Mass invites to church unchecked in military units

truthprojectallpaxWhat is the purpose of command information systems? Is it for official business or is it an advertising service for Christian events? A common email to “All Personnel” email distributions is the call to worship services. Chaplains do provide services to the command and they should, as command staff, occasionally have access to systems, but it must be for the benefit of all personnel and must be careful not to promote one particular religious belief or religious belief in general.

Use of the “All Personnel” or any unit distribution is a privilege that must be taken seriously and used only within strict guidelines.

The Walking with Christ Bible Study is a five chapter study on five aspects of the Christian life; maturing in Christ, The Lordship of Christ, faith and the promises of God, knowing God’s will and finally walking as a servant. The bible study is every Wednesday at 1200 in the (room) located in the Chapel. [sent from Chapel Superintendent]

The email above was recently sent to all personnel in a deployed unit in southwest Asia. It was one of the more tame of several emails sent within a few days at that installation. All personnel, regardless of beliefs, were provided this email. The email was preferentially sectarian in nature because it focused on Christianity exclusively and provided detailed information. The email also had no truth in advertising because it did not explicitly state the faith perspective of the leader and event. Is this led by a Lutheran, Mormon, Pentecostal, Catholic or Humanist. All provide fundamentally different perspectives on the topics presented and no one should be surprised. The email did enjoy a chaplain signature block rather than a command or command secretary signature block, so that was appropriate. The last violation is sectarian bias with an excessive promotion of Christianity over others.

Gary Councell, endorser for Seventh Day Adventists and prior chaplain Colonel, reacted to the emails with the following personal* opinion: “I concur that all chaplain activities, events and programs should clearly identify the nature of the event and if sectarian in nature also identify the sponsoring faith. The concept of “Collective Protestant” as a religion may be a practical solution to the many and increasing numbers of Protestant faiths yet no such religion exists.  If it does in the military, then the government has been busy either establishing a religion – a rather clear Constitutional violation.” (emphasis his)
Councell suggested the following alternative wording which would provide an appropriate level of denominational truth in advertising:

A Bible study on Christian Discipleship will be offered at Alpha FOB Chapel, 1900-2000, every Tuesday.  The study will look at concepts of discipleship from a number of respected denominational theologians.  All faiths are welcome to the discussion led by Chaplain (Major) I. M. Gooder, endorsed by the Methodist Church.   

Or

Seventh-day Adventist worship services are offered at Camp Swampy Main Chapel, 0930-1200, every Saturday.  SDA Chaplain (CPT) R. U. Kind will be leading the services.  Adventists practice an open communion, and any soldier is invited to attend. 

MAAF provides some additional guidelines below, but adding this truth in advertising by identifying the denomination of the event and the leader (not just “protestant” or “Christian”) would go a long way. Unfortunately, the string of emails linked above is more representative.

The string of emails in this case is not isolated. MAAF deals quietly with these issues all the time. Many chaplains consider it their right to email everyone any time, and they have a well-documented bias toward Christianity exclusively. In order to be relevant in todays pluralistic military, we must have truth-in-advertising, true diversity of support, and true neutrality from the office of the chaplain. This is not to say any individual chaplain won’t continue to prefer and best-support their own denomination. That privilege to their own denomination should be a matter of their special abilities and training in that denomination not their bias against others or evangelical agenda.

In this instance, a concerning program called “The Truth Project” is offered. The Project is offered by Focus on the Family. On the agenda and in the email, the Project replaces history Christian nation revisionism, replaces secular government with Biblical law, replaces evolution with creationism, replaces gay-affirming relationship ideas with exclusive man-woman relationships, replaces modern psychology with original sin. The program also explicitly denigrates non-theistic beliefs and practices. All of these ideas would be opposed by many outside a certain sectarian context, some would directly violate military policy, and none should be promoted without qualification to through command channels to a general audience. This program challenges the very foundations of American values, denigrates the beliefs of all MAAF members, and arguably violates military policy.

The Truth Project is one of the most extreme examples of fundamentalism in the military. One would be naive to think such ideology is not present to some extent throughout the military. While such pervasive fundamentalism is concerning and may warrant further review, the only concern here is that it is being advertised to all personnel without qualification. This widespread stealth evangelism assumes all personnel should be exposed not only to “Christianity” but a certain brand of fundamentalist, Christian nation ideology. If interested personnel are to consider participation, they must have a clear, denominational indication of whom they are dealing with. This is a simple matter of truth in advertising.

This article focuses on chaplains, and chaplains must do the right thing, but it is ultimately for commanders to police the unit. Commanders have the final say in the chain of command to overrule chaplains who over-reach in their duties, and chaplains must bring the authority of their profession and senior chaplain leaders to ensure commanders properly execute policy.

* Special thanks to Chaplain Councell for offering a public comment. MAAF benefits from the advice and support of many senior chaplains anonymously. It is encouraging and gratifying when senior chaplains engage in dialogue, especially when they are willing to offer public comment, for or against our policies.

Addendum: Proposed guidelines for religious emails to ALL PERSONNEL distribution lists:

  1. from the chaplain (not the commander, commander’s secretary, or any non-chaplain staff)
  2. non-sectarian language (there must obviously be some, but no scriptural references, evangelical mottos, prayers, or encouragement to faith). Free speech would apply to a great extent for personal emails and signature blocks, but for the content of a mass email, sectarian language is inappropriate.
  3. denominational identification / truth in advertising (identify clearly the denomination of the leader and the denominational focus of the event. Non-denominational isn’t. Bible study is Lutheran or Methodist or Atheist, not just “Bible Study”. One chaplain published a study of “Jewish Proverbs” but really meant an Old Testament study by a Christian.) Also, prayer breakfasts should clearly identify the denomination (and endorser if applicable) of all scheduled speakers and identify the keynote.
  4. diversity in each message (dates and times for all services provided with short, neutral descriptions not special promotions for certain events or a single email dedicated to one event)
  5. diversity across communications (among various emails, care should be taken to ensure not all are Christian)
  6. limited frequency (daily or even weekly emails would imply special command emphasis on chapel attendance. A monthly message from the chaplain’s office with upcoming events and regular services should avoid any inappropriate promotion or religious practices, and a chapel website could hold up-to-date information.)

Note that these guidelines would not address important issues like the qualifications of presenters and the appropriateness of event content. Policing content of sectarian activities is problematic as it infringes upon free exercise of religion. There are also other work-arounds like unrestricted opt-in sectarian lists. It would be appropriate, for example, for a Lutheran to maintain an opt-in email listing to send Lutheran study and prayers to those who request such messages. The guidelines above advise when, occasionally, command resources might be used to send religious messages to everyone.

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