5th Ranger Battalion Disciplines Evangelical Chaplain

click to original article with flyer images and analysis

click to see original article with flyer images and analysis

A few weeks ago, a chaplain delivered a Christian sermon and materials as part of mandatory suicide prevention training to 5th Ranger Training Battalion. MAAF immediately contacted the command, alerted them to the situation, and asked for the opportunity to work toward a resolution at the lowest level. Receiving no immediate response and knowing that commanders were in attendance and silent to the violation, MAAF presented the issue to the public. The local command reacted with a letter of concern. Now, evangelical agencies have marshaled their forces to shore up their right to evangelize a captive military audience.

MAAF appreciates and commends the Ranger Training Brigade Commander (brigade is above battalion) for filing a Letter of Concern with the unit chaplain. One would hope that the chaplain, having been reminded of his responsibilities when given the privilege of addressing a captive audience, would be more appropriate in the future. One can expect that one “Concern” that is not a reprimand or a flag-officer letter would have no lasting effect, so long as the chaplain gets the message. We can also understand that this is not a simple mistake or error in judgment but a violation so obvious, affecting hundreds, that senior commanders really have no choice but to act. We hope the command will hold firm and ensure that not only this chaplain but the entire command is aware of when the chaplain is on “Church” time and when he is on military time.

The Liberty Institute, one legal arm of an Army of Christian Nation evangelistssent a letter to the Brigade Commander excusing the chaplain’s actions. “At no time did he consider himself to be in a “preacher” role,” and explaining all the things that happened in the rest of the briefing. As MAAF noted in the original article, the chaplain’s handout and statements promoting his own beliefs as superior to and to the exclusion of others are not justified by any shallow excuses. We are left with only this conclusion: “Great briefing chaplain, except for the part where you pushed your personal Christian beliefs on a captive population.” The “Letter of Concern” from the Brigade Commander (the first commander in the chain not present) should be directed to those subordinate commanders present as well because they were in a position to resolve the issue and chose not to.

CH Lawhorn rightfully led the briefing. As I often tell my atheist colleagues, chaplains have a wide range of secular duties, and this is one of them. This is why it’s so important that chaplains be honest brokers about religious expression. CH Lawhorn rightfully prepared a handout. The handout referenced the chaplain office as one of many resources, which is appropriate. CH Lawhorn rightfully referenced his personal experience, both with depression and in finding a religious solution to the problem. That’s not the issue. A personal anecdote is honest, personal, and helpful, even if it happens to be religious. CH Lawhorn rightfully made comments that there are many solutions and that was just his. However, these sorts of excuses are effective only when applied to personal stories in the appropriate context. CH Lawhorn erred (to put it kindly) when he 1) expounded upon Christianity in the briefing and 2) featured (not just included) Christian solutions, symbols, and counselors in the official briefing materials. By integrating Christianity into the briefing and by highlighting Christian symbology and counseling onto the flyer, he was promoting his personal beliefs and being biased rather than impartial in executing his duties. All you chaplains and not-chaplains should be who you are, but if you find yourself with a microphone, a photocopier, and a captive audience, then you need to execute the military mission not the church mission. (again, further detail on the handouts at the original article.)

The Liberty Institute letter targeted the whistleblower as well. The letter that explains that Chaplain Lawhorn (which MAAF did not name in the original article and names here only because he has allowed legal counsel to release his name) heard no complaints at the time, got an “ovation”, and would “happily sat down with this soldier and answered any questions or concerns”.  The obvious bias in this briefing was so great that no one should expect a junior soldier to challenge a command action when so many senior leaders have spoken. The Liberty Institute also uses the common tactic of reducing abuse of power to one individual being offended. Even MAAF, representing thousands of members, is frequently reported as just one individual. How can we expect a junior soldier, in the presence of an evangelizing senior officer and silent attending senior commanders, to show dissent openly? And even the Liberty Institute suggests the chaplain would only have provided a private, patronizing response with no public retraction. That would only solidify the violation as acceptable. The Liberty Institute is only trying to make their client the victim, when in fact the victim is the professional integrity of the military and its chaplaincy.

The evangelical legal and political forces of this country advocate for personal evangelical fiat and have redirected attention away from the professional integrity of the chaplaincy. Evangelicals purposely ignore context and assert that all religious expressions are equal, from the pulpit to city council chambers, to the front of a military formation. Chaplains are first given the privilege and responsibility of caring for military personnel. They are then given access to captive and vulnerable audiences, as in the case of this briefing. When chaplains sermonize in these situations, it is not merely an expression of personal conscience. It is an abuse of power and a violation of regulations. Only by utilizing the deliberately-created weapon of ‘conscience protection’ can they erode the integrity of the military to exploit military personnel. Secular groups like MAAF cannot and should not have to fight this fight alone. Professional chaplains, both civilian and military, must stand up against their wayward colleagues. If the profession of the chaplaincy cannot police the exploitative evangelism in its own ranks, chaplaincy will rot and die in the very near future.

