Should a 'secular humanist' serve as Navy chaplain? Absolutely not

Our military men and women are asked to make many sacrifices, but they have always had the right to worship freely. In fact, our service members have been able to turn to military chaplains for spiritual counsel since our nation’s fight for independence.

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries later, the role that our military chaplains fulfill could look drastically different than what Gen. George Washington envisioned when he created the Chaplain Corps. It has come to my attention that the Navy could soon appoint an atheist chaplain, directly defying the religious foundation upon which the Chaplain Corps is built.

I oppose the appointment of a “secular-humanist” chaplain, and I have formally requested that the secretary of the Navy and the chief of naval operations reject this application. I am not alone in my request. Twenty-two of my colleagues in the Senate have joined me in this effort.

The appointment of an atheist to an undeniably religious position is fundamentally incompatible with atheism’s secularism. Our military chaplains serve under the motto “for God and country.”  Atheism is defined by the absence of a belief in the existence of God.

No one is arguing that atheists do not have the same First Amendment rights of free expression as their neighbors of Christian, Jewish, Muslim or other faiths. This is not the subject of scrutiny. The central question here is how an atheist chaplain can be expected to fulfill a role that, by its very nature, is supposed to serve the religious needs of our service members.

According to Department of Defense guidelines, a religious ministry professional is an “individual endorsed to represent a religious organization and to conduct its religious observances or ceremonies.” Those who seek to become military chaplains require approval from their denomination or religious organization.

The appointment of an atheist to an undeniably religious position is fundamentally incompatible with atheism’s secularism. Our military chaplains serve under the motto “for God and country.” Atheism is defined by the absence of a belief in the existence of God.

This person’s application has already cleared the Navy Chaplain advisory board, putting it one step closer to being approved. Should this impending appointment of an atheist chaplain be made, it would put the very integrity of the Chaplain Corps’ religious mission at stake.

I hope our Navy leaders recognize that it is well within their authority to create programs outside of the Chaplain Corps to serve humanist or atheist service members. However, allowing a non-religious worldview to be represented among the Chaplain Corps would set a dangerous precedent for the military.

What is to stop future demands for other philosophical preferences to be included in the Chaplain Corps as well?  

Today’s Chaplain Corps includes leaders from a wide spectrum of faiths. None of these faiths challenge the religious purpose of the Chaplain Corps or the calling of these men and women to serve our troops. This service to God and to our nation, as the Corps’ motto describes, should not be trivialized.

Military chaplains have earned some of our country’s highest honors, including the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.

We cannot overlook the many contributions that military chaplains make to support the First Amendment freedoms of our service members and their overall well-being.

The identity of the long-established Chaplain Corps should not be changed for what appears to be a decision based on political correctness. The religious duty of these men and women was apparent before our nation’s founding and continues to be true today.

Roger Wicker is a Republican representing Mississippi in the United States Senate.