Prayer before Balls. Prayer for unit functions. Prayer before battle.
Anyone who feels that the military is not centered around Judeo-Christian faith is sorely mistaken. We have chaplains at every formal event, and often informal events, to pray over our meals. A faith is listed on every service member’s dog tag. The military is a traditional organization, and most service members center themselves around some sort of faith in God or other supreme being.
Even though I am a Christian, I have been burdened by the uncomfortable discussions about my level of faith with other military spouses. I have been invited to a number of Bible study groups, I have been asked to go to several church services and I have been “prayed on” when I didn’t ask, you know, where someone puts their hands on you and prays out loud. (The Catholic in me is all like, ‘whoah, we don’t do that.’).
As of late, atheism in the military has received a growing amount of news coverage. An article was recently published on Huffington Post about a humanist Naval service member, John Heap, who has applied to join the Chaplain Corps. Many believe that when Heap is assigned to a unit or is deployed, that he will not be able to provide the same level of care to service members as traditional chaplains would because he does not believe God. In response, Heap states that, “At the end of the day, my job is not to inculcate my viewpoints onto other people. My job as a chaplain is to be a facilitator, someone who cares for people, someone who is a sounding board.”
If the Chaplain Corps decides to accept Heap’s application, it opens the door to other questions concerning service members and their religion. An article featured on Yahoo News tells of how the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) plans to sue the Marine Corps after they were notified of a training document in which commanders are asked to evaluate a veteran’s mental state by denoting their change or lack of spirituality after coming home from war. The MRFF believes that documents such as these are discriminatory against service members who do not believe in God. One minister who was invited to speak at their unit even told her husband that if he didn’t have faith, he wouldn’t be a good Marine.
In order to gauge an understanding of atheism in the military, I asked a few fellow spouses to expand of how atheist service members experience a predominately Christian organization. One fellow USMC spouse told me of how their choice in faith often makes them the “others” in social situations because the culture of most military families is Christian. She said, “We simply say, ‘We don’t go to church’ or ‘we’re not very religious’ but we avoid titles like “atheist” as it seems to create a negative response. In general, ‘it’s a subject we feel needs to be kept quiet.’
Another spouse I spoke with told me of a more positive experience as an atheist in the military. Her husband is a Catholic, and despite her religious beliefs they wanted to get married in a chapel. She speaks of the chaplain that married them, and says that he was very accommodating for their ceremony- Ave Maria was played and then she walked down the aisle to Pachelbel. Their readings were from the Bible and a Shakespearean sonnet. She says of the experience, “I really appreciated the efforts from the chaplain to respect my beliefs without compromising his own; it made for a very positive experience, for a girl who never saw herself getting married in a church.”
Both of the spouses I spoke with explained that they often feel like the outsiders in some social settings. Even so, the military is a traditional organization and most service members believe in some sort of God or higher power. Most of the chaplains belong to a religious organization of some sort. But chaplains are more than just an expert on their religion- they are a sort of therapist, giving each service member the opportunity to have a confidential sounding board to express their thoughts and feelings.
One of the spouses stated, “I think that by its nature, the military will continue to be a largely religious institution. [But] you shouldn’t have to conform on a religious front to get help on a matter which could affect anyone at all. A chaplain should be able to talk to a soldier about marital troubles without having it be half sermon.”
So should non-God fearing chaplain be allowed to serve our service members in the US military? Leave a comment below!