The Free Exercise of Religion is a constitutionally protected liberty that provides members of the U.S. military – including chaplains – latitude to exercise their faiths without harassment. This freedom was even affirmed in the courts, when in 1997 chaplains won a district court ruling (Rigdon v. Perry) that allowed them to encourage their military congregants to contact their congressional representatives – a form of “political lobbying” that would normally have been impermissible for uniformed military members, but was permissible as a religious activity of a faith leader of his congregation.
Despite this precedent of support for religious freedom, incidents that would suppress that freedom continue: Last year, U.S. Air Force Chaplain (Capt.) Stephen Kim was censured by his chaplain leadership because of the content of his sermons.
As a Protestant, Bible-believing Christian, Chaplain Kim can now testify from personal experience how some military chaplains are facing intense pressure because of their faith. After preaching a sermon in an Air Force chapel, titled, “Forgiven: There is no Purgatory,” Chaplain Kim was confronted by his supervisor, Chaplain (Maj.) Shin Soh, about the theological content in his sermon.
Kim’s supervisor made it patently clear how he and others felt about Chaplain Kim’s theological convictions that he preached on the Lord’s Day. The following is from the Air Force memorandum describing the complaint:
… [Chaplain Soh] perceived [Chaplain Kim’s] presentation as biased, derogatory, and unnecessary against the Catholicism [sic].
The contracted musician … protested to the Wing Chaplain, Ch, Lt Herb Shao, while the preaching was taking place, and he heard some parts of Ch Kim’s preaching. He perceived the presentation as critical of the Catholic teaching and we agreed that we needed to address it with Ch Kim and document it. We felt the need to document due to his previous history of being critical of other faith groups, and as a corrective measure for a new chaplain.
On Mon, 19 Oct 2018, Cha Shao, Ch, Maj Mario Catungal (Catholic priest) and I met with Ch Kim, and informed him that while the intent may not have been critical, his presentation was in fact denigrating towards the Catholicism [sic], and such practice is not tolerated in the Chaplain Corps. We directed him not to use the official chapel activities to denigrate any other faith groups. …
It’s important to note that the “corrective measure” is simply wrong. In the military, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any chaplain preaching on the truth tenets of his or her own faith or contrasting them with the truth claims of another faith. That’s what the followers of those faiths expect to hear: the tenets of their faith. An Islamic military chaplain is absolutely permitted to preach that atheists are infidels and Christians are misled. And a Christian is absolutely permitted to preach that Muslims worship a false god. That’s what the followers of those faiths expect to hear: the tenets of their faith.
For Air Force Chaplain Kim, this is succinctly captured in Air Force Instruction (AFI) 52-101, which was most recently updated just last April [emphasis added]:
“184.108.40.206.2.1. Leading Worship. Chaplains conduct worship services consistent with the tenets of their particular endorsing religious organization.”
So, was this “corrective measure” for Kim based on policy directives, or perfunctory opinions?
When Chaplain Soh stated that “he perceived [Chaplain Kim’s] presentation as biased, derogatory, and unnecessary against the Catholicism [sic],” he appeared to misunderstand that what he thinks about Chaplain Kim’s sermon content is not the standard for what theological content should be in his sermon. Soh is supposed to supervise chaplains, so it would be incumbent upon him to understand that military chaplains are protected to preach their sincerely held convictions behind their pulpits – without interference or religious screening – consistent with their sending ecclesiastical endorser.
It appeared Chaplain Soh, in order to strengthen his case against Chaplain Kim, argued that he was not the only one who felt that Kim’s sermon was offensive. Soh maintained that not only did the contracted musician protest Kim’s sermon, but also the wing chaplain.
First, does it matter how many individuals disliked Chaplain Kim’s sermon? The Constitution protects Kim’s right to preach his theological convictions from the pulpit, but it does not protect others from being offended. See, for example, Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway (et al. 2014) which states that “offense does not equate to coercion.”
Second, it’s hypocritical that the complaining musician holds Chaplain Kim to a standard to which she does not hold herself. Isn’t it ironic that she felt it was wrong for Chaplain Kim to “protest” Catholic beliefs, but she had no problem “protesting” Chaplain Kim’s beliefs?
Third, Soh stated that the senior chaplain, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Herbert Shao, “perceived the presentation as critical of the Catholic teaching. …” It is important to note that Chaplain Soh is ordained by the Presbyterian Church USA, the senior wing chaplain is ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and Chaplain Kim is ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention. Why is this relevant? The PC (USA) and ELCA are liberal faith groups, while the SBC is a conservative faith group. While the two more senior (and more liberal) chaplains appeared to be concerned about Chaplain Kim being critical of other faith groups, it was actually they who were being critical of Kim’s more conservative faith – which they characterized as “biased,” “derogatory,” “unnecessary,” and “denigrating.”
Fourth, what of the other members of the congregation who shared Chaplain Kim’s conservative religious beliefs? The congregation was far larger than the three staff members who complained. How many congregants need to stand in support of Chaplain Kim before their religious freedom outweighs the offense of the three?
Chaplain Kim’s troubles did not end with his 2018 sermon. On Feb. 17, 2019, Kim preached another sermon at his base chapel titled, “Jesus is the only way to eternal life.” Once again, Chaplain Soh complained. Chaplain Soh claimed Kim appeared to “denegrade [sic] atheists and liberals.” (Read the entire memo.) Notably, Soh admitted Kim’s sermon was “within the scope of Christian doctrine” – and yet Chaplain Soh still felt the need to document this as “denigration.” If Chaplain Soh doesn’t feel it is permissible for Chaplain Kim to preach “within the scope of Christian doctrine,” what can he preach?
It is one thing to say “the First Amendment protects,”, which it does, but it is important to remember that Congress recently felt the need to make it more clear that chaplains represented their faith groups and were free to accurately represent their faith without fear of retribution, intimidation or recrimination (See page 163-164 of Report Language in 2016 NDAA).
Chaplains should rest assured that, despite Chaplain Kim’s situation, their rights to preach their sincerely held theological convictions are protected.
Note: The opinions expressed here are solely his and do not necessarily represent the views of any government, military, or religious organization. Sonny Hernandez wrote this article as a civilian on his own time on an issue of public interest.