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Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

HuffPo has an interesting piece up about proselytization in the military. Specifically it’s about misinformation being spread about the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, but it also gives a good description of the underlying problem.

It seems some military chaplains have been pressing their religion on servicemen in situations where those people can’t just walk out. According to the piece, servicemen (chaplains or otherwise) have all the normal First Amendment rights about expressing their religious views. They don’t have a right to force other people to listen where they can’t get away. This makes mixing religion into situations where all servicemen have to be there problematic. Ditto for situations when there’s a difference in rank, or where the clergyman is speaking “officially.” I don’t know how realistic this distinction is in practice, but in principle it seems like a decent one and lining up with constitutional principles: yes to expressing your religion, no to using your authority to “establish” it over people who aren’t in any position to resist.

This has me thinking about Fr. Mulcahey, the chaplain in “M*A*S*H”. I’ve been working my way through the series, one episode a night, and am currently halfway through season eight. There’s so much I love about the character: his mix of virtue and vice, his humility and servant’s heart, and the humor he applies even to himself. I think most of us can also identify with the fear we aren’t making a difference. When Fr. Mulcahey admits to that fear and is proven wrong, I can’t quite stop smiling.

But there’s a more serious point that I think connects to the HuffPo story. One of the things that really struck me about Fr. Mulcahey was how comfortable he was serving non-CaholicsIn the few moments where he pushes his Catholicism, it almost has a joking tone. In one episode where he asks some MPs to let him handle a situatation between Frank Burns and Klinger, the MP says he’s not even Catholic, why should he defer to a priest; Fr. Mulcahey gives him this winning smile and asks “Would you like to be?” In another situation he officiates at a circumcision (actually repeating the prayers said by radio by a rabbi at another posting), and he regularly serves as kind of a moral compass for Klinger, who claims to be an atheist. This is why having a military chaplain makes sense; people of different religions draw strength and comfort from their religious observances, and having a cleric ready to help them do that –even when they don’t share the same religion– makes sense. I think this is why I’m morally outraged by proselytizing by chaplains under the color of authority. It’s not just a constitutional issue; it seems to go against what the chaplaincy is really about, which is serving soldiers as they carry out their service.

But this can be carried too far, I think. I remember one episode where an older Korean man won’t let the doctors operate on him because he senses evil spirits. Pierce calls in a local priestess and has her perform an exorcism. THe point is to put the old man at ease, not to actually drive out any lingering spirits of course. When the CO says the father is the one who might have a legitimate complaint about it (Burns had been griping about it being “heathen”), Mulcahey says he wouldn’t miss it and explains, “Wondrous is man and mysterious the ways of God, and I would have no one shield my eyes from the glory of His works.” BY which he means “There’s more than one way to skin a spirit.” He seems a little too comfortable with other religions, to the point of treating them like they’re equally good ways to God.

This scene made me wrinkle my nose a bit, because I think it works against a really important point his character makes: that you can hold true to your particular beliefs and still help others practice them. Fr. Mulcahey is there to support the 4077 and their patients, and that doesn’t mean he has to stop being a Catholic – though it may mean he doesn’t expect them be. In most episodes, he walks the line pretty well. I’d say that’s a good model for today’s chaplains.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 7th, 2013 03:41 pm (UTC)
He seems a little too comfortable with other religions, to the point of treating them like they’re equally good ways to God.

This is always an interesting issue to me. Of course, remember that I am Buddhist and we don't really believe in a God, just a Right Path (proper/moral thoughts, speech and actions). But one of the things that draws me to Buddhism is that all Buddhist leaders, even the Dali Lama, repeat constantly, 'be whatever religion you want to be providing it leads you along the Path to Right Action. And all religions will do that if you understand them.' When I first had the privilege of speaking to the Dali Lama, I was Catholic and he (through his interpreter) strongly encouraged me to remain Catholic, but to read some Buddhist writings. And he recommended some. I really appreciated that. I am not certain if I believe in the Catholic God any longer. But I am certain that Buddhism has brought me closer to Jesus's teachings. And I really wonder if Jesus is so vain/jealous that He would really care what brought me there, as long as I got there somehow. I know the passage where Jesus warns about the difficulty/impossibility of getting into heaven without God. So I guess you could argue his views on this are pretty clear. Or could you argue that Godlike thoughts and actions are what God is supposed to lead us to and therefore get us into heaven? If that is so, as long as we get to those thoughts/actions.... I don't know.

Sorry. I usually avoid religious discussions because my thoughts are so different and I don't want to offend. But since I know you are open to discussions.... I am just really fascinated by this particular religious topic. My (scandalized) Catholic friends tell me that is so because I am justifying my current attitudes. I don't perceive that though. I don't feel the need to justify. Anyway....
May. 7th, 2013 04:20 pm (UTC)
No need to apologize. Even though I'm a Christian and speak in pretty explicitly Christian terms these days, I'm actually pretty far from a lot of my fellow Christians on issues like this. I believe that there is a truth (maybe even a Truth), and I believe that different people through their different religious and secular philosophies and traditions are trying to understand it. This Truth is greater than our human mind can wrap itself around it, so each of those traditions will get closer or further to that Truth - but no one has it perfectly, and certainly no one has cornered the market. I think Christianity comes closest, at least in the ways that matter most to me, but that's not the same thing as saying someone following Judaism or Buddhism or other traditions can't get closer than a particular Christian. That's not quite Buddhism, but in many ways it can be pretty similar.

I think I could have phrased that bit you quoted a little better, and I was a bit puzzled when I read it because it's not really what I meant - I was almost surprised I wrote it, but there it is! What really bothers me about Fr. Mulcahey's comments here is he seems to have lost his own Catholicism. I have no problem with chaplains helping other people draw strength from their own religions; that's a big part of why they're here. But in this episode, he seems to be saying that even for himself, there's no real difference between his Catholic traditions and this pagan exorcism. I'm not saying his statement is wrong; just that it bothered me in a way other moments didn't. (Also in fairness: I wasn't crazy about that episode and have only watched it the one time, so I may not have fully appreciated it.)

Still, he's a great reminder that you can be very spiritual, even religious, without insisting that everyone approach God the same way you do. I find it very refreshing to watch his character unfold.
May. 7th, 2013 08:26 pm (UTC)
I spent 15 years in uniform, and never once saw a Chaplain I didn't seek out deliberately. Now, I wasn't on any front lines, either, but I'm just saying that at least during my tenure, this was something I never, ever saw.
May. 7th, 2013 11:13 pm (UTC)
This kind of incident is either manufactured outrage, or else it's a new thing. I've heard enough reports from enough different organizations to make me think this isn't completely overblown. I'm glad to know it didn't always happen, though.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )



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