Two Chaplains have recently come under fire from Michael Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. One of Weinstein’s surrogates, Jason Leopold, has distributed a commentary on two Chaplains, one who was in Afghanistan, one in Iraq. Both were videotaped in TV shows, and it is the content of those videos with which Weinstein finds offense. [While one video is now on DVD, the other is not currently available, so the precise content may also be in dispute. (For part of his evidence, Weinstein provides a short clip of a video camera filming a TV screen.
In one, Travel the Road, produced in 2006, Chaplain (Capt.) Brad Hanna is singled out for saying he had talked to Afghanis about Christianity and was hopeful about a "revival." (Based on available video, Leopold appears to misquote Hanna as saying he talked to Afghanis about "converting to Christianity.")
The other, Chaplain (Capt.) Charles Popov, is accused of "illegally promoting evangelical Christianity" in the Discovery/Military Channel's God's Soldiers that aired in October. He is singled out for "blessing" a group of soldiers before they go out on patrol and talking to a group of soldiers about the application of Biblical concepts to military service (in Romans 13).
Weinstein has been quoted as saying, in response, that
[Popov] and his approving Army superiors are the quintessential poster-child for treason; yes treason, of aiding and abetting our enemies.
The problem for Weinstein, though, is that the recorded and publicized words of both Chaplains are actually not in violation of any standing regulations. In fact, they are protected by them.
Michael Weinstein has frequently said that he is in a litigious crusade to force Christians in the military to ‘follow the rules.’ For that reason he often demands that offenders be court-martialed under the guidelines of military regulations. However, the undercurrent of Weinstein’s campaign has been far more reaching. Late last year he admitted that his intent was not to hold military Christians to the rules, but to change the rules themselves. He said that current military regulations governing the conduct of religious adherents in the military, which allow the Chaplains to act as they do, ”are in severe disrepair and are, in fact, unconstitutional.”
Thus, with regard to the actions of the Chaplains, there are several rules Weinstein would like to see change. For example, JP 1-05 says that “Military commanders are responsible to provide for the free exercise of religion.” The Supreme Court has stated that military Chaplains are necessary to ensure free exercise in the US military (Abington v Schempp). And military regulations state that military Chaplains are free to adhere to the tenets of their faith. For example, in AFPD 52-1:
Consistent with DoD and Air Force policy, chaplains adhere to the requirements of their endorsing religious organizations while providing for the spiritual and religious needs of all Air Force members…
Weinstein appears to oppose the “Christian” content of the Chaplains’ speech. To mitigate his offense, Weinstein would have to prove that the military was still able to accomodate free exercise if it were to prohibit Christian Chaplains from speaking on overtly Christian topics. If he was successful, Weinstein could secularize the Chaplaincy into a “guidance counselor” role by prohibiting sectarian dialogue.
In reality, the situation is much simpler. For Chaplain Hanna, there is nothing wrong–by regulation or not–with speaking to locals about religion (even under General Order 1-A, which Weinstein cites). In fact, some briefings on the region indicated that locals would initiate discussions on religion because of the cultural importance of religion in the region, and the fact that locals tended to be curious about Christianity (the assumed religion of America, regardless of accuracy). Given that the Chaplain is a Chaplain, religion is an expected topic of conversation with any group of people. Speaking with someone about a religion does not inherently equal proselytizing, particularly if the topic was initiated by that person.
For Chaplain Popov, no reasonable regulation could prohibit pre-mission “blessings” or speaking to groups of soldiers on sectarian topics. In fact, if a religious adherent felt the need for spiritual support prior to a mission and was denied it because regulations prohibited such a “blessing,” it could be interpreted as a violation of the adherent’s free exercise. In addition, Weinstein appears to be making these assertions based only on the outside observation of the video; an LA Times blog seems to indicate the Chaplain was immensely popular with his unit, even in a case where he helped them mourn the loss of a Muslim fellow soldier. Perhaps ironically, the blog states
One topic is ever-present: how can a chaplain justify war with the biblical admonition against killing? Popov tries to distinguish between killing and murder, and notes that the Bible, in several places, condones violence against the wicked.
One potential answer to that question, of course, would be found in Romans 13, the very topic Weinstein called “treason.”
In any case, the US military defaults to a position that generally assumes the right to free exercise,
providing it will not have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline.
Nowhere has Weinstein proven that allowing religious adherents (and Chaplains, in particular) to exercise their religion, even in theatre, has an adverse impact on readiness, cohesion, standards, or discipline.
In fact, the location of the Chaplains when they made their statements is irrelevant; Weinstein’s complaint is simply that they made Christian statements as military officers; he would restrict Chaplains’ speech simply because they are in the military, which would obviously contradict both legal and Supreme Court precedent. In addition, were he successful, the result would be an unmanageable (and unConstitutional) governmental review of each Chaplain’s writing, speaking, and general religious tenets.
Based on the available evidence, it seems Weinstein’s accusations are typically sensationalized and unfounded. In the end, it appears these allegations are simply Weinstein’s latest salvo in his self-declared “war against Christians.”