Chaplain Sonny Hernandez Criticized for Column on Religious Freedom

Last week US Air Force Chaplain (Capt) Sonny Hernandez published a column at Barbwire.com entitled “Christian Service Members: Avoid Supporting or Accommodating Evil!” The article has been widely criticized — from the much-expected Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, to Chelsea Clinton, to multiple other sites — by those who have taken issue with Hernandez’s views on Christianity and military religious freedom.

Some of the criticisms are laced with the vitriol of those who despise Christianity in any form but milquetoast — so it wouldn’t matter what Hernandez said. Some of the criticisms are more academic. But almost all call for Hernandez’s head — or at least a pro forma “investigation” followed by a foregone dismissal. While Hernandez may have said — and did say — things that seemed illogical, theologically questionable, or wrong, nothing he said was illegal or otherwise a violation of any rule, regulation, or law. Those who are attacking his ability to serve in the US military — that so-called bastion of tolerance and diversity — have no leg upon which to stand.

Yet stand they tried.

Newsweek did little more than provide a platform for Mikey Weinstein, who it quoted as saying

the article “blatantly and indisputably advocates the subordinating of the U.S. Constitution to his personal Christian ideology and violated his Oath of Office…”

The implication that Hernandez would improperly “subordinate” the government to his faith was seconded by Tony Carr at his John Q. Public blog (which normally specializes in criticizing the Air Force). In an article entitled simply “Idiot.“, Carr said

[Hernandez] seems to be saying if you choose the Constitution over the Almighty, your soul is lost. This is an idiotic notion not just incompatible with service, but quite literally un-American.

Besides needing to look up the word “literally,” Tony Carr apparently joins Weinstein in the group of people who think God is subordinate to government — a paradox if there ever was one. If God isn’t above government, then government should be god. It’s moronic to assert that a Supreme Being should be subordinate to the creations of His created — a statement that applies equally to any of the Abrahamic religions and philosophically to just about any other religion. One cannot simultaneously believe in an Almighty and His subservience to Man — at least, not while remaining coherent.

Most of the other criticisms of Hernandez similarly made little sense.  Some attacked positions not taken. (He did not categorically say Christians were “worshipping Satan” or denying others their exercise, nor did he encourage others to violate their oaths.)  Others were self-contradictory. For example, Chelsea Clinton’s Tweet of the Newsweek article said mystically

Ummm…No. And, the First Amendment.

The First Amendment protects the right of American citizens to exercise their religion without government interference. That’s precisely the right Hernandez was exercising. Similarly, nothing Hernandez did or advocated resulted in the US government interfering with the rights of others. So Chelsea’s constitutional reference actually supports Hernandez.

Often missed was the fact Chaplain Hernandez was making a theological argumentnot a political or military one. Not once did he say something would make someone a good Airman, officer, or even citizen. Rather, he used the (controversial, yet absolutely sectarian) term “true Christian.”

Shockingly, the normally obtuse Chris Rodda, Mikey Weinstein’s research assistant, was one of the few who didn’t miss this important point, as she summarized Hernandez’s “egregious” statements thusly:

[Hernandez told] service members that merely supporting the constitutional right of their fellow service members to practice the religion of their choice means that they have been deceived and serve Satan, and as his headline says, are supporting evil.

Though she likely didn’t mean to, Chris Rodda clearly communicated Hernandez’s argument as a purely theological one — and in so doing, she awkwardly undermined her vitriolic boss. After all, a theological argument by a civilian pastor and military chaplain is explicitly protected by both statute and military policy — and the courts have agreed (see Rigdon v Perry).

For his part, outspoken atheist Hemant Mehta trumpeted a common, if woefully incorrect, accusation:

Christians like Hernandez have plenty of power in the military…

By law, chaplains have no authority whatsoever. They have “rank without command” (10 USC Ch 345 §3581). Their “power” is resident only in their personalities and credibility.

