The US Army Restricts Chaplains to the Chapel’s Four Walls
As the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic increasingly restricted personal interaction, US military chaplains did what many of their civilian counterparts were doing and increased their “virtual” presence through online chapel services and videos. Chaplains who could no longer interact with their troops on the PT field, in the barracks, or in the halls — like Chaplain (Maj) Brian Minietta — found other ways to do so, including using their units’ Facebook pages.
Michael “Mikey” Weinstein did not like this, claiming that the presence of chaplains’ video messages on unit Facebook pages constituted command endorsement of the message and coercion of subordinates to those beliefs. According to Weinstein acolyte Lawrence Wilkerson, whose primary claim to fame is being the former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, these military chaplains were actually violating the US Constitution.
While laughable on its face, it would seem the US Army Chaplain Corps ultimately agreed. It provided guidance (PDF) to its chaplains on May 26th in which it instructed chaplains to keep “specific religious” messages off unit Facebook pages:
General encouragement can be placed on a unit webpage, but specific religious support content should be on a dedicated UMT, RSO, or Chapel webpage.
In fact, as the MRFF gleefully noted, the Chaplain guidance went a step further, saying content related to specific religions should be “one click away” even from the chapel Facebook sites [emphasis added]:
Any content in support of a specific religion should be “one click away” from the associated UMT, RSO, or Chapel home page – and content in support of a specific religion should never be displayed on a UMT, RSO, or Chapel home page.
On one hand, that restriction is utterly ridiculous, as it turns the chapel into little more than a link aggregator. Can you imagine walking into the chapel on an Army Fort and being told nothing other than the addresses of local churches? In that case, the chapel is no longer a chapel, and chaplains are no longer chaplains.
On the other hand, that guidance is largely moot. Most chapels already break up their social media pages by their services. For example, the Protestant service and the Catholic service may already have separate group pages; there may not even be a generic “chapel” page. That said, just like the post bowling alley, even those chaplains make occasional appearances on their unit websites to interact with their troops. Yet, unlike the bowling alley, the chapel is no longer allowed to promote its services on the unit site.
Consider that Mikey Weinstein objects to the Fort Sill chaplain appearing on the Fort Sill Facebook page, even though the two-minute video cites only Jaws and Mark Twain. In the last 10 seconds of the video, the chaplain says he is inspired by a Scripture verse — to which he does not give a reference. Weinstein says this is “proselytizing” and demands action:
“We demand that the army punish all those that are involved with this,” he said. “We prefer punishment by court martial and that’s what we’re going to be pushing for.”
Yet, oddly, Weinstein does not object to the Fort Sill Religious Support Office Facebook page having a video of a religious service on it. The guidance above says such content should “never be displayed” on an RSO site, yet Weinstein does not object…to the video of the Shabbat service. Why no court-martial for the Jewish service? Does Weinstein only find content from Christian chaplains objectionable, even when they only cite movies?
In theory, this guidance allows Army chaplains to still be seen on their unit social media pages, but they can only provide an undefined service of “general encouragement.” Given that Weinstein is quoting the guidance to object to Chaplain Nichol’s video at Fort Sill, it seems clear that in practice, Army chaplains are no longer allowed to be Army chaplains unless they’re within the four-walls of their own, very faith specific social media page.
This adds one more barrier between average US Army Soldiers and their religious support teams – which is exactly what Mikey Weinstein wants. But why, pray tell, is increasing the barrier between troops and their religious support a good thing? In Weinstein’s view, it “protects” non-religious troops from accidental exposure. In his mind, if religious troops are interested, they’ll have enough motivation to jump through the extra hoops to get that support. And if they’re not that motivated, who cares?
The problem with that logic is that the exercise of religious freedom is a human right protected by the US Constitution – the “freedom” to not be exposed to religious freedom is not. In other words, Weinstein – and the US Army – are happily making constitutionally-protected freedoms more difficult for no other reason than to appease loud critics.
(Of note, that same guidance warned chaplains not to engage with Weinstein [emphasis added]:
When contacted by entities…outside the Army, regarding Social Media posts or other Internet content, consult your local PAOs for advice and assistance, and never engage those outside the Army directly.)
As an aside, while the Army’s Chaplain Corps has made these changes, the Air Force and Navy chaplain systems are organized differently. Army chaplains operate in a more centralized fashion, while the Air Force and Navy chaplaincy are more decentralized, with decisions at the local level. That’s why an Army directive moved chapel services online in response to the pandemic, whereas the Air Force and Navy did not make Service-wide policy on local services. So while Weinstein will make hay trying to coerce the other services to follow the Army’s example, it will be a quixotic endeavor.
While concerning, the truly disturbing part of the Army chaplains’ guidance is its ultimate implications. If a chaplain cannot post a video on a unit Facebook page, why should a chaplain be allowed to provide a prayer at a unit ceremony? Is that not a specific religious event that should be confined to a defined religious service? Why should a chaplain be allowed to announce a religious service at a formation? Is that not the same thing as these banned videos, except in person? The underlying premise of the guidance is to place restrictions on chaplains’ abilities to interact with their troops in any ways but those of “general encouragement.” It is the camel’s nose under the tent of religious freedom in the US Army that Weinstein had only hoped for in his wildest fantasies.
All that said, it is worth remembering that chaplains are people, too, and they can be wrong. Presumably, the Army Chaplain Corps had a legal review of their policies before announcing them – though perhaps presenting them as “guidelines” was an effort to end-run accusations of impermissible restriction on religious exercise. (Note, too, that the “guidelines” cite no law, regulation, or policy. They’re just someone’s decision.) If they had a legal review, it, too, appears to have been wrong – as has been seen here before, JAGs can be wrong, too. If they didn’t have a legal review, one will undoubtedly be forthcoming, as Weinstein tries hard to push these policies and advocates for military religious freedom push back.
The great irony, of course, is that advocates for restricting liberty like Mikey Weinstein are trying to use the arm of the government to advance their cause. On the other side of the debate, advocates of liberty do not want government intervention; they simply want the freedom to exercise their God-given, and government-protected, rights. If Weinstein and his acolytes were on the side of truth, they would have nothing to fear.
And yet, Mikey Weinstein is afraid.
Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate.
– Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom