WASHINGTON — An old military saying suggests that there are no atheists in foxholes. Now, some members of Congress seem to think that the U.S. Department of Defense doesn't want Christians there either.
On Oct. 21, a group of congressmen sent a letter to President Bush calling on him to overturn new Air Force guidelines which, they say, discriminate against and violate the First Amendment rights of Christian chaplains.
The issue was largely sparked by Mikey Weinstein, a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate and father of a current cadet. In a recent lawsuit against the Academy, Weinstein criticized the proselytizing of his Jewish son and called for the removal of a so-called chaplain “code of ethics.”
The “code of ethics,” which had reportedly been circulated unofficially throughout the Air Force, suggested that chaplains could not proselytize people from other religious bodies, but “retain the right to evangelize those who are not affiliated.”
The code, which has since been dropped, was written by the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces and, as Air Force officials stress, had never been an officially recognized document.
The issue of religious discrimination in the Air Force first made headlines last spring when the Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, came under fire for charges of proselytizing and discrimination against non-Christians.
In April, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State released a 14-page document outlining what they called a “systematic problem” of proselytizing “and a clear preference for Christianity” at the Academy.
A government investigation turned up only a small amount of evidence, and the Air Force reported that proper steps had been taken.
Now, some members of Congress are calling new guidelines, recently adopted by the Air Force, which ban all but what they call nonsectarian prayers, “a euphemism declaring that prayers will be acceptable so long as they censor Christian beliefs.”
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who spearheaded the letter to President Bush, told the Register that, above all, “this is a First Amendment issue.”
The letter, signed by both Republicans and Democrats, states: “We are disappointed and gravely concerned to learn that the Christian military chaplains are under direct attack and that their right to pray according to their faith is in jeopardy.”
It adds that “current surveys in the military indicate that upwards of 80% of soldiers identify themselves as Christians, and such censorship of Christian beliefs is a disservice not only to Christian chaplains but also to hundreds of thousands of Christian soldiers.”
Opponents of the new guidelines say that the Air Force's move is merely a precursor to a future Pentagon-wide set of norms.
Jones, a Catholic convert, said it's sad that “military chaplains, who are willing to lay down their lives for their country, are having their First Amendment rights challenged.”
He shared a letter he had received from an unnamed Army chaplain who recalled a Chaplain Officer Basic Course, in which he was told that “it is offensive to pray in the name of Jesus, and is against Army policy to do so.”
“Overall,” the anonymous chaplain said, “it was made very clear to everyone in the class that chaplains must refrain from invoking the name of Christ in prayer.”
Msgr. Stewart Swetland is head of the Newman Foundation at the University of Illinois and a former Lutheran who became Catholic during his time as a U.S. Naval officer. He told the Register that military chaplains often find themselves in the midst of a precarious balancing act.
“A chaplain”, he said, “has to play a double role in the military. …They have to serve the needs of all troops, no matter what faith, while ministering within their particular tradition as well.”
Msgr. Swetland, who also serves as chaplain to the Champaign, Ill., American Legion, observed that “Catholics don't seem to have as hard a time” with the new norms as Protestants.
Many Catholic liturgical prayers, he pointed out, are done in the name of “God” or “Father,” so “we don't necessarily think we're compromising our faith by not always praying in the name of Jesus.”
While some speculate that the policy could set a dangerous precedent, Catholic ministry at the Air Force Academy seems, at least for now, to be largely unfazed.
In fact, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of the Archdiocese for Military Services, a former Army chaplain in Vietnam, told the Register that he was largely unaware of any major problem among Catholic chaplains.
At least on paper, the military's new guidelines seem somewhat benign. The Air Force policy states that “public prayer should not usually be included in official settings” such as staff meetings, classes or sporting events.
This is a change from a formerly common practice in which many of these types of events were commenced with prayer.
In addition, the new guidelines state that “a brief, non-sectarian prayer may be included in non-routine military ceremonies … where the purpose of the prayer is to add a heightened sense of seriousness or solemnity, not to advance specific religious beliefs.”
While it has yet to be seen how the new guidelines will play out in the long term, many — both Catholics and Protestants — are worried about what they see as an increasingly hostile environment in the ranks of the military.
Another letter from an unnamed Army chaplain, cited by Jones, closes with fearful tension: “Much to my great shame, there have been times when I did not pray in my Savior's name and I know that I must face my Lord one day and give an accounting of my cowardice.”
The chaplain concluded, “Have mercy on me, sweet Jesus.”
Scott Powell is based in Denver.