Counselor? Sure. Chaplain? No.
That has always been my thought about the debate around the appropriateness of atheist chaplains in the military.
Now Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) has sponsored a new amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would bar atheists from joining the chaplain corps. In discussing the amendment, Rep. Fleming said that an atheist chaplain is an oxymoron. I agree. After all, isn't the very role of a chaplain to bring spiritual guidance to a member of the armed services in his or her time of need?
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.
The Bible has a myriad of stories and wise words to offer someone who is fighting for his or her country.
The Bible offers words of comfort, showing how God hears and responds to the cries of those who suffer, "…all night I flood my bed with weeping, drenching it with my tears…" (Psalm 6:6)
The Bible offers soldiers a resurgence of comfort and resistance to overcome, "but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." (Isaiah 40:31)
Finally, the Bible offers the mortally wounded the comfort of knowing that our lives do not end on earth, but that those who believe will have eternal life with God.
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.
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.
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.