What We Have Here, Is A Failure Of Imagination

I pray that, if a soldier needs a chaplain
Cos his spirit needs some comfort and some peace
Cos his mortal soul is traumatized and troubled
And he’s looking for his suffering to cease

I pray that such a soldier finds that chaplain
Who will pray with him, exactly as he needs
Who will celebrate his miracles and triumphs
And give comfort when his mind or body bleeds

I pray that he should find a Christian chaplain
It’s important that he finds a kindred soul
Cos you need someone who really understands you
When you’re broken and you’re trying to get whole

I pray that God is working through our chaplains
And I know that He will listen to my prayer.
But supposing that this soldier is an atheist?
Well, then, fuck him, cos I frankly do not care.

Sorry to bang this drum yet one more time (and I do not promise that this will be the last), but the Christian Post has a dreadful opinion piece up, and I just couldn’t let it drop.

Counselor? Sure. Chaplain? No.

That has always been my thought about the debate around the appropriateness of atheist chaplains in the military.

Always, no matter what anyone says. Why?

Throughout the history of the nation, chaplains have played a vital role in our nation’s military. From the battlefront to the home front, chaplains have prayed with, worshiped with, counseled and consoled the men and women of our armed services. Their weapons are not guns but prayers and spiritual texts. During my 30 years as a chaplain, I relied on the “sword of the Spirit” – the Bible – to defeat the darkness of war. It was my passion for the Bible and its power in the hand of a trained military chaplain that led me to my current position with American Bible Society’s Armed Services Ministry.

Ah. That’s why. It’s a case of Christian privilege. 30 years of getting it your way can leave you hesitant to embrace change. 30 years of wearing Christian blinders can convince you that the narrow field you see is the whole picture.

The Bible has a myriad of stories and wise words to offer someone who is fighting for his or her country.

Let’s say I agree. I don’t, but let’s say I do. Does it follow that there is no other source of stories or wise words? We know that other chaplains carry the Qur’an–is that acceptable? Other chaplains carry other books. I, myself, have not found comfort in the bible for decades. Would you impose it on me?

Unless it has been experienced personally, it is difficult for anyone to imagine the countless emotions that envelop those heading into harm’s way. In these situations, above all others, service members discover the inadequacy of human wisdom and worldly aphorisms. I hold no disdain for those who have not found religious faith, but I pray there is never a time when a soldier, sailor, airman, marine or guardian asking for a word of spiritual comfort and peace is instead directed to chaplain who doesn’t believe in God.

(emphasis mine) This bit is, frankly, insulting. Just terrible. It is statistically highly unlikely that the author did not encounter any atheist soldiers in 30 years. With his attitude, I can see how he is able to (probably truthfully) make a global claim that “human wisdom and worldly aphorisms” are inadequate in his experience. (It will go nearly unremarked that the bible actually is human wisdom, despite its claims.) The bolded bit is particularly annoying. As some of you know, I lost my brother a couple of years ago. There was no shortage of Christian chaplains around… we kicked two of them out of the room, at different times. They were worthless–not only for the four of us who were atheists (me, my youngest brother, and the two daughters of my dying brother), but also for the three Christians there (my sister and parents), and for my sister-in-law (rarely-practicing Shinto).

Let us, very charitably, assume that the author has a point. That it is important for individuals to be comforted by people who understand them and share their values (see how I took his insulting screed and translated it to something positive?). The only question, then, is… are there atheists in the Armed Forces? Are they, as Christians apparently are, deserving of a sympathetic ear that shares their values?

Military chaplains are representatives of and for their faith community. They are also the government agent for the protection of the armed service members’ constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. Chaplains are the ones who make certain that each soldier has been given the opportunity, if so desired, to practice his or her faith while serving in the military. The existence of chaplains in no way negates the right of a service man or woman to choose not to practice or embrace faith. But the appointment of an atheist chaplain undermines the very nature of the chaplaincy itself.

According to the supreme court, “none of the above” is a faith community. Not a religion, but a relevant category. And the “very nature of the chaplaincy itself” is described very succinctly by the chaplain corps itself: to care for the living, comfort the wounded, and honor the dead. None of which is out of reach of atheists.

The Armed Forces Chaplains Board should clearly affirm that while there are many roles for atheists to play in the Armed Services, the role of chaplain isn’t one of them.

Fuck you.





(I should end there… but really… the supreme court has a test–the Lemon test–to see if something is constitutional. Do chaplains have a secular purpose? I believe they do–and since they do, atheists deserve the same benefits as any other citizens. It seems that some congressweasels, and perhaps some former chaplains, disagree, and think chaplains serve only a religious purpose. If that is the case, it’s time for the US government to get out of the chaplaincy business.

So that’s the question: is the religious nature of the chaplaincy important enough to divorce it from government oversight? Or is it a service our government supports to help all members of the armed forces, no matter what their faith community? And yes, for government purposes, “none of the above” is a community.

I know from experience that Christian chaplains are not worth a bucket of warm spit when it comes to comforting an atheist. We already know that Congress does not care about atheists. Now we know that at least one former Chaplain does not care about a significant percentage of his flock.)


  1. MaryL says

    Fine, call them Counselors, but provide them. Or are some members of the military more equal than others?

  2. Leah says

    Ugh, this always makes me really mad. The christians always worry, “What if a christian goes to a chaplain and s/he’s atheist. They will say there is no hope and blah, blah, blah.” Really? What about the real problem of atheists or nones being forced to talk to a christian chaplain if they don’t want to see a psychiatrist and have it go on their personal record. It is already a problem of christian chaplains pushing their beliefs on others, especially the ‘unchurched.’ I agree with your previous statement, f— you.

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