Concerning theological Swiss Army knives (think chaplains)

In the world of church-state studies, few puzzles are as tough to crack as those that surround the work of military chaplains. Suffice it to say, many soldiers would like spiritual comfort and help in combat. We are talking about life and death situations. A practicing Catholic or Orthodox soldier, for example, will want a chance to go to confession -- with a valid priest.

And there is the problem. How many chaplains are going to fit into that foxhole? Are you going to get a male Catholic priest and a female Episcopal priest into the same submarine? How about a rabbi -- Reform or Orthodox? -- or an imam? Don't Wiccan soldiers deserve a last rite of their own?

You can see the issues. Chaplains are asked to serve as, to repeat an image used before here at GetReligion, theological Swiss Army Knives. This works better for theological Universalists than it does for clergy who have taken vows to practice the rites and prayers of their faith and their faith alone.

This brings us to the debates about atheist/agnostic military chaplains. The following RNS story covers the political basics right up top:

(RNS) House lawmakers ... approved an amendment to a Pentagon spending bill to prevent the appointment of nonreligious military chaplains.

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. John C. Fleming, R-La., requires that only religious organizations be permitted to endorse chaplains for the military.

“The amendment holds the military to its current standards on endorsing agencies, which must be recognized religious and faith-based organizations,” said Fleming’s spokesman, Doug Sachtleben.

Currently, the Department of Defense recognizes more than 200 endorsing agents, all of them based on a belief in God. But there has been a recent push by Humanists, who do not recognize a supernatural divinity, to endorse their own military chaplains.

So, do humanists/atheists/agnostics deserve -- think "equal access" principles -- the right to have their own chaplains, so that in times of crisis they are dealing with spiritual/humanist counsel that reflects their own beliefs?

It's hard for a church-state separationist to answer "no."

But the key issue -- to lock onto one metaphor -- is that submarine problem. Can you put an atheist chaplain on the submarine and ask her or him to function as a chaplain to a Roman Catholic, an Orthodox Jew, a traditional Muslim?

The problem with this short report -- and the text is quite short, so let's not quickly think blame here -- is that it does not even contain a sentence about the Swiss Army Knife issue. Yet readers can see it lurking in the background:

The amendment has the support of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, an organization of Christian chaplains. In a statement issued Tuesday, Chaplain Ron Crews, a retired Air Force Colonel, said, “A fringe minority is advocating for atheists to be commissioned as chaplains, but the very nature of the word ‘chaplain’ suggests that the individual possesses a belief in God and a desire to minister to spiritual needs.”

Do "spiritual needs" imply a belief in God or gods? Yes and no. People will disagree on that. And there's the problem with the current chaplaincy program and the theological Swiss Army Knife structure.

And there's the issue, the issue that must be mentioned -- somehow.

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