Kellerism on right? Dialogue with atheist reader about coverage of military chaplains

Your GetReligionistas get quite a few emails from readers that you never hear about "out front" here on the blog. Many are from professionals on the Godbeat and others come from journalists on copy desks and on other beats. All are read carefully and appreciated.

We also have critics, of course, and we pay close attention to them, too, especially the constructive folks who are actually talking about journalism issues, rather than their own pet political or cultural issues. One long-time reader I have always appreciated is atheist Ray Ingles, who makes regular appearances in our comments pages.

The other day he sent me a Washington Times URL for a story on another military-chaplain dispute, with the simple question in the email subject line: "Do you think this was balanced?" The story opened like this:

Soon there may only be atheists in the foxholes.
Christians are leaving the U.S. military or are discouraged from joining in the first place because of a “hostile work environment” that doesn’t let them express their beliefs openly, religious freedom advocates say.
Michael Berry, senior counsel at the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal organization dedicated to defending religious liberty in America, said recent high-profile cases of military chaplains facing punishment for private counseling sessions that reflected the teachings of their religion could cause devout Americans who are qualified for military service to think twice about joining the military.

After quoting the Liberty Institute, the story then jumped straight to more material drawn from another group on the same side of the dispute.

Douglas Lee, president of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, whose job it is to find people who want to be chaplains and make sure they’re also qualified to serve in the military, said growing religious hostility within the military is making it harder for him to find potential recruits and for the armed forces to maintain the chaplains it does have.
“I know people who get out, officers and chaplains, who’ve said, ‘I can’t serve the way I want to in this environment,’” said Mr. Lee, who also served as an Army chaplain. “People who’ve said, ‘Because of the religious liberty challenges I see, I think I’ll serve somewhere else.’”
Not being able to recruit or retain these individuals is very dangerous from a national security standpoint, said Mr. Berry, because they could be the military’s next group of leaders, but will never serve because they don’t think they’re welcome.

You can see Ingles' point, right? In effect, he was arguing that this was "Kellerism" -- advocacy journalism for a cause -- in a conservative newspaper, as opposed to a mainstream paper like The New York Times.

But this is where things get SLIGHTLY interesting, from a journalism point of view. You see, the story includes two blocks of on-the-record interview material from Michael Weinstein, the most outspoken defender of the current religious and moral trends in the President Barack Obama-era military leadership. It also includes interview material from a spokesperson for the Department of Defense.

Right, actual interviews, as opposed to a one-paragraph quotes from a press release or a website essay. For example:

Michael Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said that while chaplains can believe whatever their religion teaches, those who think they must act on religious teachings about sex or sexuality have no place in the military.
“You can continue to believe that internally, but if you have to act on that, the right thing to do is to get out of the U.S. military, because you have no right to tell a member of the military that they’re inferior because of the way they were born,” he said.

And at the very end:

Mr. Weinstein ... said he thinks the chaplain corps would work better if chaplains were totally outside the military force structure and didn’t have a military rank.
In addition to posing a problem if a chaplain outranks whoever is seeking counseling, having religious leaders in the military serves as propaganda for Islamic extremist groups, who try to paint the U.S. military as the latest group of religious crusaders, he said.

So the story was framed from the point of view of the military's critics, while similar mainstream coverage almost always frames it from the point of view of the critics of chaplains representing traditional Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians, evangelicals, Pentecostals, etc.

Thus I wrote Ingles (and I reproduce -- with some editing and typos cleaned up -- our correspondence with his permission: "It's 2/3s to 1/3 with the left buried. However, unlike the Washington Post and NYTs, they did actually talk to the major voice on the left. It isn't pure Kellerism in that sense. ... "

I asked how he would have felt if the order of the story was different, something like a voice on the right, the Weinstein material, the military material, then more critics on the right.

Ingles responded: "I thought it was pretty much inverse Kellerism, yeah. And I still wish some reporter or another would note that consultations with a chaplain are pretty much the ONLY ones soldiers can count on being confidential. Ones with a psychiatrist aren't, for example."

Now, you'll note that at this point we are transitioning out of the basic journalism issue in a related issue -- the fact that, from a church-state issue, the military chaplaincy program has always been an complex issue from the perspective of experts on the religious left, religious right and the secular world.

Do many reporters realize that? I responded:

"As I have stressed, from a church-state perspective the chaplaincy is BROKEN. There is no way to force chaplains to violate their vows, becoming state-approved doctrinal Swiss Army Knives. And no way to have, in a pluralistic age, all faith chaplains available in all zip codes. This is the chaplains on a submarine question. There is no way NOT have chaplains, and be faithful to faith needs of soldiers in combat. It is a very complex legal and First Amendment situation."

Ingles responded: "Oh, I know, and wasn't suggesting otherwise. But the lack of real secular alternatives isn't helping."

My response: "Agreed. But even then, they can't fund having a secular counselor in every location -- on top of the religious options. And a secular counselor can't flip a switch and handle religious people, any more than, for secular people, the opposite would work (other than perhaps Unitarians or United Church of Christ or Episcopal ministers, for some).

"I think I will write about this to show -- again -- the church-state dilemma that reporters face.
Also, ironically, the Washington Times is offering the left more space than the New York Times usually gives the doctrinal right. VERY ironic. And real interviews."

Ingles again: "If the secular counselors were on a more even footing with the religious ones, it might help reduce the pressure. For example, a soldier with suicidal thoughts can discuss them privately only with a chaplain; if they bring it up with a military psychiatrist, it's *required* to be reported.

"This drives the use of chaplains for concerns that are not necessarily, or even primarily, religious for the soldiers involved. Just think that's an overlooked element of the story. Only two real mentions of it in the last few years -- here in The Atlantic and here in The Times."

Readers please note that he's absolutely right on the privacy and confidentiality issues. However, this is where the legal complexities kick in again. Thus, I responded:

"And are the rights of non clergy in those role recognized in centuries of western law? In the First Amendment -- according to the court? Not at this point. Would Unitarian Universalists take agnostics and atheists as chaplains? Probably. But that takes us back to the doctrinal Swiss Army knife. Can a Catholic confess -- sacramentally -- to a female agnostic UU minister? No. 

"The press doesn't see that on left and right -- on both the religious side and the secular -- the doctrinal Swiss Army knife fails on First Amendment grounds."

And that's where we are at the moment. The key point, for journalists, is that -- at this moment in times -- the basic concerns on both sides appear to be valid. There is evidence of growing discrimination against religious traditionalists who cannot violate their vows and become, in my words, doctrinal Swiss Army knives. At the same time, it's clear that liberals and secularists -- especially atheists and LBGT believers -- resist, with good cause, being in contact with doctrinal conservatives. Ingles is also right that atheists and agnostics simply do not have the confidentiality protections that, over the centuries, have built up to protect "confessions" -- sacramental to priests and ordinary counseling with other clergy -- to ordained ministers.

It's a complicated and very complex crisis. Do journalists get this?

Again, please focus your comments on these journalism questions. The original Ingles email was very constructive and very journalistic. Click thou and do likewise.

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