with the official insignia of the U.S. Armed Forces imprinted on the cover and propaganda inside. They can't order our servicemen and women to distribute their bibles to those of another faith in the country they're occupying. Our military leaders can, and they do.

For the chaplains of old, the "padres" who gave succor to those in the foxholes regardless of belief, to be replaced by the zealots of today is not evolution; it is perversion. Passionate religious conviction is one's right, but rational minds must remain aware of what it caused on September 11th.

One's belief system is a matter of personal choice. It cannot be government sponsored and it is not the business of our military.

Mike Farrell, best known as BJ Hunnicutt of TV's "M*A*S*H," is a member of MRFF's Board of Advisors and the author of "Just Call Me Mike; A Journey to Actor and Activist," and "Of Mule and Man."

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