Jason Heap (below) is still trying to become a chaplain in the U.S. Navy. He’s perfectly qualified for the position, too: He earned two master’s degrees (including one in divinity), passed his physicals, and completed the paperwork… but what he doesn’t have is the endorsement of a religious organization that’s currently approved by the Navy; his comes from the Humanist Society.
And now some Republican members of Congress are weighing in to prevent him from getting the position.
It was also a mystery because there are more atheists and other non-religious people in the military than any other non-Christian denomination, and most of those other groups have their own chaplains, including Jews, Muslims, and Hindus.
Before you write off the idea, saying atheists don’t need a chaplain and a “Humanist chaplain” is an oxymoron, realize that the job is to provide comfort and guidance to those dealing with life and death issues. They are really counselors. And atheists struggle with the same issues as other members of the military. Going to a religious chaplain who doesn’t understand where you’re coming from is obviously not as helpful as speaking with a trained professional who gets your godlessness.
Rejecting Heap means turning a back on soldiers who don’t belong to an organized religion.
More importantly, having a Humanist chaplain would take absolutely nothing away from religious chaplains — just as a Muslim or Jewish chaplain doesn’t interfere with Christian ones. This has always been about maintaining the status quo to the detriment of non-theistic people in the military.
In late 2014, Heap and the Humanist Society filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, and a number of individuals in the military, alleging religious discrimination. They argued that if Heap were a theist, he’d easily be a chaplain by now. His credentials were rock solid. The suit was settled, though the terms are unclear.
That may be moot, though, because the Navy Chaplain Appointment and Retention Eligibility Advisory board recently recommended Heap be admitted as a chaplain. It’s what he’s been fighting for all along, and this vote of confidence comes from the very people assigned to make such judgment calls.
That’s why many Republicans are now fighting back.
The chaplain corps is historically a religious institution that should meet the religious needs of service members. The secular-humanist worldview that Dr. Heap ascribes to does not meet the requirements of the original designation of the role to facilitate religious belief. Not only is this a redefinition of the role, underscored by NDAA report language in 2014 and 2016, it also goes against the Supreme Court’s previous ruling that non-religious beliefs are not protected by the Religion Clauses.
[His letter reads:] “The military chaplain corps is a historically religious role created by then-General George Washington to serve the religious needs of our service members. It would be an offense to the millions of religious Americans bravely serving our country to install a chaplain with an avowed opposition to religion itself. Permitting this new development would directly contradict historical and legal precedent. Substituting a philosophic belief for a religious belief would erode the distinct religious function. Providing religious ministry to the Navy is critically important, and requires a person who’s highly qualified in religious ministry.”
It’s an absurd, literal argument that does a disservice to those actually serving in the Navy. Just because atheism isn’t a religion, per se, doesn’t mean that non-religious soldiers don’t have emotional needs. Depriving them of a chaplain who speaks their language hurts our military. Heap’s job wouldn’t be to argue against religion; it’d be to help soldiers who are not religious, just as a Muslim chaplain’s job is to help Muslim soldiers, not start religious debates with everyone else.
Keep in mind, by the way, that last year, the Department of Defense officially added Humanism (and Deism) on its list of “Faith and Belief” groups, making the case for Humanist inclusion in the chaplaincy even stronger. It’s a sincerely held religious belief, for all intents and purposes, and for the members of Congress to discriminate on that end seems like a tremendous mistake on their part.
The Navy’s approval would constitute a grave mistake. Approving a secular-humanist Chaplain is inconsistent with the Constitution and the Department of Defense’s (DOD) own guidelines. As part of DOD, the Navy has a constitutional obligation under the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to ensure that service members have access to services that meet their religious needs. The Chaplain Corps exists to fulfill this duty. The Supreme Court has ruled that non-religious beliefs may not rely on the Religion Clauses for protection. Furthermore, DOD’s guidelines reinforce the uniquely religious purpose of the Chaplain Corps.
The Navy has sufficient authority to create programs for humanist or atheist service members. The Chaplain Corp is not the appropriate place. The Chaplain Corps serves religious needs, not philosophical preferences. Approving a secular-humanist Chaplain would open the door to other applicants representing other philosophical worldviews. Over time, this situation would erode the distinct religious function of the Chaplain Corps.
Religious needs are philosophical preferences, and that includes people who reject God’s existence. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if atheists in the military didn’t have a desire for a chaplain.
Wicker’s claim is that the chaplaincy would erode with the inclusion of a Humanist member, but that’s not true. Plenty of universities have done just that and it’s led to a richer experience for students.
You would think members of Congress would do everything in their power to support the military. Apparently that’s not the case if there’s a perception, misguided or otherwise, that Christian supremacy will go down a notch.
(Screenshot via YouTube. Large portions of this article were published earlier. Updates have been made since this originally went up.)