Tom Carpenter of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy had this to say at the Huffington Post: “Mandatory troop formations have never been appropriate venues for religious proselytizing of any kind, an axiom seasoned chaplains have always respected.” He continues to the heart of the matter: “What these members of Congress [link added for context] don’t seem to understand, or more likely don’t care about, is that the military chaplaincy is different from ministry in the civilian world.” Carpenter gets to the heart of why, in my words, “conscience protection” is an insidious legal tool designed to allow military chaplains to use their power and authority to evangelize vulnerable military populations. We need chaplain professionals with the integrity to put their oath and their uniform above their personal evangelical desires. If not, they should have the integrity to return to traditional ministry.


30 Responses to 5th Ranger Battalion Disciplines Evangelical Chaplain

  1. Pingback: MAAF Preparing Response to DoD IG Conscience Protection Report - Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers | Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers

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  3. bjeanthejellybean

    It’s ironic that you say your organization is for “atheists AND freethinkers”, as you obviously don’t allow ‘freethinking’ unless it is thought you approve of.

    • 1) we don’t set military policy so it is irrelevant what we ‘allow’ and 2) you obviously didn’t read our position.
      It is correct to say that the name of the organization is only loosely related to our mission and operations. I hope you’ll investigate further.

  4. Our forefathers were Godley men and put God in every phase of our government the ten commandments Prayer in schools and they even had prayer in congress before each session of congress and our country became the mightiest nation earth Then in the sixties we started pushing God out of the picture and adopting all the previse attitudes
    and our country is now dying I know most of the people who don’t believe in god never read a bible in your life .Otherwise you would know Jesus Christ talked about these days when he said They shall deliver you up to be afflicted and shall kill you and you shall be hated of all Nations for my name sake Matthew 24,9 It’s just like Christ stated He who is not fore me is against me .

  5. JT
    When there was a school shooting in Ct. I asked you how you would console a parent that lost a child in the shooting if you were an atheistic “chaplain”. You never responded. Now you have another chance. What you gonna say now “pastor”!

    Do you believe that separation of C & S is in the Constitution?
    gary sheldon

    Is it good policy to limit what a chaplain can preach from The Word of God?
    Would you limit the work of a fire fighter from rescuing your son or daughter from a roaring inferno because that fire fighter serves Jesus Christ and believes in His finished work on the cross is sufficient for salvation and all that that entails? Will you monitor this inquiry out of existence because you cannot respond?
    gary sheldon
    Prescott Az.

    • 1) A humanist chaplain would offer comfort that best comforted the individual, which may be prayer or scripture in the case of a Christian. If the person had a science-based world view, references to the child’s life, fond memories, the good times when they were alive, an honest assessment of the tragedy, and turning the tragedy into lessons learned for a better world could all be comforting. In each case, referrals to traditional clergy who share the same beliefs or to mental health professionals would also be warranted. Chaplains should be willing and able to help anyone on the terms of the person in need, not only on the chaplain’s terms. But this is a case of a chaplain performing official military training to a captive audience, so tailored, faith-based support is inappropriate because it’s not an optional or one-on-one situation.
      2) separation of church and state is in the Constitution, right beside the internet and the Air Force and the right to privacy.
      3) If chaplains are preaching to their flock, then limits are problematic. In cases of bigotry against, for example, gays, women, racial minorities or other protected groups, the line blurs if it’s in a military chapel or by a chaplain in uniform. But setting aside hate speech, we can agree as a general rule that it is bad to to limit chaplains when they are preaching to an opt-in group of those who want to hear their preaching. However, in a mandatory suicide-prevention briefing, there should be no preaching. That’s not why they were given privileged access to military personnel in uniform during their official government duties.
      And MAAF has no problem with Christians serving as firefighters or military personnel or chaplains. In the article you’ll see clear leeway for personal religious speech even in official duties, so long as we all agree that ‘preaching’ is unacceptable. In this case, the chaplain didn’t ‘cite’ or ‘mention’ religion as some media would have us believe. He ‘preached’ by any definition and was gently reminded to preach in church but not in mandatory briefings. That is an appropriate response.

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  9. I support this Chaplain. First off, this is not a captive audience. The men and women are free to leave at any time and it has not been since the draft that men and womnen have been forced to serve. Second, demonstrating what worked for him is not a violation of policy. If you choose not to hear his message due to YOUR closed mind, then that is up to you. Further more, I find your site offensive in that you peddle the same so called dirt you complain about. Attacking religeon does not lend support to your cause but further alienates it. To meet an express our views without posting or negatively attacking each other creates understanding. Correct yourself before you attempt to correct others.

