Congress Asks Tough Questions of Military Chaplain Chiefs

As previously noted, the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel heard testimony from several witnesses on religious freedom in the military after the DoD’s recent changes to accommodation policy.

The Stars and Stripes noted that while many have focused on ‘turbans and beards,’ Congress didn’t:

Accommodation for minority religions was not the main concern of the primarily Republican House members present Wednesday, however. Many of their questions centered around allegations that free expression of faith by Christian believers was being suppressed…

Instances of Christians being told to be careful how they express their religions are frequent, [Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss.] said.

“We get the same answer we continually get, and that is, ‘This is an isolated incident, it will not happen again,’” Nunnelee said.

All the witnesses, including Ms Penrod and deputy/head chaplains from all three services, said they had no evidence that any person had been discriminated against because of their faith — nor did they have any evidence of the opposite set of accusations, that anyone had been “inappropriately” proselytized by fellow troops or chaplains.

In other words, those testifying to Congress on behalf of the DoD seemed completely unaware — at least officially — of any issues of religious freedom in the military, despite media stories and statements of Congressmen to the contrary.

Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) asked a series of pointed questions about policy — questions that almost certainly spoke to specific incidents in public media.

For example, Lamborn specifically directed a question to Air Force Vice Chief of Chaplains (BGen) Bobby Page, saying

“Chaplain Page, should chaplains be free to write public essays about a faith teaching and the tenets of their personal faith in particular?”

With a smile, Chaplain Page replied:

“Absolutely.”

That was almost certainly a reference to the Air Force’s censorship of Chaplain (LtCol) Kenneth Reyes, a decision that wasn’t reversed until advocates for religious liberty peppered the Air Force with demands for explanations — resulting in far more negative press than the original censorship.

Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler of Missouri asked US Army Chief Chaplain (Gen) Bailey an interesting question. Given that the law now protects religious expression in the US military, she asked for an example of what wouldn’t be allowed:

Can you give examples of an expression of religious belief…that is considered to be borderline inappropriate?

Chaplain Bailey provided a response that seemed to surprise even the Congresswoman:

A statement that would indicate that their religious beliefs are better or have more importance than another belief system…or state in some sort of way that their God or higher being…would be supreme over anything else…that would be a wrong statement to make.

Congresswoman Hartzler then clarified, essentially asking if a Christian could express the basic Christian tenet their “God or higher being…would be supreme.” Chaplain Bailey either backpedaled or had misunderstood the original question:

“That’s perfectly ok for that individual to state what they believe.”

Chaplain Bailey qualified his answer by saying the individual would need to be sensitive to who was “around the area,” something the Army would help them understand through “training.”  The answer was awkward because the vast majority of US troops ascribe to (differing) faiths whose basic tenets include exclusive truth claims — for that matter, so do some atheists.  Chaplain Bailey’s original answer would seem to say it was “borderline inappropriate” for the majority of US troops to talk about the basic tenets of their faith.  The fact that it was “perfectly ok” but would still warrant “training” for sensitivity on the parts of the speakers presents a self-conflicting response from the chief of all chaplains in the US Army.

Congresswoman Hartzler expressed her hope that such “training” would not suppress the freedom Chaplain Bailey had just said they had.

One interesting exchange occurred over the censorship of Catholic chaplains, led in questioning by Congressman Tim Huelskamp. After reminding the witnesses they had said essentially said ‘nothing like this happened,’ Congressman Huelskamp brought up the 2012 military censorship of a Catholic message. Chaplain Bailey said the military’s review of the Catholic pastoral letter — resulting in one line not being read in military chapels — wasn’t censorship.  His reply left Congressman Huelskamp “frustrated:”

When the government demands something not be said and enforces that — again, every Catholic in America heard that one sentence unless you were in an Army installation, at Catholic mass…I believe that’s censorship.

Later at the Washington Post, the Washington Times, and One News Now.

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2 comments

  • You say: “The answer was awkward because the basic faith tenets of the three major world religions all make exclusive truth claims.”

    What do you consider to be the “three major world religions”? Worldwide, the third largest religion by population is Hinduism, which (at least in modern times) is universalist in character and does not make an exclusive truth claim. Just looking within the United States, the third largest religion is Buddhism, which similarly does not make an exclusive truth claim.

    • @Alex
      A fair critique of inarticulate wording. Rather than trying to explain the original intent, the text has been changed.

      The answer was awkward because the vast majority of US troops ascribe to (differing) faiths whose basic tenets include exclusive truth claims — for that matter, so do some atheists. Chaplain Bailey’s original answer would seem to say it was “borderline inappropriate” for the majority of US troops to talk about the basic tenets of their faith.

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