I wrote the following article for Huffington Post back in August of 2010. Good Friday seems an appropriate day to revive it.
Our country was founded on the idea of religious freedom, and several of our nation’s founders were deists (Thomas Jefferson) or skeptical to the point of atheism (Thomas Paine). Religious plurality and diversity characterized America from our earliest days, and so too was that true of our citizen-military.
Private religious belief should remain that: private. Evangelism in military settings is inappropriate. It is especially insidious when practiced by supervisors. Militaries are rigidly stratified, and certain positions (drill sergeants, first sergeants, commanders, and so on) carry with them great authority. It is totally inappropriate for NCOs and officers in supervisory positions to promote religion in any way, especially among their subordinates.
That said, you cannot banish religion from the military since our military will always be a reflection of American society. In national polls, Americans routinely say they believe in God, with the percentage affirming this belief exceeding 90%. Our military today is more rural than urban, more small town than big city, more Southern and Midwestern than Coastal. In short, our military recruits from areas of the country that are often powerfully infused with evangelical Christian beliefs. Such beliefs are not going to disappear when troops don their uniforms.
God and country are united in the minds of many of our troops. And a person’s mind is his or her own private affair. What we must guard against is the intrusion of religion in policy areas and public arenas where it doesn’t belong. The article below highlights one such case.
Yesterday [8/9/2010], the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and Veterans for Common Sense sent a startling letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It alleged that the military has sent some psychological casualties to chaplains for counseling, rather than to mental health care professionals for diagnosis and treatment. In a few cases, the letter alleges, chaplains sought to provide comfort through evangelism. In essence, it seems wounded and disturbed troops were encouraged to put their trust in Jesus: that He would provide for them if only they accepted Him.
General George S. Patton Jr. was fired during World War II for slapping soldiers with PTSD. Assuming the MRFF letter is correct, are we prepared to fire chaplains for seeking to alleviate PTSD and other disorders with a healthy dose of scripture and heartfelt appeals to Jesus?
I would advise against this.
I can well imagine that a few chaplains, perhaps of an evangelical bent, in their zeal to provide help, may have conflated their own personal conversion experiences and the resultant comfort they gained from them with the kind of professional care and treatment provided by mental health care experts. If one’s own doubts and problems were resolved through heartfelt conversion, it’s quite possible one would believe that evangelism in the name of Jesus could cure all ills — a belief they may then have tried to transfer to hurting, even desperate, troops.
Such misguided ministering, if it exists, must stop.
But at the same time let’s not forget that chaplains are invaluable as counselors. The equivalent at times to a “big brother” or “big sister,” they are both part of a unit but also in a (moral) sense stand above it and the entire military system. It’s a demanding job — indeed, it’s more than a job, it’s a calling — and the vast majority of chaplains perform it well.
Chaplains, of course, are not mental health care providers. Psychological trauma and other serious mental health issues clearly go beyond their abilities and training to treat and meliorate. The letter from the MRFF and Veterans for Common Sense reminds us of this fact, as well as of the burdens of war on our troops and of the dire shortages of qualified mental health care. It’s the latter that requires the lion’s share of our attention and resources.
That said, allow me a moment to praise military chaplains. The several I’ve known have been dedicated, decent, godly souls as well as good troops. They share in the burdens of their units even as they provide selfless counsel, spiritual or otherwise. One older chaplain I knew eagerly went through jump training prior to joining the 101st Airborne. If he was going to serve alongside airborne troops, he wanted to know what jumping out of airplanes was like.
National prayer breakfasts I’ve attended, run by military chaplains of multiple faiths, were always open to troops of any faith (or no faith at all). There were no distinctions between Protestants or Catholics, or for that matter between Muslims or Jews. As celebrations of non-denominational and undifferentiated spirituality, they were irenic, life-affirming, even moving.
Let’s be careful, then, not to let instances of Christian evangelism in the ranks distract us from a healthy exercise of spirituality and religious feeling. Let’s applaud our military chaplains even as we recognize that they too have limitations. But most of all, let’s be sure to get our troops the professional mental health care they both need and deserve.