    • mandatory briefing. contract service can’t just be ended. he didn’t just demonstrate what worked for him. this site, however, is voluntary and entirely optional.

      • So what YOU are saying is that it is good for you but not others. Have you even considered the hundreds if not thousands of Soldiers you hurt because of your atheist agenda? Once again you speak of bias and biggotry but it doesnt apply to you. Or do you just adhere to do as I say and not as I do principles? You ask that the Army clean up its act but you refuse to clean up yours. You ask that others be harmed so you can push an agenda that does not help but hurts others and you offer no viable substitute. There is an old saying ” dont throw stones when you live in a glass house!”

        • I didn’t say any of those things. This is the website of a private charity. The Army is the Army. Very different organizations with very different rules. However, Humanist Chaplains in civilian and hopefully soon in the military context, are expected to adhere to the same standards we expect of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists currently serving as military chaplains. The only issues that come up are very occasionally with a certain subset of Christian chaplains. But we’ll keep an eye out if non-Christians ever have an issue.

      • Firstly, we value the science-based mental health programs offered through the military and civilian agencies. We aren’t as eager to mix humanist values into whatever we do (aka Christian counseling centers, Christian coaches, clergy-as-psychiatrists) but we do have some tailored support. But a few things that would have been inappropriate for this mandatory briefing but that would be appropriate for chaplain referral for nontheists or people seeking a nontheistic solution are below.

        RET/CBT – This is really a mainstream mental health technique but it was developed by 1971 Humanist of the Year Albert Ellis, so its practitioners are part of referrals.
        seculartherapy.org – for nonreligious counselors who would also have a tailored approach for humanist clients.
        and http://recoveringfromreligion.org/ for those who are leaving religious solutions behind and need transitional support.

        Meaning-making is a core defense against suicidal thoughts.
        noimetics – http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/rethinking-psychology/201112/the-noimetic-view-meaning
        logotherapy – http://www.logotherapyinstitute.org/

        And for grief support specifically – http://www.griefbeyondbelief.org/
        for substance abuse specifically – smartrecovery.org

  10. As a chaplain myself, I can tell you we get asked to teach these classes a lot. There are still not very many qualified trainers in most Battalions. Usually, the requirement to do this type of training comes with little or no notice, so coordinating a secular trainer outside of the unit can be difficult.

    The main issue is the chaplain deviated from the Army approved script. We can make referrence to a higher power, but we are to avoid evangelizing. I tell my soldiers in those environments that “You should leverage whatever you hold sacred. Whether it is religious, family, or nature. Whatever it is, you should leverage that source to support you in your time of need.” My athiest soldiers have never found offense by stating it that way.

    Don’t judge all chaplains by the few who do not understand AR 165-1 and their Title X responsibilities. Some of us do value non-Christians.

    • Thanks so much for speaking up. I make almost the exact same argument you do to some (even Christians) who want to scuttle the chaplaincy because of issues like this. We shouldn’t underestimate the seriousness of the problem but we shouldn’t overestimate either. I hope you’ll check the MAAF chaplain outreach program (front page center of the site) and reach out to get materials for your office.

      • Thanks, Jason. I have looked at the materials. I have had difficulty getting a Bible study started, organization is not my strong suit, but MAAF and a senior chaplain have inspired me to try and set aside time for an Atheist/Humanist group. Not sure what I would call it, or even what the mission statement would be. However, I want to start them both at the same time to show fairness to both believing and un-believing soldiers.

        If I can get the group going, I might try to see if I can get one of them assigned to be a Distictive Faith Group Leader. That would allow them, under my supervision, to provide something akin to a religious service.

        • Sounds great. There’s years of history behind that and we have a whole program. No need to ‘wing it’. We should work closely together as we very well may have a group in the area ready. We have all the DFGL paperwork as well. We don’t expect chaplains to whip up humanist groups from scratch. Lean on us to help. Check out ‘Chaplains Click Here’ at the top and use the contact form to send in a message with your contact info. Then we can pick up the discussion from there.

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  12. I’m not sure what to make of this.
    This is their side of the story:

  13. Pingback: Military Punishes Chaplain for Referring to the Bible in Suicide-Prevention Seminar

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  15. Chaplains shouldn’t be involved in stuff like this. Their so-called “secular duties” need to be severely cut. They were only pushed into this role because there was a lack of trained counselors/therapist. And then people mistakenly assumed that chaplains are automatically qualified for it. Most aren’t.

  16. Shouldn’t soldiers also be given the “conscience protection” allowed to chaplains? A person’s personal beliefs should allow them to seek guidance from other sources than the chaplaincy.

  17. [Psa 53:1] The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good.

  18. Pingback: Army Punishes Chaplain for Mentioning Faith | God and Country

  19. Pingback: Ranger Suicide Prevention Becomes Christian Sermon - Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers | Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers

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