Humanists Raise Concerns With Air Force Family Counseling
“The air force chaplain is making married air force couples watch Gary Smalley’s Hidden Keys to Loving Relationships as their “couples counseling” prior to moving off post. They just gather all the couples in a big group in the basement of the squadron building, where they lounge around on couches napping or playing games on their phones and just generally not paying attention to what’s being played at them. The air force chaplain would not hear it from me that what he was doing was inappropriate. He said “freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion” and that we would just have to put up with it.”
The above quote is from the initial report I received from a MAAF member at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey regarding her experiences. DLI leadership generally requires* married and engaged couples to have marriage counseling. The report as provided tells of chaplains providing a nominally Christian counseling session with no oversight and no consideration for the non-Christians who may be subjected to it. But that is not the end of the story, and this article and a second follow-up will provide some insight into the challenges faced by service members, by MAAF, and by military leaders in identifying and resolving complaints of military proselytism.
Greater care should be taken when the Air Force steps into a marriage
In response to this complaint, I contacted the chaplains and leaders at DLI to investigate the resources and programs they had available. I spoke with Wing leadership and chaplain representatives about the issue, asking whether their family counseling had a Christian bias. Such an investigation can be essentially impossible for a service members concerned about retribution from higher ranking officers. The initial responses were that the training might have some Christian bias but that individual could have private sessions with the chaplains or they could find private alternatives at their own cost. I objected to this idea that a Christian training program would be the funded default option and that non-Christians would have to find their own resources.
The chaplain’s office conferred and adjusted course on their response. They reported instead that they had conducted a review of the entire 12-hour program (VHS tapes) and found that the Smalley Hidden Keys program they use almost never reference God:
“I have reviewed the material being used. What I discovered is that Gary Smalley’s presentation is based upon sociological research. It is over 983 minutes long and 99.6% of the material does not reference God. The four minutes (.4%) during which God is mentioned merely cites studies that found a belief in God impacts marital relationships in a positive way.”
Copyright restrictions and time has made it impossible to review the VHS tapes or the DVDs to confirm, but the chaplains seem to have taken the time, and that’s a good step forward. However, it does not address every concern with the training or the chaplain-centric counseling approach.
“My Christian wife and I were told we would never last in an interfaith marriage. We were told that we needed to ‘get right with god’ or we would be going to hell, five years later, we are both going strong.”
AF Staff Sergeant Dan Rawlings, quoted above, was at DLI and is now a MAAF chapter organizer and lay leader at Travis AFB. reports that he and his Christian wife were subjected to mandatory counseling from a Protestant minister at DLI and that they were told that Jesus was the only solution to their marriage and that there would certainly be no possible chance of success for an atheist/Christian mixed marriage. Despite chaplain counseling that discouraged their relationship, Dan and his wife are still together and happy today.
I encouraged more openness to the nontheist perspective within the chaplaincy to help open the chaplaincy to diversity within the training Wing at DLI. To start, I offered, as part of the MAAF Chaplain Outreach program, to provide brochures for atheists and humanists, but they declined. On the other hand, they have provided facilities for the local chapter of MAAF at DLI.
The focus of this article is that the military uses chaplains in general and also uses nominally religious resources for marriage counseling. The Army, for example, has Strong Bonds, its family counseling program, as $100 million foundational program of the chaplaincy and the Army. Family counseling for deployment stress (FOCUS) and other resources outside the chaplaincy do exist, but the chaplains are recognized as the default resource. While this article isn’t an in-depth review of military family counseling, suffice it to say that the chaplains do handle marriage counseling at the Defense Language Institute (DLI).
The chaplains at DLI have addressed concerns and provided some support to the local humanist community, but concerns remain about the nature of the mandatory counseling programs run exclusively through the chaplaincy. This is part of the military’s larger effort to treat chaplains as full-service, secular counselors or risk managers in addition to their religious duties.
This secular/religious conflict continues to create issues like this where the nonreligious are skeptical of chaplains who represent a faith-based perspective, especially when that faith-based perspective comes through in many programs that are nominally secular. It would be easy to say the chaplains are always wrong or that there is no problem at all in chaplain-run counseling programs, but neither of those claims reflect reality. This article will be continued with a further review of the Smalley program used at DLI and alternatives MAAF is pursuing to work with the military to ensure all service members are provided scientific and customized counseling programs. Only with continued dialogue between the chaplains and the currently unrepresented nontheist community can these issues or perceived issues be resolved.
Do you have counseling stories or similar issues in your area? Tell your story in the comments below or contact MAAF.
* It may sound objectionable that DLI requires premarital counseling. The decision may be made to make the training optional, but that option is not reviewed here.