Earlier this week, two Democratic representatives felt the sting of the old adage, “no good deed goes unpunished.” Earlier this summer, Colorado representative Jared Polis and New Jersey representative Robert Andrews tried to push through an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act—a large defense budget bill—that would allow the Department of Defense to add nonreligious chaplains to the ranks of the military. Not only did the amendment fail, its opponents were so incensed that they introduced their own amendment, requiring any chaplain appointed to the military to be sponsored by an “endorsing agency,” all of which are religious. The new measure passed resoundingly, 253 to 173.
Republicans seemed simultaneously baffled and horrified by the notion that nonreligious chaplains might have something to offer service members. “They don’t believe anything,” explained Representative Mike Conaway, a Republican from Texas, during a debate over Polis and Andrews’ amendment last month. “I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, ‘You know, that’s it—your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food.’” Meanwhile, others worried that nonreligious chaplains would take the wrong moments to evangelize. “The last thing in the world we would want to see,” said Louisiana representative John Fleming, a Republican, “was a young soldier who may be dying and they’re at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, ‘If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.’”
Over the past decade, the numbers of Americans who say they don’t have any religion have been rising rapidly. Today, one-fifth of the U.S. public and nearly one-third of Americans under 30 are religiously unaffiliated. This increasingly large population has, of late, been trying to assert its rights in a number of different arenas, including the military, with mixed success.
Polis pointed out that while religious servicemembers can confide in chaplains in moments of loneliness, doubt, or anxiety, their nonreligious peers—who, by some estimates, comprise more than 20 percent of the military—are limited to mental-health counseling, which is highly stigmatized and less confidential. The U.S. is not alone in refusing to provide nonreligious chaplains, but some European militaries like the Netherlands and Belgium have stepped up to the plate, employing humanist chaplains in addition to religiously affiliated pastors.
Dire pronouncements aside, it’s not clear how much the new amendment will change the status quo, other than reinforcing Republicans’ opposition to nonreligious military chaplains. Recently, Jason Heap, a Humanist with master’s degrees from Brite Divinity School and Oxford University, petitioned the Navy to add the Humanist Society, an organization that supports the wide power of human potential without a belief in God, to its list of groups that can endorse chaplains. If the Navy consents, Heap would not be in violation of the amendment, since he would be endorsed by an approved organization. The Internal Revenue Service recognizes the Humanist Society a religious organization for tax purposes by the Internal Revenue Service—but it’s hard to say whether this will pass muster with the Navy.
In an open letter published online, Heap justified his application to become a Humanist chaplain, writing:
Just as a Roman Catholic would prefer to speak with a priest, or a Jewish person with a rabbi, or a Muslim person with an imam, or a Protestant Christian with a minister, non-theist people would prefer to have access to someone who understands their basic points of view and how they interpret life. As a Humanist and a scholar of religion, not only do I understand the viewpoints of non-theist people from a range of worldviews which would allow me to offer them sympathy and support, my own life’s experience allows me to offer empathy and a person to walk by their side to share in both their troubles and triumphs.
Chaplaincy is not the only friction point for nonbelievers who say the military doesn’t acknowledge their values and implicitly endorses Christianity. Advocates for religiously unaffiliated members of the military—a large and amorphous group that includes atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secularists—have been calling for more attention to military nonbelievers’ needs for several years, with little success. There are tensions over Christian prayer at military events, religious mottos and logos on Bibles and pieces of military heraldry, and the military’s resistance to allowing atheist groups to meet on bases. Groups like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association host frequent events for military personnel, including a daylong evangelical Christian concert and festival held in 2010 at Fort Bragg. Atheists were so frustrated by the resources and attention that were devoted to evangelical functions that they demanded a festival for atheists, which the military supported. The “Rock Beyond Belief” concert in May 2012, also held at Fort Bragg, featured carnival treats and games for children, and was headlined by Richard Dawkins.
Reading Heap’s letter, it’s hard to dismiss “nonreligious chaplain” as an oxymoron. In the scheme of things, it’s a relatively small request—less sweeping, certainly, than a recent effort to stop the common military practice of Christian prayer before meals. But it also signals the extent to which Republican legislators still believe that any true American should be comfortable with public displays of Christian devotion. And their base will back them up; last fall, a poll from Public Religion Research Institute revealed that although less than half of Americans overall agreed, a majority of Republicans believe that America has always been—and is currently—a Christian nation.
In their view, efforts to give nonreligious service members just a fraction of the resources that Christian service members receive are an attack on this foundational principle. “My constituents back in Oklahoma are shaking their heads," said Representative Jim Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma. “Why does the secular left insist on ruining the integrity of the chaplaincy to serve their agenda of institutionalized godlessness?”
Surely some basic equity—allowing service members without a religious tradition to have a safe space to talk about the fears and anxieties that come with military service—would benefit the military as much as it would benefit atheists. But for the House Republicans, it seems that acknowledging the needs of nonreligious service members would be another nail in the coffin of god-fearing America.