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.