Retired Chaplain Norris Burkes Admits Giving Bad Guidance
One of the roles of a military chaplain is to advise commanders on the religious rules and rights of both the commanders and their subordinates. Retired Air Force Chaplain Norris Burkes recently tried to capitalize (again) on his military career by publishing an awkwardly worded article in which he admitted giving bad advice.
Burkes told the story in prose:
“What’s this about, Chaplain?” asked the USAF squadron commander.
“It’s the fish, sir.”
“Yes sir,” I said, pointing toward the wall…Constructed of bent wood, it was a 3-foot-wide outline of a fish…
“Ah, the Fish,” he said. “It reminds me of Jesus’ teaching for us to be fishers of men.”
Aware we were both Baptist, he asked, “Do you like it?”
“I like it…,” I said, slamming the pronunciation of first person, I…
“I think some airmen find it intimidating.”
This is where the poor writing of Burkes’ article makes it difficult to understand. He ultimately makes two separate insinuations: One is that it is wrong for the fish to be hanging on the wall of a commander’s office. The other is that this commander explicitly commended the Christian faith to his subordinates while they were being reprimanded.
Burkes interrupts the story of the fish [emphasis added]:
Two airmen — one an atheist and the other Wiccan — told me how the commander had recently reprimanded them for a minor infraction. During the course of the scolding, the commander suggested that the airmen might call upon the Christian faith to stay out of future trouble.
There is a great deal of missing context — and it’s also a third party recollection — but for the sake of clarity let’s just allow that such a conversation, as portrayed and assumed by Burkes, was inappropriate on the part of the commander.
Oddly, Burkes never explains how the commander responded to that accusation of misconduct. Instead, in his story Burkes returns to the fish — and only the fish:
“I have a right to hang that on my wall. No one can say I don’t — not you, not our commander, not even our president…” [Burkes replied:]
“You have the right to practice your religion, but using oversized religious objects to do so will likely incite complaints that you disrespect the right of your airmen to be nonreligious.
“Bottom line, sir. Some folks are going to read your fish as an official goal to hook them into converting to Christianity.”
So which is it? Did the commander actually say something proselytizing, or was it the mere presence of the fish? The two are very distinct issues. Even if a commander can’t proselytize in the context of Burkes’ assumed-to-be-true story, the fish is outright permitted. Chaplain Burkes should know better than to imply it would properly “incite complaints.” Burkes should have been just as keen to counsel the Airmen on tolerance as he was the commander on being “intimidating.”
Either Burkes’ column edited out important details, or his color commentary got the best of him, and the commander didn’t proselytize: He just had a fish on his wall that subordinates didn’t like.
Importantly, though, Burkes confession reveals an insight into the military that has been frequently denied. There is no policy that says commanders cannot have religious items in their offices, on their walls, or on their desks. In fact, military policies and the law actually permit them to do that very thing. (Granted, this is an old story, and recently updated language in the law makes that protection more clear.)
Yet every now and then someone will come forward and say they were told not to have a Bible on their desk or a fish on the wall of their office or some such other restrictive advice regarding religion. The defensive response from the military has been that it supports the religious exercise of its troops and no such policy or rule actually exists.
Well, sure, but that doesn’t mean that’s not what they were told. Just last year an officer was told he couldn’t have a Bible on his desk and an investigation had to ensue for people to read the policies and realize they were wrong.
Similarly, a General officer was once told not to go to chapel because it might offend his subordinates. An outgoing commander once told an officer he was allowed to — but shouldn’t — have a Bible on his desk, because, like Burkes’ easily offended Airmen, someone might be intimidated. All of this “advice” was given despite military policies to the contrary. It was an unofficial restriction on religious liberty perpetuated by self-censoring US commanders and officers who thought they knew better than those who wrote the laws and policies governing religious liberty and expression.
One final note. Burkes ends his article with this lament:
“My bottom line,” [the commander] finished, “is that the fish stays on my wall, Chaplain.”
And so it did, at least until the commander retired a few years later. But by then, I fear he’d scared away schools of fish.
There Burkes reveals his blinders. Burkes sees the world through a filter of offense rather than encouragement. He sees a world where a Christian symbol can be neutral or negative — but he ingores the potential for positive.
What of the “schools of fish” who saw the commanders office and were encouraged by it? What would Burkes say to them — or do for them? It seems not much.
Much of the US military has spent the month of June celebrating sexuality — including the sexuality of superior officers. How is it that knowing how a senior officer or commander likes to have sex is appropriate, but knowing they go to church on Sunday isn’t?
That’s the state of morality in the world today.
As has been noted before, it is disturbing to think of the way religious troops were treated with Chaplain Burkes as the one who was supposed to be helping them exercise their faith and protect their liberties.
It seems Chaplain Burkes preferred to be a discouraging influence, rather than an encouraging representative of faith.