Cover Story

Holding the line

"Holding the line" Continued...

Issue: "No pray zone?," July 13, 2013

Complicating this are legitimate concerns that in the past some Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or other members of the American military have felt the pressure that minorities often feel. But, as Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute has put it, evangelicals in many ways are the new Jews of American society, facing discrimination of the kind Jews felt two generations ago.

Doug Lee
Matt Rose
Doug Lee
COURAGEOUS VOICES: Chaplain MacGregor invoking Jesus’ name during a prayer at the event for the 65th anniversary of D-Day.
Handout
COURAGEOUS VOICES: Chaplain MacGregor invoking Jesus’ name during a prayer at the event for the 65th anniversary of D-Day.
COURAGEOUS VOICES: Rear Admiral William Lee at the National Day of Prayer.
Handout
COURAGEOUS VOICES: Rear Admiral William Lee at the National Day of Prayer.
COURAGEOUS VOICES: An Army Reserve training brief on hate groups declaring that evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics are extremists as dangerous as al-Qaeda.
Handout
COURAGEOUS VOICES: An Army Reserve training brief on hate groups declaring that evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics are extremists as dangerous as al-Qaeda.
COURAGEOUS VOICES: The painting “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” which was removed from an Air Force base.
Handout
COURAGEOUS VOICES: The painting “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” which was removed from an Air Force base.
COURAGEOUS VOICES: A video tribute to Air Force first sergeants removed from YouTube.
Handout
COURAGEOUS VOICES: A video tribute to Air Force first sergeants removed from YouTube.
‘You are free to pray however your conscience dictates  in any situation because that’s the law. ... Commanders don’t know that any more.’ -Chaplain (Maj.) John Sackett
Umit Bektas/Reuters/Newscom
‘You are free to pray however your conscience dictates in any situation because that’s the law. ... Commanders don’t know that any more.’ -Chaplain (Maj.) John Sackett
SENSE OF CALLING: Ted Hamm
Matt Rose
SENSE OF CALLING: Ted Hamm

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John Wells, a former Navy commander turned lawyer who represents the master sergeant facing discipline for serving Chick-fil-A at his promotion party, said, “The problem is this case is the tip of the iceberg. I’ve got people calling me all the time saying, ‘I am a chaplain and my prayers are being censored,’ or ‘I am being told if I state my opinion on something that I am going to get hammered.’”

Sackett, the Air Force chaplain, traces this climate of intimidation to confusion about the law: “You are free to pray however your conscience dictates in any situation because that’s the law. … Commanders don’t know that anymore. So many of them actually think it is illegal to talk about Jesus. The commanders are well-intentioned, but they are also not interested in any lawsuits.”

Sackett and his commanding chaplain plan an officers’ training session regarding constitutional law and the free exercise of religion. But even chaplains are bewildered: New ones often ask Sackett if they can offer Bible verses or pray while counseling. Ten years ago, he says, base commanders would often announce upcoming religious events and chaplains would often open and close command level staff meetings with prayer. Not anymore.

Some confusion stems from the military’s own dizzying array of press releases about what is permitted. An Air Force statement this spring said service members could “express their personal religious beliefs as long as it does not make others uncomfortable.” Many chaplains wondered who would be deciding what is uncomfortable—and would this definition change over time?

The Pentagon then said service members could evangelize but not proselytize. That kicked off debate over the differences between evangelizing and proselytization. While chaplains at the conference agreed that coercion has no place in Christian faith, they worried that complex definitions of theological terms would have a chilling effect on discussion. They also discussed reports that the Army’s new definition of resilience has removed the word “spirituality” from the attributes needed for a soldier to overcome adversity.

Evangelical denominations face a hard choice: If they pull their support of chaplains because new rules don’t allow them to represent Christian belief, the gap will be filled by groups with liberal theology. Sackett said, “One of the reasons I am still in is I am afraid who might take my place.” But he may not get a chance to stay: “I think a time is shortly coming when chaplains who speak out on moral issues and on issues of community standards are going to be told go find a new job,” said Chuck Williams, an Army chaplain based in Hawaii.

Moral advising has long been one role of chaplains. On October 21, 1778, George Washington issued an order in which he called “purity of morals … highly conducive to order, subordination, and success in an army.” That is why Wells, the naval commander turned lawyer, fears the repercussions of a military without a moral check: “You know the old saying that there’s no atheists in the foxhole? Well God help us if all we have in foxholes are atheists.”

The chaplains also say the assault on religious liberty in the military, if allowed to stand, could expand to society at large. The military has often been a touchstone for cultural change: “It is just a matter of time before these same challenges are going to come to the local church,” said one chaplain who asked not to be identified because he had received direct orders from his commander not to talk to the media. “You have your head in the sand if you think that you are protected behind the church.”

Despite uncertainty, new chaplains are still entering the fray: The Presbyterian and Reformed Commission on Chaplains has approved 13 new chaplains so far this year. One of them, Ted Hamm, thought about joining the chaplaincy six years ago when he graduated from seminary, but the timing wasn’t right. Hamm ministered at a PCA church in Sarasota, Fla., but never lost his sense of calling to minister to teenagers leaving home for the first time to join the military and wondering what life is all about.

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