Navy Chief of Chaplains on Humanist Jason Heap, Chaplain Wes Modder

The US Navy Chief of Chaplains, Chaplain (RearAdm) Margaret Kibben was the subject of a lengthy article at the Navy Times which summarized her tenure and her perspectives on the Navy’s chaplain corps. The reporter, Meghann Myers, did an admirable job of trying to craft an unbiased and well-researched article, and she gave Chaplain Kibben an opportunity to comment on two recent controversies involving Navy chaplains: a lawsuit by Jason Heap, as he seeks to become a “humanist chaplain” in the military, and the firing and subsequent exoneration of Chaplain (LtCmdr) Wes Modder over alleged comments regarding sexuality.

Regarding Heap, the article notes he and Jason Torpy’s MAAF rely upon the fact around 23% of the US military list “no religious preference” in their religious identification as support for their claim that atheists/humanists require their own chaplain. As has been discussed here several times before, this is a misleading claim first manufactured by Torpy more than five years ago, in which he misrepresented demographics to conflate “no preference” with “non-theist.”

It seems Chaplain Kibben has been read into Torpy’s data manipulation [emphasis added]:

[Kibben] said she believes that the failure of many to identify a religion doesn’t mean that they lack spiritualism and faith.

When a person says, ‘I’m no religious preference,’ they did not say they’re an atheist,” she said. “They just said, ‘I’m not sure I necessarily identify as a particular faith group.'”

She declined to say what she thought about humanist chaplains or the lawsuit, but she seems at least somewhat informed on the background.

Regarding Modder, Myers asked Chaplain Kibben a rather leading question about

whether Modder could be trusted by leadership or sailors given past accusations against him

In a situation like this, the interview subject really has three choices: A clear “no comment,” a statement expressing displeasure with her subordinate, or a statement supportive of her subordinate. Kibben may have chosen option 1.5:

Kibben declined to elaborate on his case specifically.

“We’re going to have chaplains who get in trouble or do things we’d prefer they didn’t do, Wes Modder not withstanding,” she said.

Her response is somewhat inarticulate.  The phrase “not withstanding” normally means something to the effect of “in spite of,” but without further context it isn’t clear if she is including Modder in the group that does “do things we’d prefer they didn’t do,” or the group that doesn’t.

While no one would have expected a glowing endorsement, it would have been nice to see a slight effort to mention, for example, the positive values of “diversity” in religious belief, something so often trumpeted when it involves virtually every other characteristic except religion. Even a reminder about chaplains, their endorsers, and religious liberty would have been a preferable clarification to the situation.  Instead, she leaves the hanging chad about “things we’d prefer they didn’t do.” Not things chaplains aren’t allowed to do, mind you — just things the Navy would prefer they not do.  Taken with a jaundiced eye, it comes across as though she was making a sideways reference to Modder specifically.

While a few people obviously took issue with Chaplain Modder’s comments, some may have forgotten that a great many US troops have exactly the same religious beliefs as Chaplain Modder. For the Navy to attempt to kick Modder out sends a chill throughout the DoD’s environment of religious freedom.

True, Chaplain Modder ultimately didn’t get kicked out of the Navy, but not a single Navy leader or spokesperson has even remotely indicated that was a positive outcome. In fact, some responses almost seemed disappointed.

Many people seem to have forgotten that religious liberty is protected precisely because some people will disagree with others. Offense is not something to be avoided. It is the natural outcome of the exercise of liberty, and that is a good — and very American — thing.