NPR recently did a story about Jason Heap applying to be the Navy’s (and in fact the US military’s) first Humanist chaplain. Jason became an minister in Texas after graduating from Brite Divinity School at TCU. He later graduated from Oxford. And, somewhere along the way, he lost his Christian faith. Apparently when that happens, it does not result in the loss of one’s designation as a minister.
Heap’s application has gotten farther than anyone in the past who tried to follow this path. And some people are really unhappy about how far Heap has gone.
Take Colonel Ron Crews (Retired), who heads the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty. On the Alliance’s Twitter homepage, they leave no doubt about where they stand, “Pursuing a nation where all chaplains, and those whom they serve, freely exercise their God-given and constitutionally protected religious liberties.” For the NPR story, Crews explained,
“‘For God and country.’ That is the motto of the chaplain corps, and someone who comes from a humanist freethinker position could not ascribe to that motto. So it’s by definition of who a chaplain is.”
Heap also faces opposition in Congress, where Representative John Fleming (R-LA) introduced an amendment to the 2014 Defense Appropriations Act to “prevent funds from being used to appoint chaplains without an endorsing agency.” In other words, no denomination, no chaplaincy. Fleming explained,
“This I think would make a mockery of the chaplaincy. The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they’re at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, ‘If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.’”
After the Fleming amendment passed the House as part of the appropriations act, Religion News Service added, “Currently, the Department of Defense recognizes more than 200 endorsing agents, all of them based on a belief in God.”
Unfortunately for Crews, Fleming, and RNS, they’re all wrong on their basic assumption that the unifying characteristic of current military chaplains is their belief in God. Three short examples.
According to 2012 statistics, there are between 12-14 Buddhist Chaplains. Many are endorsed by the “Buddhist Churches Of America,” a Japanese Buddhist organization originally invited to the US to support Japanese immigrants near San Francisco. Its origins are in Mahayana Buddhism though it became a separate sect in Japan called Jodo Shinsu (“Pure Land”). Although many westerners consider Buddhism a “religion,” it does not concern itself with the worship of a god and certainly Buddhas are not gods. It is best described as non-theist. In the words of Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche, “The fundamental aim of Buddhist practice is not belief; it’s enlightenment.” However, in keeping with tradition in many parts of Asia, it is also not mutually exclusive. This means that practitioners may combine a variety of spiritual practices, some of which may involve various deities or spirits.
There are three Hindu Chaplains in the US military, all endorsed by the Chinmaya Mission West. It is almost impossible to generalize about “What is Hinduism?” as practices and beliefs vary widely from polytheism to non-theism. Chinmaya Mission was founded in 1953 by followers of Swami Chinmayananda, a devotee of the study of the Vedas (ancient Hindu texts). Yoga, meditation, and study are all part of Vedantic Hindu practice, with the goal of understanding and achieving higher consciousness. Among Swami Chinmayananda most famous teaching are “‘Renounce your ego’ is the Lord’s only request. ‘And I will make you God’ is the promise” and “If I rest, I rust.”
Finally, there are between 18 and 22 Unitarian-Universalist chaplains, all endorsed by the Unitarian Universalist Association. The UU denomination is non-creedal but does promote “The Seven Principles,” broad ethical guidelines. To borrow from Will Rogers, “I am not a member of any organized religion. I am a UU.” UU ministers run the gamut from truly ecumenical, to those that lean towards one belief, including Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or Humanist. None of the Seven Principles demand belief in a divine being. In fact, the state of Texas tried to revoke the tax exempt status of UUs because of their lack of devotion to a deity. It’s not unusual for services to have Humanist themes. One of the earliest services that I clearly remember was presided over by an avowed Atheist. Included in the music for the service were Humanist hymns from the UU hymnal.
So. Colonel Crews and Representative Fleming, it’s time to step away from this one. The US military has already set an example of allowing chaplains from non-theist denominations. Furthermore, the purpose of the Chaplain Corps is to meet the needs of those serving in the military, and there are more self-identified Atheists than Buddhists, Hindus, and UUs combined. Add to that the largest single category of religious declaration in the military, “No religious preference,” with over 22% of the military, about whose needs we know little.
Does the military need Humanist Chaplains? Yes, if it would meet the needs of those who have chosen to serve. This isn’t about the religious preferences of civilians.