5th Ranger Battalion Disciplines Evangelical Chaplain
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 evangelists, sent 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.