08/16/2013 01:03 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2013

The Military Chaplaincy Needs to Become More Diverse

The responses to my blog in defense of Jason Heap have been thoughtful and fascinating -- he is a Humanist Society candidate for military chaplaincy. Thanks to everyone who took the time to join the conversation!

Among the commenters to the blog, atheists were divided about the need for a military chaplain. The differences were often based on how atheism was defined. Some saw it as not religious and not needing chaplains; others saw it as having, in some cases, a spiritual dimension. Others rejected the right of the military to have chaplains at all as a violation of separation of church and state. Still others noted that some nontheistic religions, like Buddhism, already had chaplains, so belief in a god was not required to be a chaplain.

Christian opinions also varied. Some supported the presence of atheist and humanist chaplains -- either because of the Constitution or because of the needs of those who serve in the Armed Services. Those who opposed atheist chaplains did so mostly on the grounds that an atheist could not minister to or pray with someone who believed in the Christian God. But, of course, this begs the question of how a Christian chaplain could pray with a Hindu, Wiccan, or Buddhist, which they might be called upon to do.

As the endorser of chaplain candidates for the Humanist Society, Jason Torpy, noted, the point of chaplaincy is to support the people seeking a chaplain, not the faith of the chaplain. Under Title Ten of the Chaplains Mission and Core Values, all chaplain candidates must commit to "nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the fallen." It does not say, "of those whose religious beliefs we share." Endorsers of candidates for chaplaincy must certify they are able to work in an interfaith context.

Your responses prompted a long and lively conversation with my colleague at Brite Divinity School, Ed Waggoner, who holds a chair in Episcopal Studies, teaches theology, and studies the role of religion in the U.S. military. I invited him to join me in a back and forth about the issues you raised. We hope you will continue this conversation by commenting.

Ed: Current federal law requires the military to select chaplains as uniformed military officers. (See U.S. Code, Title 10: Army -- secs. 3073, 3547, 4337; Navy -- secs. 5142, 5142a, 6031; Air Force -- secs. 8067, 8547, 9337.) That is how the U.S. government meets its obligation to support the Free Exercise right of U.S. military personnel.

If the U.S. had a smaller military that stayed at home, rather than a large one that operates on 600 bases, in 40 countries, the U.S. government could and probably should, find civilian solutions to supporting the Free Exercise right of its troops. According to the court (1985, U.S. 2nd Circuit, Katcoff v. Marsh), our foreign policy choices (and not the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion per se) make it necessary to field military rather than civilian chaplains.

There are other reasons why the U.S. has military rather than civilian chaplains. The Pentagon says that it cannot prohibit civilian religious leaders from proselytizing, order them to support the religious practices of others with whom they disagree, and require them to take an active part in military planning. It cannot coerce civilians in these ways, without inviting legal challenge under the Establishment Clause. But these are the parameters and expectations that the Department of Defense says it needs for religious diversity in the armed forces, in order to carry out its overall mission effectively. By making its chaplains military officers, the Pentagon gains legal authority to enforce these guidelines for their behavior.

The military, the world's largest employer, is in the business of "full-spectrum dominance" -- meaning, it aims to win everywhere; and winning is paramount. Even 'pastoral' duties of chaplains (e.g., conducting ritual, providing counsel, giving instruction from within their own traditions) are framed by the military as strategic contributions toward that end. Granted the legal mandate, the real bottom line is: so long as chaplains bolster unit cohesion and thereby enhance military effectiveness, the Pentagon is pleased with their work.

The challenge, of course, is that people in the military (as also outside it) disagree about what religion is, and who ought to be representing it, and what to expect of it within the military's distinctive culture and goals and parameters. Jason Heap's bid to become the nation's first humanist military chaplain brings all of these questions to the fore. How ought we to understand our military chaplaincies, in light of changes to our nation's religious make-up?

