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 argument — not 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?