Navy Chaplain (Lt) Gordon Klingenschmitt has ended his public hunger strike, after being told by superiors that he would be allowed to remain in service for at least three more years, and pray "in Jesus's name" at public functions.
We detailed the plight of Chaplain Klingenschmitt last month. As we noted at the time, restrictions on public prayer represent a growing concern for many military chaplains. An Army chaplain currently assigned to a unit in Iraq told an evangelical organization that "he would be hammered" if he led a public prayer in the name of Christ. The Air Force also recently imposed new "guidelines" for prayers at public events, in the wake of that so-called "religion" scandal at the Air Force Academy. The new guidelines recommend a "brief, non-sectarian" prayer "that does not advance specific religious beliefs" before such events as change-of-command ceremonies or athletic contests. Meanwhile, the Navy has been sued by 50 current and former Protestant chaplains, claiming the service discriminates against Pentecostal and evangelical clerics.
In military terms, Chaplain Klingenschmitt has won a tactical victory, but not the war. From a public relations standpoint, the Navy could ill-afford to have one of its clerics collapse (and possibly die) across the street from the White House, where the hunger strike was staged. If Chaplain Klingenschmitt (an Episcopalian priest) hasn't been to Iraq or Afghanistan, he probably needs to pack his bags. I'm guessing he'll get orders to some backwater location very soon, in an effort to keep him away from the media spotlight. He will also be subjected to extreme scrutiny by the Navy brass; even the slightest miscue will find its way into future performance reports, giving the service the ammunition it needs to quietly get rid of Klingenschmitt a few years down the road.
Chaplain Klingenschmitt should be applauded for his courage. But it's also rather interesting--perhaps appalling is a better word--that he is the only military chaplain willing to take such a bold stand against religious intolerance. Sadly, no other chaplains appeared willing to join his vigil in Washington, although many have expressed private frustrations over military efforts to "censor" their prayers.
And there's the rub. From my perspective, too many chaplains have grown comfortable and complacent in a military system that pays relatively well, and offers more j0b security than being a parish priest, minister, rabbi or iman. After initial training, a new chaplain enters the military as a First Lieutenant or Captain in the Army or Air Force (Lieutenant in the Navy), receiving the same pay and benefits as other military officers at that pay grade. After 20 or 30 years in service, the same chaplain can retire with a full pension and military retiree benefits that are often superior to those of civilian clerics. It provides a powerful incentive for chaplains not to rock the military's spiritual boat. Careerism is alive and well in the chaplain ranks, as it is the rest of the officer corps.
In fairness, there are many outstanding chaplains in today's military, who endure extreme hardships to minister to their flocks. But there are also a few chaplains who are willing to let the military dictate spiritual standards, and cast a blind eye to the erosion of First Amendment rights. Chaplain Klingenschmitt never asked for permission to convert non-believers at public events--just the right to pray in the name of his savior, Jesus Christ. At one time, only the ACLU would interpret such a prayer as an "endorsement" of Christianity by the Navy, but in today's PC-military, the threat of a complaint (or the lingering residue of a non-scandal) is enough to restrict prayers, or implement non-sectarian guidelines.
Keep Chaplain Klingenschmitt in your prayers, if you're so inclined. The Navy isn't finished with him yet, and this battle is far from won. President Bush could end the controversy by signing an executive order that ensures the religious freedoms for military chaplains. Regrettably, that issue isn't even on the radar scope at the White House.