Refusing to give in to demands to punish an Air Force chaplain who posted an essay on a famous quote, the military service has instead reposted the article in the chaplain’s section of the base website.
“Chaplains have the freedom and obligation to speak about faith and religious values, and this freedom should not be censored or prohibited,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Litigation Counsel Kellie Fiedorek. “The Air Force should be commended for recognizing this and returning Chaplain Reyes’ essay to the ‘Chaplains Corner’ portion of his base’s website.”
On July 7, Lt. Col. Kenneth Reyes posted a devotional article on the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson website in the Chaplain’s Corner section titled “No atheists in foxholes: Chaplains gave all in World War II.”
Many attribute the “foxholes” adage to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who used it in remarks in an American Legion Program broadcast from the White House Feb. 7, 1954. However, Reyes said he found in his research that the phrase apparently goes back to a Catholic priest during World War II.
He explained that World War II prisoner of war Roy Bodine, a personal friend, told him the phrase was credited to Father William Cummings, a civilian missionary Catholic priest who was in the Philippines during the battle of Corregidor.
“During the siege, Cummings had noticed non-Catholics were attending his services. Some he knew were not Catholic, some were not religious and some were even known atheists,” Reyes said. “Even the strongest of beliefs can change, and, I may add, can go both ways – people can be drawn to or away from ‘faith.’ With the pending surrender of allied forces to the Japanese, Cummings uttered the famous phrase, ‘There is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole.’”
Reyes article conveyed a devotional tone similar to what many Christians read every day.
“The real question is, ‘Is it important to have faith in ‘faith’ itself or is it more important to ask, ‘What is the object of my faith?’” Reyes asked. “What is the root or object of your faith? Is it something you can count on in times of plenty or loss, peace or chaos, joy or sorrow, success or failure? What is ‘faith’ to you?”
The Reyes’ article didn’t speak negatively of people of other beliefs or suggest that soldiers who were not Christians did not serve their country honorably.
Following the publication of Reyes’ devotional, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation demanded that the Air Force take it off the base website and formally discipline Reyes, claiming it insulted those with no faith.
“It has recently been brought to the attention of MRFF that the installation Chaplain of JBER, Lt. Col. Kenneth Reyes, has chosen to publicly denigrate those without religion in an article titled, Chaplain’s Corner: ‘No atheists in foxholes’: Chaplains gave all in World War II.”
The letter goes on to say that Reyes “defiles the dignity of service members by telling them that regardless of their personally held philosophical beliefs they must have faith.” It demands that the Air Force reprimand him for his devotional.
Within hours of receiving the complaint, the Air Force removed the article.
In an interview with WND, Mikey Weinstein, president of the MRFF, said while he has no problem with this type of devotional in the public sphere, the primary reason he called for Reyes to be disciplined is because he is a lieutenant colonel. Weinstein asserted it is a violation of Air Force rules when a superior speaks to a subordinate on religious issues.
The basis for his complaint is Air Force Instruction 1-1, sec 2.11, which says, “Leaders at all levels must … avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates.”
According to Weinstein, in the military because of the power a superior has to issue orders and discipline subordinates who refuse to obey them, virtually any uninitiated mention of faith by a superior to someone of a lower rank violates the AFI.
“It’s very different when your military superior, who controls every area of your life, particularly if you are in a combat situation, demands that you are not a member of the tribe or the king because you have the wrong religious faith,” Weinstein said.
“It is our position that if you are told by your superior that you lack character, integrity, courage and bravery because of your chosen religious faith, or lack thereof, there is no difference between attacking someone because of the color of their skin or because they are a female.”
Weinstein insisted the policy does not give any special exemptions for chaplains.
“Chaplains have no safe harbor. They are military officers, and around 30 to 40 percent of them believe their job is to get soldiers into the kingdom, and they view the military as a mission field,” Weinstein said. “What Chaplain Reyes did was wrong. If a police officer in a city was pulled over for driving 100 mph in a 35 mph zone and nothing happened to him, what good is the law? We want some type of discipline to happen to Reyes whether it be a simple reprimand or something else.
“Pulling the stuff off the website and then leaving it at that amounts to taking a weed whacker to the problem where it comes back up again. We would take a letter of reprimand or formal counseling to send the message this will not be allowed.”
But Brig. Gen. Doug Lee, chairman of the executive committee for the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, said Weinstein’s interpretation of the AFI is a stretch.
“While that may be what the instruction states, it is stretching common sense to think that this means that a chaplain cannot speak encouraging words about his faith just because someone of a lesser rank may hear or read his words,” Lee said.
“If that were the case then a chaplain could never do his duties. Anytime he conducts a service the majority of people in the audience are of a lower rank than he is and the idea that he is attempting to coerce them simply because he is a superior and speaking about his faith is ridiculous.”
Lee went on to explain that he actually agrees with the instruction, however it is intended to deal with cases in which a base commander or a similar superior is genuinely using his office to order someone to follow his faith.
“The primary reason that this instruction, which has been in place for years without any problems, was written, is to ensure that a base commander or person with a similar position does not use the authority of their office to directly compel a subordinate to submit to his religion,” he said. “The idea that a simple positive affirmation of belief by a superior as part of a general discussion automatically amounts to coercion and should be prohibited defies reason.”
While the Air Force initially pulled down Reyes’ devotional, it now appears officials have had second thoughts. On Aug. 8, the article reappeared on the base website with a disclaimer saying, “Comments regarding specific beliefs, practices, or behaviors are strictly those of the author and do not convey endorsement by the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, the Army, the Air Force, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or the 673d Air Base Wing.”
Lee said that posting the article on the chaplain’s page is how it should have been handled originally.
“The article went back up with a disclaimer saying the statements in the article were those of the author and that’s perfectly fine,” Lee said.