Rita: The military these days draws its enlistees from a model United Nations. The make-up of the U.S. military chaplaincy is almost a half-century behind, both in its understanding of religion and its lack of chaplain diversity. Diana Eck, through her Harvard Pluralism Project, documents the dramatic changes in the landscape of religion in the U.S. Since the Immigration Act of 1965, people from Asia, Africa, and Latin America have flooded into the country, bringing a multitude of religions that challenge the white, Christian, Protestant-centric bias that has long been how "religion" has been defined and studied in North Atlantic societies.

People in our neighborhoods can be Sufis from Morroco and Turkey; Muslims from Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, Palestine, Iraq, and China; Buddhists from Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Taiwan, and Japan; Evangelical Pentecostals from Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia; Catholics from Vietnam, Latin America, Haiti, Romania, Italy, and Lebanon; and a host of new religions like Sokka Gakkai, Rastafarians, and Santarians have found their way here -- just to name a few.

Monistic religions like Buddhism focus on a unifying spiritual power or principle that underlies all of reality, not a personal god. Others have multiple spiritual powers that they revere for their various powers. Still others insist their deity is the only one. In addition, the religious identities of people with European ancestry continue to morph away from the old traditional institutions their forbearers imported. There are Christian atheists, Jewish Buddhists, Wiccan Unitarians, and many others who combine several ways of being spiritual.

Quite a few religious traditions aren't that interested in what people believe, knowing participants may accept some or few of the religion's precepts. In fact, clinicians are finding that Buddhist meditation practices work to calm PTSD symptoms whether or not one is a Buddhist. This indifference toward belief carries an emphasis on practices, moral behavior, and/or belonging by participation.

So what counts as "religion"?

Ed: The U.S. Constitution does not include a definition of religion. No courts, no legal scholars, no legislators, and no religious studies scholars have devised any lasting, widely accepted definition for "religion," (from the Latin, re+ligare, to bind). However, the 1965 Supreme Court United States v. Seeger decision is a milestone for the military's policies about religion. The justices argued that a belief that is "sincere and meaningful" and that "occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God" may qualify one for exemption from military service as a conscientious objector. This ruling shifted our legal conception of what counts as 'religion' -- in the military's context, especially.

To my knowledge, the Department of Defense offers an explicit definition for 'religion' only once, and it echoes that 1965 Supreme Court decision, and others in its wake. In its official directive about its Equal Opportunity Program (2003), the Department of Defense states that religion is: "a personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes, moral or ethical beliefs, and practices that are held with the strength of traditional religious views, characterized by ardor and faith, and generally evidenced through specific religious observances." There is nothing in this statement that requires a belief in a deity or any other formal set of precepts. It does, however, use Protestant, Christian belief as the measuring stick for selecting what counts as 'religion.' Today's U.S. military chaplaincies still reflect that bias.

I think it is time for the military to pay much closer attention to proportional representation when it makes chaplaincy hiring decisions. While assuring each company has a chaplain to match the religious affiliations of its members is probably impossible because of transfers, discharges, and troop movements, we could expect the military to try harder than it does, to make the membership of its chaplaincies look more like the self-reported identities of U.S. military personnel. As of 2011, Pentagon statistics showed that just 3 percent of the military's enlisted personnel and officers call themselves Southern Baptist, Pentecostal or some form of evangelical, but 33 percent of military chaplains are members of one of those groups. Southern Baptists are only 1 percent of the military, yet they are 16 percent of active-duty chaplains. At 20 percent, Catholics are the largest share of active-duty Christian members but are only 8 percent of military chaplains. Around 23 percent declare no religion, which may or may not indicate whether they are religious. While atheists outnumber all non-Christians, there are no humanist chaplains, but 33 Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha'i or Hindu chaplains across all branches of the military, to serve the less than 1 percent of military members who belong to those faiths.

Ed and Rita: Jason Heap, a humanist, is a well-qualified candidate for the U.S. Navy's Chaplain Corps. the military should hire Jason Heap because it would demonstrate their commitment to diversity. Our friend and colleague, Herman Keizer, Jr., who was a chaplain for 34 years, says, "To select him for service would be a credit not only to our military, but also to our nation. This is one concrete step we can take, to acknowledge and honor our growing diversity." To that, we can only say, "Amen!"