The greater point is Chaplain Hernandez said nothing illegal or impermissible, despite the weeping and gnashing of teeth to the contrary.  Some of his critics, like the MRFF’s Chris Rodda, essentially admitted as much.

That said, the source of much of the criticism of Hernandez may simply be that his article is hard to understand. It is written in the somewhat thick language of an academic, and it is at times inarticulate and even seemingly self-contradictory.

For example, one of Hernandez’s statements most quoted by critics says

True Christianity produces a…devotion to a local, Bible-believing church, and not a military chapel…

Counterfeit Christians in the Armed forces…have no local church home…

This statement seems illogical coming from a chaplain who has led the very military chapel congregations he now describes as “counterfeit” — a seeming contradiction that, left unexplained and unjustified, contributes to the confusion throughout the article. To that point, Hernandez’s concluding paragraph ends with the admonition that “the free exercise of religion is for “all,”” even those “whose beliefs [do not] concur with” his — and, yet, his critics still allege his article claimed he believes the opposite.

So while Chaplain Hernandez may have offended (or confused) many people, a minister of faith who expresses a theological tenet is not restricted in his speech or his religious exercise, even if he is associated in some capacity with the government. His critics may not like what he’s said (or even like him), but they have not demonstrated his conduct has made him “unqualified” to serve in the military, as they allege. Rather, in going beyond criticism of his ideas and demanding adverse action against him they’ve done little more than demonstrate their intolerance toward those whose beliefs differ from their own.

Because what better way to support tolerance and diversity than to silence and expel those who are different than you?

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24 comments

  • Chaplains have a dual status. They are both religious professionals, representing their endorser and responsible to be faithful to the teachings and practice of that endorser. They are also staff officers, and have the obligation of ensuring that all service members can exercise their first amendment rights. A chaplain is obligated to “perform or provide,” or, “provide or provide for.” Sonny seems like he doesn’t want to do that part of the job. That’s the issue. He can’t just say, “I can’t help people do false worship, because I disagree with their beliefs,” as he appears to in this article. That’s his job as a staff officer. He doesn’t have the “religious freedom” to deny to others their religious freedom, when his job exists specifically to facilitate their freedom. It’s about them, not about him. If he doesn’t understand this, he better get another job.

  • Anonymous Imperial Patriot

    It was a pretty bad article, and Chaplain Hernandez appeared to be taking a leaf out of the Progressive-handbook by embracing the idea of suppressing the rights of others.

    The fact that he called several people “counterfeit Christians” is also quite problematic because he does not have a right to decide which type of Christian is true or not; that is the Almighty’s right.

    • He has a God Given Right.We will be Judge by God s Word John 12:48.there only one true christian, one faith ,one lord,Read the Bible Before Condemning Him.Your are known by your Fruit.

  • A Chaplains duty, is to minister to the needs of ALL service members. Capt Hernandez, has demonstrated that he is singularly incapable of doing so and should resign his commission immediately. He is free to practice his religion, the 1st Amendment grants that right. He is NOT free, to ostracize troops whose beliefs are different from his. His OATH, states that. If he finds the two incompatible, he must choose which is his priority.

    SSG Dirks

    • He didn’t deny anyone of their faith ,he stated how the bible says a christian is to live.not other faiths .Read his article and read the bible to see if he is right in what he said .sounds like you are making a judgement without the facts.

  • Is the Christian Chaplain to deny religious services and degrade other faiths; when those are coming to him for help?

    Surely, if he were a civilian chaplain, he wouldn’t have this issue.

    The purpose of chaplaincies, according to the Department of Defense, is to “accommodate religious needs, to provide religious and pastoral care, and to advise commanders on the complexities of religion with regard to its personnel and mission, as appropriate. As military members, chaplains are uniquely positioned to assist Service members, their families, and other authorized personnel with the challenges of military service as advocates of religious, moral, and spiritual well being and resiliency.

