Jacqueline E. Whitt: Merry Chrismahanukwanzakah from Uncle Sam

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Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam WarToady we welcome a guest post from Jaqueline E. Whitt, author of Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War. During the second half of the twentieth century, the American military chaplaincy underwent a profound transformation. Broad-based and ecumenical in the World War II era, the chaplaincy emerged from the Vietnam War as generally conservative and evangelical. Before and after the Vietnam War, the chaplaincy tended to mirror broader social, political, military, and religious trends. During the Vietnam War, however, chaplains’ experiences and interpretations of war placed them on the margins of both military and religious cultures. Because chaplains lived and worked amid many communities—religious and secular, military and civilian, denominational and ecumenical—they often found themselves mediating heated struggles over the conflict, on the home front as well as on the front lines.

In today’s post, Whitt examines how today’s military chaplains mediate and field arguments between both sides of the “War on Christmas” debate.

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There’s a Festivus Pole in the rotunda of the Florida state capitol. There are accusations of a “War on Christmas” and spirited rebuttals. The family know-it-all reminds everyone that Christmas trees have their origins in pre-Christian celebrations, were adopted by sixteenth-century German Protestants, and have since become essentially secular symbols. Suddenly, “Happy Holidays!” or “Merry Christmas!” or “Season’s Greetings!” becomes coded language for particular political viewpoints.

These disputes represent, in tangible form, the tension between the two clauses of the First Amendment, one which establishes the right to “free exercise” of religion, and the other that prohibits the “establishment” of religion. They also highlight the simultaneous celebration of and unease caused by increasing religious diversity in the United States. Though these tensions are always there, for most Americans the reminder is most stark during the winter holiday season.

The same drama that unfolds in civilian life plays out, too, on military bases across the United States. Even as fewer Americans have direct ties to the military, the American military is understood as a respected national institution and symbol, and what happens on military installations is often construed as an indicator of broader social and political values and trends.

But even with big issues of religious freedom (or the freedom from it) at stake, on the ground, the issues tend toward the particular. What should a community holiday display on a military base look like? How should the religious origins of religious holidays be acknowledged? Which objects are secular symbols, and which ones are religious? The Supreme Court has ruled in several cases regarding holiday displays, but the guidance remains murky in implementation because of the different political and legal contexts under which cases were decided.

On one hand, some atheist and humanist groups have expressed concern over even diverse holiday displays—say, putting up a menorah beside the nativity scene. They argue that such displays, especially if they are outside of designated chapel areas and do not have other secular symbols, mark the entire installation as endorsing the celebration of religious holidays, and more often than not, the endorsement of Christian and Jewish holidays to the exclusion of others. If there is to be a Christmas display at the gate, where is the post-wide banner for the celebration of Ramadan? Or a colorful, light-filled display for Diwali?

The critics decry this position as political correctness run amok, or evidence of the military bowing to external political pressure. Just this month, at Shaw Air Force Base, the commander ordered a nativity scene removed from display, in accordance with regulations, because it was displayed alone and away from the chapel, rather than as part of a larger holiday display. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council said, “This is much more than a war on Christmas, this is a war on the freedom of religious expression.” Though the commander explained the decision, the outcry was intense, and the scene was re-installed just a few days later, albeit on chapel grounds this time.

The difference between the two positions is stark—but the key to understanding the divergence rests in recognizing the different assumptions and interpretations of the First Amendment. For groups such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the establishment clause is at the heart of the argument. And for Perkins and many other religious groups and individuals, the free exercise clause is central to the question. The problem, of course, is that the First Amendment doesn’t give primacy to one clause over the other. They are co-equal and held in tension.

Over time, and particularly since the Vietnam War, the framework for the debate within the military has shifted. Somewhat ironically, as the population of military service members has become more religiously diverse, military chaplains have become, as a whole, more conservative and more evangelical, and thus more theologically and politically homogenous. The terms of the debate shifted from the chaplaincy’s main goal being the protection of the free-exercise rights of service members to chaplains advocating for broader protections of their own free-exercise rights and those of their co-religionists. This shift becomes problematic when chaplains and commanders diminish the free-exercise rights of minority groups to insist on preserving the free-exercise rights of the majority.

Recognizing the tension inherent within the First Amendment is the critical first step—the prohibition against endorsement is just as important as the promise of free exercise. Honest, historically informed, analytical debate is the second step. Walking the middle ground between the two Constitutional assurances is much harder, but it is a task that demands our attention, not only on military installations, but also within society more broadly.

*The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent official statements of the United States Department of Defense, United States Air Force, Air University, or the Air War College. Similarly, links to external sites are provided as sources and do not imply endorsement of the positions or information therein.

Jacqueline E. Whitt is assistant professor of strategy at Air War College. Her book Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War will be published February 2014 and is available for pre-order now.

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