Fall from grace

FALL FROM GRACE….All has not been well lately for military chaplains. There was the fiasco surrounding Capt. James Yee; the Navy’s punishment for dozens of military chaplains for offenses ranging from sexual abuse to fraud; and the Air Force Academy was rocked by a controversy regarding chaplains proselytizing and harassing religious minorities with official support.

But James Klingenschmitt’s fight is altogether different.

There will be no Christmas ham today for chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt. The Navy lieutenant has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 20 and says that nothing but water will pass his lips until President Bush “gives me back my uniform and lets me pray in Jesus’s name.”

Klingenschmitt, 37, held prayer vigils in front of the White House at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day last week, attracting small crowds even though the Navy forbade him from wearing his uniform. He has gained a larger following on Christian talk radio programs and in Congress: More than 70 lawmakers signed a letter to the president calling for an executive order to guarantee the right of military chaplains to pray publicly as they wish.

Klingenschmitt’s three-year Navy contract expires Saturday, and his commanding officer has recommended against renewal. The chaplain says his troubles stem from his insistence on praying specifically to Jesus rather than to “God,” “the Father” or “the Almighty.”

The religious right and the Washington Times have tried to make Klingenschmitt something of a cause celebre, and now the mainstream press is picking up on the story.

This isn’t complicated. The Navy has public ceremonies — where attendance is mandatory for sailors and officers — in which chaplains are asked to use inclusive language that reflects the diversity of the armed forces. Klingenschmitt doesn’t care for that approach and wants to use his post to promote Christianity. His superiors said no, so Klingenschmitt started a hunger strike and wants the White House to support him.

What’s more, 70 members of Congress, nearly all of whom are Republicans, are using Klingenschmitt’s fight to argue that Christian chaplains should be able to proselytize on the job. In other words, we’d have official government ministers, whose salary is paid with tax dollars, preaching Christianity to American troops. Suggesting that, at a minimum, official military prayers should be “non-sectarian” is, in the minds of these congressional critics, “censorship of Christian beliefs.” (One wonders if they’d feel the same if a Muslim military chaplain wanted faith-specific religious expressions at mandatory Navy ceremonies.)

What a mess. No wonder James Madison thought military chaplains were a bad idea.