Military chaplains should be prepared to serve the religious and spiritual needs of a diverse community of troops, but one evangelical Christian Air Force chaplain in Ohio apparently has a problem supporting the rights of people of different faiths.
Capt. Sonny Hernandez, an Air Force Reserve chaplain for the 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, last week wrote on the Christian nationalist website BarbWire that “true” Christian service members must follow Christ and not the Constitution. A few tidbits from his op-ed:
“Counterfeit Christians in the Armed forces will appeal to the Constitution, and not Christ, and they have no local church home – which means they have no accountability for their souls (Heb. 13:17). This is why so many professing Christian service members will say: ‘We ‘support everyone’s right’ to practice their faith regardless if they worship a god different from ours because the Constitution protects this right.’
“Christian service members who openly profess and support the rights of Muslims, Buddhists, and all other anti-Christian worldviews to practice their religions – because the language in the Constitution permits – are grossly in error, and deceived.
“(I)t is imperative that Bible-believing military chaplains align themselves with the right endorser that has sincerely held beliefs that appeal to Scripture alone, and will not support or accommodate evil.”
Hernandez has justifiably taken a lot of flak for these comments, and tried to walk them back somewhat in an article that appeared this week in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes: “Hernandez acknowledged that his words could be misconstrued as advocating discrimination against people of other faiths or practices. He is not advocating that anyone should ‘be abandoned or ostracized.’”
Stars and Stripes notes Department of Defense requirements for a chaplain: “All chaplains must be certified as ‘willing to function in a pluralistic environment ... and to support directly and indirectly the free exercise of religion by all members of the Military Services, their family members and other persons authorized to be served by the military chaplaincies.’”
I’m far from convinced that Hernandez can serve all members, especially those of different faiths. I find it hard to believe that a Jewish, Muslim or atheist service member would be comfortable seeking out Hernandez for counseling, especially after reading that column. And I’m not alone.
Military chaplains must serve the religious and spiritual needs of a diverse community of service members.
Don Byrd, writing for AU’s ally the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said: “Denying the rights of non-Christians is an offense to American liberty. But it also undermines the strength of the Christian faith by suggesting it is threatened by a truly free conscience. The success of a religion should not depend on the extent to which the rights of others are restricted.”
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), also an AU ally, has filed a complaint with the Department of Defense asking for Hernandez to be investigated. According to Newsweek, MRFF said Hernandez’ blog post “blatantly and indisputably advocates the subordinating of the U.S. Constitution to his personal Christian ideology and violated his Oath of Office as a commissioned officer, as well as Title 18, U.S. Code § 2387’s criminal prohibitions against counseling or urging insubordination, disloyalty, or ‘refusal of duty’ to other military members.”
Will military officials intervene? It’s unclear. Stars and Stripes reported that Air Force Reserve spokesman Lt. Col. Chad Gibson said Hernandez wasn’t expressing the views of the Air Force and that his freedom to express his own faith is an essential protection in the military.
“I think we should reflect on why the Air Force is here,” Gibson said. “We are sworn to protect freedom of faith and religion unless it infringes on other people’s rights. That’s why we fight.”
Unfortunately, Hernandez apparently is comrades with another former military chaplain that AU knows all too well. This July, Hernandez appeared on the podcast of Gordon James Klingenschmitt to talk about whether troops should be able to get religious accommodations to get out of training about policy on transgender service members. (This was a few weeks before President Donald Trump tweeted that he would begin banning transgender people from the military.)
Klingenschmitt, a former Navy chaplain, has been on AU’s radar for years, as the news website Salon recently noted. First because he defied military orders to use nonsectarian prayers at military events where people from many faiths would be present. Then he appeared in uniform at a Religious Right rally wearing his uniform – a violation of military regulations. Even after he was eased out of the service, Klingenschmitt continued to post photos on his website of himself in a Navy uniform and referred to himself as chaplain, implying he was still serving in the military.
The Department of Defense earlier this year doubled the number of faiths it recognizes, including humanism, nature-based faiths and denominations of more mainstream religions. The expansion allows troops to more easily request time off for religious holidays, attend religious events off base, keep religious items in a barracks – and sponsor chaplains.
While this is a great development for religious freedom, it’s unlikely that all service members will have ready access to a chaplain for each of the 221 faiths and denominations now recognized by the military. That means the existing chaplains must uphold their duty to offer support to all troops, regardless of their beliefs. Religious freedom is about fairness – we don’t treat people differently because their beliefs are different from ours.