    Chaplains in the military represent more than 200 different denominations. He is not doing his duty, then he can leave the military service, become a preacher and say what he wants.

    But for now, he is military officer and holds an official government representative duty. If he doesn’t feel that he can complete his duties, then he shouldn’t stay in that position.

    • A chaplain is a cleric (such as a minister, priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam), or a lay representative of a religious tradition, attached to a secular institution such as a hospital, prison, military unit, school, business, police department, fire department, university, or private chapel.

      Though originally the word “chaplain” referred to representatives of the Christian faith,[1][2] it is now also applied to people of other religions or philosophical traditions–such as the case of chaplains serving with military forces and an increasing number of chaplaincies at American universities

      looks like he holds his job in high estine for his fellow christians and military .any faith or religion person should hold to the truth in what they believe.sound like all these articles I’m reading are from people the don’t hold true to what they believe.he did not condemn others on what they believe and he truly as being a christian will love others but if they are evil or sinning he will not agree with the bad they are doing.

  • We get that you hate the MRFF but it’s time for you to admit defeat on this one. Read the comments above and if you still agree with Hernandez, perhaps you should leave the service since you have no respect for your commissioning oath.

  • I’m surprised that you are offering a defense, albeit a mild one, of Sonny Hernandez. Hard to imagine that anyone with a modicum of critical thinking ability could see this article as anything but an admission that Hernandez did not take his oath of office seriously (or perhaps took it deceitfully).

    Do you not count yourself among those he “offended (or confused)”?

    Are you so anti-MRFF that you will even stand with a Christian who is clearly in the wrong?

    Do you think his clearly stated position is not antithetical to his obligation as a commisikned officer in the United States Air Force?

  • CH (COL-R) Qd Collins

    [Redacted],

    I am saddened that it had to get to this point. I tried, Lord knows how I tried to get Sonny (and you) to understand the precipice that you were on, by trying to use the Chaplaincy as a mission field. As I told you previously “the role of the Chaplain is to perform or provide religious accommodation for the variety of the people”. In addition, as a staff officer, they are uniquely positioned to provide insight as well as opportunity in understanding various faiths. I am a born again, deeply spirit filled, retired Chaplain Colonel; whom both you and Sonny seemed to take great efforts to lambast me when I wrote exhortations to fulfill duty not personal mission. Yes, I advise the MRFF; because, it is the right thing to do. I have been through a lot and I must tell you that true love conquers all. I strongly encourage you and Sonny to practice love as it always yields positive results – even loving the person that just a few minutes earlier tried to kill you. What makes a Chaplain stand out in a positive way is when their charges know that their Chaplain loves them and will stand by them any way that it is possible. Not one single solitary Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine ever asked my religion in a time of crisis, they asked for me to calm the situation. Honor, Integrity and Faith – where do you stand?

    • Sonny is representing The office properly by his article ,but speaking of christians and i would say by his article he is one the bible ,the word of God he is saying it right.He is not using his own interpataion 2 peter 1 :20.A christian is christ like the old man sin is dead in a true believer.1John5:18

    • An Evangelical chaplain is also to obey his endorsing agency, and if they believe and obey the Great Commission, then they are to share the only hope for man is found in accepting Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.

      Chaplain Collins, you are a heretic, and not serving God but Satan by affiliating yourself with Mikey Weinstein and MRFF. Did not Jesus say that what does light have with darkness?

  • I have to agree with the general sentiments of the commenters here, CFP, but your take was about the only possible way to put lipstick on a very ugly pig.

  • JD — I did not miss the fact Chaplain Hernandez was making a theological argument, in fact, I understand exactly what he was saying (I know, weird coming from me…right?). However, he made a huge mistake and I think you know it.

    Unfortunately, his argument was really not appropriate along with the other statements he made:

    1. True Christianity produces a love for God, a hunger for His Word, fervent prayer, devotion to a local, Bible-believing church, and not a military chapel. ** Military members go to the chapel exactly for love for God, a hunger for His Word, fervent prayer, devotion to a local, and Bible-believing church. Is he implying a Military chapel does not support this?

