Atheist Group Wants More Religious Diversity in US Military Chaplaincy

An atheist group says there is a religious diversity problem in the U.S. military. But a former Navy chaplain disagrees, saying that non-Christian chaplains are already statistically represented or even overrepresented in the military.

The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) pointed to data it collected from chaplain offices of various branches of service and highlighted that the military chaplaincy is currently 98 percent Christian, 90 percent Protestant, and 66 percent "evangelistic" Christian. By comparison, the general military population is 70 percent Christian, 50 percent Protestant, and 19 percent "evangelistic" Christian, according to MAAF.

The atheist organization is calling this "mismatch in the diversity in the chaplaincy" a problem and asking the military to address it with aggressive training and recruitment initiatives.

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But Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt, a former Navy chaplain with a 16-year military career, told CP that this call for diversity is really an attempt by atheists to terminate Christian chaplains.

"If they had their way all chaplains would be fired. But the courts have decided our troops have a first amendment right to be accompanied by a chaplain who represents their faith, so the atheists must attempt another method," he said.

Klingenschmitt also took issue with MAAF's statistical argument, saying: "The facts are against them. Eighty-five percent of Americans self-identify as Christian, of which about one-third are Catholic, one-third liberal Protestant, and one-third Evangelical. These one-thirds represent, coincidentally, about the same percentages of chaplains in the military, so it's already quite fair."

Earlier this year, the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, with the input from the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, updated regulations for potential military chaplain endorsers – something MAAF says is another barrier in creating diversity in the military.

The update includes a new provision prohibiting new endorsers from using a currently serving chaplain as their first chaplain candidate.

MAAF contends that this means that candidates for Wiccan, pagan, Hindu and humanist chaplains who have approached MAAF, and have been currently-serving as chaplains, would have been ineligible if this new barrier had been in place in earlier proceedings.

The atheist organization wants to see, among other things, the new chaplain restrictions removed and for the military to rescind all barriers to new chaplain endorsers.

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, told CP that "the point is not to have equal diversity. It's to have equal treatment of diverse groups. The first step is education, or more specifically, acceptance."

He said there should also be equality of opportunity, "not equality of outcome. The point is not for the chaplaincy to match exactly the demographics of the military, but for them at least to make opportunities equal and take action when leadership diversity falls so far out of step with the general population."

MAAF also said that the new barrier against currently-serving chaplains goes even further. The collective effect is to limit diversity and in certain cases would cause a chaplain to lose their career not due to job performance but simply as a result of changing their beliefs.

But Klingenschmitt told CP that "the courts have already upheld the military policies that require chaplains be fired if they change religions. In fact I personally sued and lost that same argument, when I was honorably but involuntarily discharged for changing religions, from Evangelical Episcopal to Pentecostal."

When he changed ecclesiastical endorsers, it started a process of "re-certification" which allowed the Navy to decline his application to remain on active duty.

He said that the bottom line on the issue is less than 1 percent of those in the military self-identify as Jewish or Muslim or Hindu, and less than 1 percent self-identify as atheist.

"At least 3 percent of chaplains are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, so they're already over-represented. And the atheists cannot qualify to become chaplains, since they cannot obtain fully-accredited master's degrees in their non-religion," said Klingenschmitt. "There are no atheist seminaries. That's why atheists and agnostics can freely obtain secular counseling from military psychologists, since by definition they don't want religious counseling or services."

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