If the U.S. Navy appointed its first atheist chaplain, as the organized atheists demanded (twice), what could his duties as a chaplain be? Perhaps he could tell a sailor seeking spiritual solace in the face of death not to worry, he has no soul, anyway.
Now we may never know. The Navy has rejected the application of one Jason Heap, a doctor of theological history, he having obtained such a degree at Oxford University in Great Britain. He is not, however, related to Uriah Heep, the Charles Dickens character distinguished by his humility, a characteristic expected of clergymen. Different spelling.
Mr. Heap sued, first in 2014 and again this year, to require the Navy to appoint him to the chaplaincy corps, and, to his point, to recognize him as a “secular humanist,” presumably on his dogtag, thereby recognizing secular humanism, or atheism, as a legitimate “faith.” Or spiritual belief, or something.
The Navy was about ready to make the appointment after the Chaplain Appointment and Retention Eligibility Advisory Group recommended it to the chief of naval operations, who has final say over who gets to be a chaplain and who doesn’t. After 67 members of Congress, 22 senators and 45 congressmen from both parties urged the Navy not to make the appointment, the Navy agreed.
“Without a belief in the transcendent, and with avowed opposition to religion itself,” the lawmakers wrote, “an individual cannot fulfill the mission and duties of a chaplain.”
This would seem to be self-evident, but nothing is self-evident any longer in America, with a man now enabled to take another man as his bride, and with a woman enabled to lead men in an assault on an enemy position and men, women and children free to use a latrine together.
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, a Republican and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, led the opposition to the appointment. The senators observed in their letter, which also went to the secretary of the Navy, that “the Navy has sufficient authority to create programs for humanist or atheist service members, but the Chaplain Corps is not the appropriate place.” Nor is there a shortage of secular counseling to sailors who want it.
Several members of Congress applauded the Navy’s decision to reject Mr. Heap’s application. “The Navy’s leadership has done the right thing,” says Sen. Wicker. “The appointment of an atheist to a religious position is fundamentally incompatible with atheism’s secularism. This decision preserves the distinct religious role that our chaplains carry out.”
Rep. Douglas Lamborn of Colorado, a Republican, agrees. “The appointment of an atheist to a historically religious role would have gone against everything the chaplaincy was created to do. It would open the door to a host of so-called chaplains who represent philosophical worldview and not the distinctly religious role of the Chaplain Corps.”
Chaplains have a long and honored history in the military services of the nation. The first chaplain was appointed to serve the Continental Army at the invitation of George Washington, the commander, who asked Congress to approve and establish the chaplain corps. Since then chaplains have gone to every war with the troops, often at the front, and in addition to providing solace and advice, conduct the religious rituals, such as baptism, communion and other rites and ceremonies appropriate to Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other denominations.
One of the most famous chaplains was Navy Lt. j.g. Howell M. Forgey, of Glendora, Calif., whose holy heroics at Pearl Harbor became the inspiration for one of the war’s most popular songs, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”
“Well,” the lieutenant told an interviewer after the war, “I was on the USS New Orleans and we were tied up at 1010 dock when we were attacked. We were having a turbine lifted and all our electrical power was out, and so when we went to lift the ammunition by the hoist, we had to form lines of men — form a bucket brigade — and we began to carry the ammunition up through the quarterdeck into the gurneys. I stood there and directed some of the boys down the port side and some down the starboard side, and as they were getting a little tired, I just happened to say, ‘praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.’ That’s all there was to it.”
But not quite. The remark went quickly up and down the line and through the ship, and then to other ships and then to the fleet and finally back home, where Frank Loesser, the songwriter, heard it, and soon it was on the “Hit Parade.”
And now, just as “there are no atheists in fox holes,” another bit of wisdom from that war, there won’t be any among the Navy chaplains, either.