    2. Counterfeit Christians in the Armed forces will appeal to the Constitution, and not Christ. ** On my, does Sonny know the Military does not “appeal” to the constitution, but supports and defends it? Why on earth is this hard to understand? This is one reason why we have separation of church and state.

    3. “We ‘support everyone’s right’ to practice their faith regardless if they worship a god different from ours because the Constitution protects this right.” ** YES, we, YOU, took an oath of office and said “so help me god” yourself Sonny…did YOU LIE?

    4. “Do you appeal to the Holy Scripture, or the US Constitution as an ultimate standard to measure your conduct?” ** The Constitution is NOT a guide for conduct to measure against Sonny; the first 10 amendments to the Constitution list the basic rights of Americans. These amendments are known as the Bill of Rights…again, which you have sworn to defend Sonny. The UCMJ is one code of conduct, and here is another: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/readings/code_of_conduct.htm

    I could go on, but if my reply makes it to JD’s blog, I think we can affirm Sonny’s article was not appropriate given the audience had and likely lost.

    • He s Doing What GOD would Do .Keep up the Godly work .
      If the gospel be hid it is hid from them that are lost.
      1 john 5:18 ,1john 3 :6-10,isa59:1-2,John 9 :31

  • Pretty sure his oath of office was explicitly to the constitution, not the Bible, Koran, or Torah. Not to mention the duty of a military chaplain is to minister to ALL service members. The chaplain is completely wrong and if this is his belief he should resign his commission.

  • “If people but knew their own religion, how tolerant they would become, and how free from any grudge against the religion of others.”
    ― Hazrat Inayat Khan

    “The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, who language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.”
    ― Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations

    “In order to have faith in his own path, he does not need to prove that someone else’s path is wrong.”
    ― Paulo Coelho

    “It is no longer a question of a Christian going about to convert others to the faith, but of each one being ready to listen to the other and so to grow together in mutual understanding.”
    ― Bede Griffiths

    “Tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It’s about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.”
    ― Timothy J. Keller

  • Good, incisive article, yet persist in the erroneous idea that the First Amendment guarantees everyone, or anyone, the free exercise of religion. It does no such thing. The First Amendment simply states that congress (the federal law making body) shall make no law, etc. because religious issues were under the exclusive, internal matters of the states of which all were confessing Christian republics subject to Christian laws and customs.

    • I think you missed the part….”or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” Ithamar. It is understood that this means that the law makers must “leave us and our religious belief, or no belief, alone…and that means everyone”. I’m not aware there were “states” confessing Christian republics subject to Christian laws, but it could have been a thing during the darker ages (thats pre-internet y’all).

      The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 is a United States federal law that “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected”. It requires the federal government to demonstrate a compelling state (I think 21 states) interest to restrict a person’s free exercise of religion. This act has caused great consternation and is considered un-american because it allows conservative christians to discriminate against LGBT’s or others they disagree with, so they say anyway. I’ve not run into this but I know a few that have…they moved elsewhere.

  • I’m not here to defend or criticize the Chaplain, though I think he is wrong. I’m just wondering what happened to Christianity’s observance over the centuries of Jesus’ precepts of compassion, understanding, and forgiveness.

  • Personally, as a religious Jew , I can’t stand nor agree with the rants of atheist Michael Weinstein and his MRFF minions. However I am concerned when chaplains like Captain Hernandez make such bizarre statements presumably defending his Christian faith. On a battlefield would he refuse the request of, G-d forbid, a dying Jewish service member to say the Vidui, our prayer of confession? Or the shahada for a Muslim service member? As I understand it a chaplain sees to the spiritual welfare of ALL under their care, irregardless of their own religious beliefs. If Captain Hernandez can’t do this, maybe he should step down

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