THE BLOG
07/31/2013 06:49 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2013

Why Congress Cannot Bar an Atheist Military Chaplain

Jason Heap, 38, an atheist with a seminary degree, has applied to become a U.S. Navy chaplain, just in time to step into the hornet's nest called Congress. (Full disclosure: Heap graduated from the seminary that employs me and is well regarded by his former professors.) In applying openly as an atheist, he has raised questions about the Constitution, Congress, and the role of military chaplaincy.

Some lawmakers are trying to bar atheists from joining the chaplain corps -- the House approved an amendment to the defense authorization bill last week that was designed to keep the Pentagon from accepting atheist chaplains.

"The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it's an oxymoron," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., sponsor of the amendment. "It is absurd to argue that someone with no spiritual inclination should fill that role, especially when it could well mean that such an individual would take the place of a true chaplain who has been endorsed by a religious organization."

The military and Congress are sworn to protect the Constitution, which guarantees the free practice of religion. They are not supposed to impose state-mandated beliefs or prohibit people from practicing what they believe in order to serve their country. Insisting on belief in God (as if it were self-evident what the word "God" means) is a violation of the religious freedom of those in military service, including chaplains.

In fact, it is possible to be deeply religious and not believe in God. Estimates are that there are about as many Buddhists in the U.S. as Muslims, but being a Buddhist carries no requirement to believe in God (Gautama Buddha was an enlightened human being, not a god). Plenty of Buddhists don't believe in God and don't even think about it much because it isn't an important question in Buddhism. A Buddhist teacher is likely to say that if believing in God makes you a better, more compassionate and moral person, that is good, but if it makes you hostile, mean, narrow-minded, or judgmental of others, you need to get that idol out of your mind. The famous Buddhist saying, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him," is a metaphorical shorthand for this principle of not getting attached to the idea of something that stands in your spiritual way.

The military accepted its first Buddhist, Jeanine Shin, as a chaplain in 2004. Chaplain Shin describes her work as providing

Spiritual ministry, care, and counseling outside the confines of a traditional place of worship... Military chaplains exist because of the U.S. constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion... I think one misconception is that military chaplains function as missionaries or that they preach killing. However, most chaplains really are concerned with ensuring that individuals, whether in the military or hospital or prisons, have access to services and sacraments of their respective faith. ..I think that if a chaplain were to engage in [proselytizing] behavior they would have very little credibility with other Marines and Sailors and therefore be very ineffective in their jobs.

Jason Heap is endorsed by the 74-year-old Humanist Society, which trains people in moral leadership, rituals, and ceremonial roles. At Brite Divinity School, Heap received both the intellectual sophistication and pastoral training to serve the needs of a variety of religious members of the military, including those whose beliefs he may not share.

Under the Constitution, Congress cannot exclude an atheist from military chaplaincy, and it would be a better military if atheist troops could seek spiritual and moral guidance from someone they trust. The need for diverse chaplains is great because a larger number of soldiers turn to chaplains than seek out clinicians when they want to discuss problems. A clinical assessment goes on a military record, but chaplains keep their conversations confidential.

In our military today, more members identify as atheists or agnostics than the combined total of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, but these latter groups now have their own chaplains. My friend and colleague Chaplain (Col.) Herman Keizer, Jr. (ret.) spent 34 years as a chaplain, and he advocates unequivocally for expanding the chaplaincy to meet the religious needs of an increasingly diverse military. He had the honor of swearing in the Army's first Muslim chaplain, who stood in a long line of firsts, first Roman Catholic, first Rabbi, first Hindu, etc., all of whom faced resistance. It is time for an atheist first--over a quarter of a million in military service say they have "no religious preference," a self-identification that is growing in those under age 30.

The Department of Defense can only require a candidate for chaplaincy to meet educational requirements and possess a statement of status that comes from the endorsing body of the candidate's tradition. That body agrees to endorse as chaplains, leaders who can function and minister in the pluralistic and multi-faith context of the military. Can a chaplain whose purpose for ministry in the military is to gain converts to his faith truly minister to those not part of her or his tradition? If a chaplain cannot minister to an atheist, the question becomes, who will minister to atheists?

On July 31, the Forum on Military Chaplaincy released the following statement, saying it:

Strongly supports the recruitment and retention of highly qualified, clinically trained chaplains who are representative of and committed to a chaplaincy reflecting a broad and inclusive range of interfaith, multicultural and diverse life experiences. This inclusive outreach extends to chaplains representing the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities of faith, as well as those of minority beliefs, including Humanists. They, too, are valued members of our country's military and must be embraced fully. Our soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, and coastguardsmen deserve nothing less!

A member of the Forum, Professor Kurt Fredrickson of Fuller Theological Seminary noted, "In the end, chaplains are very important, and if Humanist chaplains meet a need for our military, this concept must be embraced."

I incorrectly identified Professor Fredrickson as a member of the Forum on Military Chaplaincy. He is not and I regret the error.