As I sat in the hearing room, I felt a cold chill – like the chilling effect this court-martial will have on our free speech. For this analogy to be accurate, however, I would need to be sitting in a freezer. At issue in the court-martial of Lt. Gordon James Klingenschmitt, chaplain for the United States Navy, is a name and the freedom to speak it. That name is Jesus. And, according to this week’s ruling, the freedom to speak it depends on the context.
Before I could go through the metal detectors to get to the courtroom, a Navy official had already taken Jesus’ name in vain. No trial for that. No penalty. No problem. But use the name in reverence, in honor or in prayer, and you’ll find yourself looking in the face of a court-martial. Welcome to the criminalization of Christianity.
This case is really about Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter, who ordered that every chaplain in the Navy worship his god – the “government god” of “non-sectarian” goodness who has no name and certainly no son by whom someone might be offended. But Chaplain Klingenschmitt told Navy Secretary Nebuchadnezzar, uh, I mean Winter, that he couldn’t bow to his government god and had to proclaim the God of the Bible – who has a Son with an illegal name.
So Chaplain Klingenschmitt spoke the Gospel aboard ship, prayed in that illegal name and preached from that “offensive book” – much to the detriment of his career. But it’s a good thing he did, particularly for a sailor who heard the message of the Gospel and dedicated his life to Christ – just before being killed in a motorcycle accident. A secular memorial was held, but many sailors approached the chaplain and asked that he hold a Christian memorial service to honor the sailor’s faith. So he did. Attendance was voluntary. But the chaplains “above” him didn’t like the content of his sermon. Mentioning Jesus in the chapel (you know, that building with the cross on top), they said, is just “too exclusive.” Just who was it that hung on that cross depicted on the official Navy chaplain uniform, again? Maybe they can tell people it’s really a lower case “t” – standing for “tepid,” “totalitarian” or “triangle” until the new shapes can be issued.
In fact, Klingenschmitt was punished in writing for reading an “illegal verse,” and Naval Judge Anita Blair upheld the reprimand. What was the illegal verse? [WARNING! If you are a member of the United States Navy, do NOT, I repeat, do NOT read this verse out loud, or face court martial!]
He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. – John 3:36
The judge ruled that the chaplain’s freedom wasn’t really restricted since he was free to preach a sermon on “other” topics besides Jesus. Like, the measurements of the ark, for instance. Just don’t go quoting Bible verses from the New Testament of Jesus Christ and actually mention Jesus Christ.
The chaplain then went on a hunger strike until the Navy said he could pray in uniform again. They said “no speeches” or “opinions,” but he was allowed to wear his uniform for “religious observances.” That brings us to the event in question – March 30, 2006, where the chaplain engaged in the “religious observance” of prayer. He didn’t give a speech. Didn’t voice his opinions. In fact, he even turned down questions from reporters because he was wearing his uniform. Quite different from other Navy officers who went on national television and national radio espousing “personal,” “partisan” and “political beliefs” while in uniform without any prior permission. The difference? Oh, they were blasting Klingenschmitt, and the Navy agreed with the content of their speech.
Then, Judge Lewis T. Booker, the judge overseeing the court-martial, ruled that the right to “public worship” doesn’t include “worshiping in public.” Judge Booker said essentially that “public worship” is allowed for one hour on Sunday, and you better use it, because that’s the only free exercise of religion you have left, sailor.
And now, five years after we were attacked, our troops are fighting overseas for the freedom of those who pray in the name of Allah at the same time a U.S. chaplain has been court-martialed for praying in the name of Jesus on American soil. Does anyone besides me see something wrong with this? On Monday, Sept. 11, 2006, we gathered to sing “God Bless America,” but how likely do you think God will continue to bless us if we are forbidden from using His Son’s name?
And where is our beloved commander in chief? The man I worked to elect, who personally told me that the “most important thing” I could do for him was to pray? Cannot our military have that same “most important” right? His number, by the way, is 202-456-1414.
As I was leaving the airport in Norfolk, I saw an advertisement that read: “America will always be the home of the free because it is the land of the brave.” When I read it, I cried … because America is no longer the land of the free. Thankfully, there are still are brave Americans like Chaplain Klingenschmitt. If you are among the brave left in the land of the free, I urge you with everything in me to use your freedom while you still can.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is reportedly “still undecided” as to whether the freedom of religion should apply to chaplains. He sits on the conference committee for the Defense appropriations bill, H.R. 5122, and is a critical vote on Section 590 – the amendment that will let the chaplains of all branches of our military pray according to the dictates of their conscience. The toll-free number to reach him is: 1-888-355-3588. Use it to call Sens. John Warner and Carl Levin while you’re at it; they’re key votes on the committee, as well. The message? Simply: “Let the chaplains pray” – something our Founding Fathers thought was so very important that one of their first acts of the first Congress (after ratifying the First Amendment) was to establish chaplains to do just that.
Of course, you have “the right to remain silent,” but if you use that right much longer, those are the words you’ll hear before you see the inside of a prison cell. Because if they criminalize Chaplain Klingenschmitt today, tomorrow it’s you.
Janet L. Folger is president of Faith2Action, and author of “The Criminalization of Christianity.”