Do You Even Chaplain, Bro?

navycoverA Chaplain has been dismissed (pending appeal) from military service for evangelizing troops under his care. Kudos to the military for finally enforcing professional chaplain conduct. That having been said, this issue is still under investigation and the details are by no means all understood. So MAAF and readers should withhold judgement until and if relevant details come to light. The purpose of this article is to look only at the claims in two specific documents. The first is the “Detachment for Cause” letter from the Navy which dismissed Chaplain Modder from military service. The second is the legal response from Liberty Institute, a common defender of government evangelism. By reviewing the actual allegations, we might not have a full view of what occurred, but we will have an interesting case in point to consider.

First, from the Liberty response letter:

Chaplain Modder believes that anything less than his philosophy would be a disservice to the sailors and Marines with which he is entrusted, and would render him ineffective as a chaplain… he explains to them that when he conducts counseling, his role is to listen to the individual, and should they ask questions, he is compelled by his faith to answer from a biblical worldview.

So Chaplain Modder’s counsel, Liberty Institute, is admitting that Chaplain Modder refuses to provide anything but faith-based counseling. The letter also says Chaplain Modder will care for everyone, but he will only give the care he wants, without any concern for what those in his care want or need.

This double-speak – “I’ll help but only in a way that makes me feel comfortable.” – is not chaplaincy. Traditional ministry/clergy work allows for work only in a specific faith context. Chaplaincy is about the chaplain adopting discomfort for themselves in order to help others who may or may not share the same beliefs as the chaplain. That doesn’t mean the chaplain has to give counseling contrary to his or her beliefs, just that utilizing secular approaches, making referrals to others, or being silent are acceptable while pushing unwanted, unshared religious edicts on vulnerable military personnel is prohibited. The US military requires (DoDI 1304.28) chaplains to serve in a “pluralistic environment”. And while that wording is not specific enough to avoid these problems, the spirit of the regulation means that CH Modder’s condition – that he is compelled by his faith to answer for a biblical world view. That means he can’t work in a pluralistic environment so can’t be a chaplain. And that is exactly why he was dismissed, according to the Detachment Letter from the Navy.

“[he] was unable to provide counseling and attend to personal and relational needs outside of a specific faith group context.”

There were other allegations of discrimination, including that he told sexually active students they were ‘shaming’ themselves, that he said he could “save” gay people, and that he berated an unwed pregnant service member. Let me say this that if a person ASKs for faith-based counseling from a chaplain, the chaplain should be able to say pretty much anything. When asking for faith-based counseling, the person is requesting authentic advice from a certified expert in that faith, which the chaplain is. If the chaplain says what I or someone else might consider offensive, it’s irrelevant unless the endorsing agency objects. Due to church-state separation, the US and the military recognizes only the ecclesiastical endorser’s authority in faith-based discussions and activities. (There may be exceptions, but that is the spirit). The statements above and other discriminatory actions were apparently outside the context of confidential chaplain counseling sessions, which would presumably be protected by chaplain confidentiality.

“Based on the nature of the confidential communications between chaplains and the members they counsel… to expose [personnel] to LCDR Modder may be a recipe for tragedy.”

Correct. Chaplains are entrusted with vulnerable military personnel and as such must submit to certain professional restrictions when in the conduct of their professional duties. When the chaplain refuses to counsel from anything but his own faith perspective, be it Assemblies of God, Church of God, Islamic Society, Buddhist Churches, or Humanist Society, then that person ceases to be a chaplain and should be removed from any chaplain role.

The Liberty Institute gleefully roles out the “conscience protection” provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act. And they should do so. The conscience protection provisions were, in our opinion, intended by many of its supporters to create this loophole to permit and promote evangelism. However, lawmakers do get some credit for writing legislation carefully. The legislation reads (quoting from the Liberty Institute Letter):

Section 533(b) of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Pub. L. No. 112-239, is entitled “Protection of Chaplain Decisions Relating to Conscience, Moral Principles, or Religious Beliefs.” It states “No member of the Armed Forces may (1) Require a chaplain to perform any rite, ritual, or ceremony that is contrary to the conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the chaplain; or (2) Discriminate or take any adverse personnel action against a chaplain, including denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment, on the basis of the refusal by the chaplain to comply with a requirement prohibited by paragraph (1).”

I only quoted the entire portion because we can see clearly that this has NOTHING to do with Chaplain Modder’s situation. This means chaplains won’t be required to perform gay marriage, so it’s citation here is totally irrelevant. Liberty also quoted DoDI 1300.17, which reads, “In so far as practicable, a Service member’s expression of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) may not be used as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment.” Emphasis added is the part Liberty chose to omit in their letter to the Navy. It is “practicable” to use this service member’s anti-chaplain beliefs to remove him from his chaplain position. Liberty continues citing irrelevant laws and provisions that would be invalidated by the allegations that both Liberty and the Navy seem to agree about.

Again, this article refers only to the dismissal letter and response letter linked above. The facts don’t seem to be in dispute. Liberty asserts, if I understand properly, that chaplains should be able to harass unwed parents, sexually-active women, gay military personnel, and anyone else whom they deem sinful, and that chaplains should be able to do nothing but give biblical counseling exclusively. That’s how it seems from the two documents, but the full facts are not yet available. However, if we take the Liberty Institute assertion that CH Modder refuses to provide anything but biblical counsel, uncensored and uninvited, then we should support the Navy’s decision to remove him from chaplaincy, because no, bro, you don’t even chaplain.


3 Responses to Do You Even Chaplain, Bro?

  1. Pingback: Navy Chief of Chaplains Reinforces Pluralism - Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers | Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers

  2. LCDR Modder’s military paycheck and benefits is worth far more than he will get as a profession preacher. He threw away a career and a big income.

    I oppose chaplains since government subsidizing religion is unconstitutional. Still, in my military career I met some really great chaplains who did a great job. I am sure the military could find equally great people who do a great job without involving religion.

  3. A very well written, well thought out piece. Non-judgmental, for the most part. As a religious individual (and gay), I agree that Chaplains should be allowed to express their beliefs–in the context of their religious rites. When acting as a Chaplain, they are expected to minister to those not of their own faith, and should be helping service members become spiritually resilient, and able to handle the stressors of military life. Being spiritually resilient does not mean religion; rather it is a state of mind, in which one is in-tune with a higher purpose, whether that be God, Allah, Buddha, patriotism, devotion to duty, etc.

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