Category Archives: Chaplain

The Constitution and Military Christianity

Christian fighter pilots face a unique challenge in their roles as “government officials” and religious individuals.  The struggle is ongoing in large part because the American public is confused or misinformed about the correct relationship between religion and society.  Weak Christian responses to these public misperceptions have failed to reverse the resulting rise of secularism in America.

Misunderstandings of the proper role of religion in American society have 200 years of history behind them and center on a few simple words in the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

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The Christian Response

Case 1:

In 1996, an Air Force chaplain urged his congregation to participate in the “Project Life Postcard Campaign,” an attempt by the Catholic Church to persuade Congress to overturn President Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth abortion ban.  Military leadership believed that such actions constituted “political lobbying,” so chaplains were prohibited from encouraging their congregations to participate.  With the assistance of the Becket Fund, the chaplain sued and won in District Court in April of 1997. [Becket Fund report]

Case 2:

In 1999, an Air Force lieutenant trained as a missileer asked that he not be placed on alert with an officer of the opposite gender.  (This would require him to be in the cramped quarters of a missile control center for days at a time with only the company of the other officer.)  Because he felt that the potential for temptation would affect his commitment to his wife, he sought relief under Department of Defense regulations requiring religious accommodation.  Several commanders accommodated him; eventually, one revoked the accommodation and gave him an “unprofessional” rating on his OPR.  Fearing the OPR would unjustly hinder his career, the lieutenant appealed to a records correction board to have the OPR amended; they partially edited the “unsubstantiated” statements on the OPR.  Eventually, the lieutenant sued the Air Force with the assistance of the Becket Fund.  A year later (2003), the Air Force settled and removed the OPR and all references to it from his records. [Becket Fund report]

Case 3:

In late 2005 Navy Lieutenant (Chaplain) Gordon James Klingenschmitt, a 1991 USAFA graduate, went on a hunger strike near the White House to protest an effort to have him removed from the military for insisting on praying “in Jesus’ Name.”  He said he would maintain his hunger strike until the President signed an executive order codifying the chaplain’s right to pray in accordance with his beliefs.  After 16 days, the chaplain ended his strike when his commander wrote a letter stating he was permitted to pray in Jesus’ Name while in uniform. [Klingenschmitt personal website]

Case 4:

Today, two Air Force officers–a chaplain and an F-16 fighter pilot–have joined the defense of an ongoing lawsuit that has pitted the Air Force against Michael Weinstein, a 1977 US Air Force Academy graduate who claimed that his son had experienced the fruits of proselytizing evangelical Christian cadets and officers.  According to the Alliance Defense Fund, the two joined the Air Force defense because if Weinstein prevailed, “their ability to share their faith and to candidly discuss religion…would be in jeopardy.”  The fighter pilot stated that he felt he had the “right to discuss my faith without censorship or fear of retribution.” [ADF Report]

In the face of public scrutiny of religion in its ranks, it appears the military is slowly distancing itself from religion.  The initial Air Force religious guidelines told officers they could not use public expressions of faith, advocate a particular belief system, use “well-intentioned” expressions of belief, or have religious content in their emails.  While the first revision of those guidelines softened those stances, the potential that the Air Force could one day become anti-Christian now seems possible.  Christian officers must not only assess their actions in the light of regulations but also consider the court of public opinion.  An otherwise permissible action could still conceivably result in a detrimental news headline, official complaint, or Congressional investigation; even if a Christian was “acquitted” after a complaint, would the cost—to his professional career or personal witness—be worth it?  If even chaplains are investigated for religious offense, what is a Christian fighter pilot to do if he desires to have an active witness for Christ?  Read more

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