Time to take a quick dip into my folder of GetReligion guilt, where some important stories have been calling for my attention. In particular, I wanted to note that debates about military chaplains, always a controversial church-state subject, have flared up once again in the news.
At the center of the debate this time around is Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder, a chaplain who has in the past handled the rather difficult challenge of keeping up with Navy SEAL units. Now, a Military Times article notes that he may be tossed out of the Navy after 19 years for "allegedly scolding sailors for homosexuality and premarital sex." Readers are told:
Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder was given a "detachment for cause" letter on Feb. 17 after his commanders concluded that he is "intolerant" and "unable to function in the diverse and pluralistic environment" of his current assignment at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina.
Modder denies any wrongdoing and is fighting the dismissal with attorneys from the Liberty Institute, which advocates for religious expression in the military and in public institutions. Modder has served more than 19 years and could lose his retirement benefits if the Navy convenes a board of inquiry and officially separate him before he completes 20 years of service.
As often happens in these stories, the crucial question of what actually happened in these encounters between the chaplain and the soldiers making complaints is hard to discern, since the details all come from the accusers. Also, military chaplains treat the details of these one-on-one encounters as completely confidential (even chaplains who are not in traditions that include Confession).
Thus, the Gannett newsroom notes that the Navy's letter of complaint included offenses such as:
Told a female that she was "shaming herself in the eyes of god" for having premarital sex.
Told another student that homosexuality was wrong and that "the penis was meant for the vagina and not for the anus."
Suggested to a student that he, Modder, had the ability to "save" gay people.
"Berated" a student for becoming pregnant while not married.
Commanders felt that allowing vulnerable sailors to be counseled by Modder is "a recipe for tragedy," according to the letter.
Yes, the word "god" is lower case in the article. Is that now Gannett style, or Navy style?
Meanwhile, one crucial fact is missing from this story -- an it's a big one. The story calls Modder a "Pentecostal" pastor, but failed to note that his actual denominational affiliation is the Assemblies of God. The story never quotes an Assemblies official about the denomination's views on this controversy.
If members of the Military Times team had done that, I assume that they would learn that Modder, as is the case with so many chaplains today, was caught between the doctrines now being enforced by the armed services and those he has taken vows to defend in his church.
Thus, the question that isn't asked in this story is the most important question: Is it possible to be an Assemblies of God chaplain in the modern military? Yes, and the flip side of that question is just as valid, in light of the realities on the ground with military chaplains serving a wide variety of soldiers, not just members of their own faith. Is that fair to the soldiers?
As I wrote in a post on this topic back in 2006:
Are military chaplains appropriate? Are they even legal? Another question looms in the background: Is it legal to force soldiers to listen to prayers and/or evangelistic messages by clergy who are not of their own faith? Here at GetReligion, I have been asking: Is it legal to require chaplains (if they want to be promoted) to voice prayers that require them to water down, if not violate, the doctrines of the faith in which they are ordained? ...
This raises all kinds of questions, but they are questions that are already haunting military life. What happens on battlefields? On submarines with limited space? In military hospitals? Will there be no clergy in those locations at all? ...
These are tough questions, but they are no tougher than the questions raised by the current system, in which one base may include soldiers representing a dozen or more faiths. How many chaplains can the military afford to fund for any one location so that no one is offended?
Now, once the Military Times team recognized that Modder is an Assemblies of God chaplain, and thus reporting to his denomination as well as the military, it needed to deal -- at least briefly -- with another key subject. As The Daily Kos noted last year, with horror, roughly one-third of all military chaplains are from evangelical or charismatic denominations and information gathered by the Air Force indicates that 87 percent of the people seeking to become military chaplains are applying from evangelical seminaries.
In other words, it is impossible for military leaders to continue the current military chaplains system without the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, etc., etc. Clergy in other doctrinally traditional flocks -- such as the Roman Catholic Church or Eastern Orthodox Christianity -- face similar clashes between their ordination vows and the doctrines of the new Pentagon.
Stay tuned. Meanwhile, the Military Times team has a hole to fill in its coverage of this ongoing story.