No one could have imagined just a few decades ago that a secularist invasion would change military policy from “don’t ask, don’t tell” to our current rendering that all gay and transgender people are fit for full service in the military.
Regardless of one’s beliefs on social matters, this policy decision sets up a collision course with the privately and constitutionally protected religious beliefs of service men and women — including attacks on the private counsel, preaching and communications of military chaplains.
The beneficial impact of the religious ministries on troop morale is without question. It inspires hope, strengthens spiritual well-being, increases personal resilience, and these collectively enhance mission readiness, according to the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps. (https://www.navy.mil/docs/ImpactofReligiousMinistry_Final.pdf).
To be blunt, to stifle the free expression of religion among our military troops is a morale killer.
While military chaplains do need to navigate a pluralistic military that includes many faiths, atheists and agnostics, some commanders in error have interpreted pluralism as the highest order. Their reasoning is that all troops are not Christian, therefore all troops should never have to hear the name of Jesus or have their eyes burned by the posting a Bible verse on a bunk or workstation of their co-worker.
Some commanders have gone too far by ordering Christian military chaplains to not pray in Jesus’ name. Whose name should a Christian chaplain pray in?
George Washington saw the matter quite differently, believing spiritual fitness was tantamount to unit readiness. Washington directed the Continental Congress to establish the Army Chaplain Corps in 1775. For the sake of unit readiness, the military needs chaplains who will speak truth according to their ordaining denominations. The military needs men and women of God who are prophetic to the institution and not simply part of the latest social cause taken up by one political party or another. This is true for force multiplication and for the spiritual resilience our warriors need when they serve in harm’s way.
With President Obama’s policy change in place, I found myself in legal trouble: An openly gay service member, who sought out my counsel as a clergyman, filed a complaint because he did not agree with my counsel on matters of faith and human sexuality that was in accordance with my ordaining body, the Assemblies of God.
The Navy wanted me to support policy in the area of “care” that went against my ordination, conscience and deeply held religious convictions. Suddenly, I was forced to make a decision between my Creator and my commander.
The complaint filed by the young officer seemed to snowball, and in short order I was not only being investigated for an Equal Opportunity (EO) complaint, but I was brought up on charges of dereliction of duty. Shortly after that, my commanding officer gave me a letter of dismissal from the service approximately 18 months prior to my earliest retirement date.
“Just walk away.” Those words still ring in my ears.
I was on the phone with someone I respected as a retired military chaplain who continued our conversation: “Just walk away. Wes, you can retire with honor in September of 2015, and you can keep your good name. I’ve seen this happen before, and it never turns out well. It’s not worth the energy and emotional capital it will cost both you and your family. It’s just not worth it; there are no winners in this.”
Yet, in my heart, I believed that I was to stand firm for religious liberty. This felt like my David and Goliath moment. I did not pick the fight, but I was willing to fight because the cause was just.
Should I lose my case, it would be open season on religious liberty, a direct blow to troop morale and unit readiness. If a Navy chaplain can be told how to pray, and what and what not to counsel in private counsel, then religious liberty is dead for all the troops. The warning was clear: Get on board with progressive pluralistic policies, or your career is over and your tainted future is most uncertain.
Eventually, I won my case with the aid of brilliant law firms, such as First Liberty and Wilmer Hale, who partnered with many people who value our precious religious liberties. More importantly, the troops won.
In a current context, on Jan. 20, 2017, then-President-elect Trump attended morning worship services and later that morning during the swearing-in ceremony, Mr. Trump placed his left hand on his childhood Bible and then on a second Bible owned by President Abraham Lincoln. It would be unconscionable for a president to take the oath of office without appealing to God for His grace, mercy, and guidance in the faithful discharge of the president’s duties. If calling upon God is important for the guidance of our nation for the commander in chief, then it must be equally protected for the men and women who serve in our armed forces.
Governmental discrimination against people of faith in the armed forces is unacceptable and will impact the morale of any unit. Prohibitions on chaplains being disciplined for counseling from their scriptures and ordaining body must be upheld.
It has been the norm for these last eight years for service members to be pressured to renounce their religious views on topics like sexuality — or be punished for not doing so — as well as other attacks on religious freedom in the military. This “religious cleansing” has national security implications.
Mr. Trump should quickly change the atmosphere by ordering the Department of Defense to make clear that political correctness must end. The free exercise of religious liberty is in the Constitution and military codes and must be guaranteed to all service members and chaplains.
• Retired Navy Chaplain Wes Modder, D. Min., is lead pastor of Stone Church in Orland Park, Illinois.
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