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Monday, September 06, 2010

If it weren't so serious, it'd be funny.

We've all probably heard the aphorism that 'there are no atheists in foxholes.' As a literal statement of fact, the phrase is simply incorrect. There are, indeed, atheists, agnostics, and all manner of godless heathens in the armed forces, and many of them do, indeed, serve in combat. Still, there's a persistent tendency among a minority of the U.S. population to argue that the phrase is literally correct. Which is why I was so interested to read an article in the Wall Street Journal titled A Chaplain and an Atheist Go to War. And it's every bit as odd a story as you might expect:

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. There's one on the front lines here, though, and the chaplain isn't thrilled about it.

Navy Chaplain Terry Moran is steeped in the Bible and believes all of it. His assistant, Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Philip Chute, is steeped in the Bible and having none of it.

Together they roam this town in Taliban country, comforting the grunts while crossing swords with each other over everything from the power of angels to the wisdom of standing in clear view of enemy snipers. Lt. Moran, 48 years old, preaches about divine protection while 25-year-old RP2 Chute covers the chaplain's back and wishes he were more attentive to the dangers of the here and now.

It's a match made in, well, the Pentagon.

"He trusts God to keep him safe," says RP2 Chute. "And I'm here just in case that doesn't work out."

At first, this sounds a little like the sort of series idea someone would come up with on the Fox network: "One's an atheist! The other is a man of God! Together, they have to survive a war zone and find their own humanity in an inhuman place! [Cue the music; montage of battle scenes and grimy soldiers clasping hands] One Second from God. Coming this Fall, only on Fox!" Unfortunately, however, the situation is deadly serious as RP2 Chute is literally there to keep Chaplain Moran's ass in one piece. It's a near parallel to the myth that airlines always pair christian pilots with non-christian pilots in case the rapture strikes, with the exception that we're pretty sure that atheists, and snipers, actually exist, whereas god and the rapture are a bit more uncertain. Still, if this pairing sounds odd, you haven't heard anything yet:

Lt. Moran [the Chaplain] takes the Bible at its word, rejects the evolution of species and believes the Earth to be 6,000 years old. He carries a large Bible with him into the combat zone, while RP2 Chute totes writings of Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and fierce critic of the notion that God designed the universe.

Philip Chute was raised a devout Baptist in Nova Scotia and moved to Greenville, S.C., as a teen. His avid reading of the Bible, however, weakened his belief that fact lay behind faith. Soon he was a "full-blown atheist," he says.


Soon after they were assigned to work together, they had the inevitable discussion about RP2 Chute's beliefs.

At first the chaplain got the sense RP2 Chute was agnostic. "I can work with that," Lt. Moran recalls thinking.

But a few days later RP2 Chute dropped the A bomb: He was an atheist.

Appalled, Lt. Moran contacted his fellow chaplains. He says he was simply seeking counsel about whether atheists can really be chaplain's assistants. RP2 Chute is convinced Lt. Moran was trying to trade him in for a believer.

And the plot thickens! Not only is Moran a rather fundamentalist strain of chaplain, but Chute can actually cite chapter and verse of the bible back at him:

On a visit to Kilo Co., a Marine asked for a biblical ruling on tattoos. Lt. Moran said the Book of Leviticus bans them. RP2 Chute disagreed. Leviticus, he said, says people shouldn't get tattoos to mourn the dead.

Now that is just awesome. Again, however, the amusement I might feel is substantially lessened by the deadly reality of the situation:

"Hey, sir, don't get out of the vehicle until I lay down a sniper screen," Gunnery Sgt. Mark Shawhan, an agnostic with a suspicion of organized religion, instructed Chaplain Moran before the patrol. "That's where he's been getting us, and when you cross the bridge—RUN."

Lt. Moran wasn't troubled. "I believe the Lord is going to protect us," he said. But he wondered aloud whether to finish his Meal, Ready-to-Eat packaged lunch before heading to the armored vehicle.

Gunny Shawhan shook his head in disbelief.

When their turn came, the chaplain and his assistant bolted across the bridge and pivoted into a cornfield, where the minister stood upright. RP2 Chute shouted at Lt. Moran to get down. "Take a knee," he yelled.

The patrol zigzagged through fields and waded through ditches, the only sounds the rustling of corn leaves, the muted crackle of a radio and the distant thup-thup of a helicopter flying sentry above.

During a pause to allow the minesweepers to check for booby-traps on the path ahead, the chaplain, wearing his prescription eyeglasses instead of anti-shrapnel goggles, sat down on the bank of an irrigation ditch, dropped his backpack on the ground and snapped a few pictures. RP2 Chute grimaced when he noticed. Insurgents have seeded the entire town with powerful explosives, and Marines step in the exact footprints of the man ahead to minimize the risk.


"No matter what situation you find yourself in on planet Earth, God will protect you," he [Chaplain Moran] said after the patrol returned safely to base. "All He asks is that you trust and believe what He says. So, if I find myself in a combat situation, His promise of protection is still valid."

And, see, that's why all this isn't so funny. Chaplains absolutely belong in the U.S. military, regardless of the separation of church and state. Put bluntly, if the country is going to ask young men and women to put their lives of the line, they should be able to get spiritual counseling and comfort while they're doing it. That said, however, the chaplains- regardless of their own beliefs about the protection they may receive from god- should probably not behave in a way that's likely to get other people killed. I mean, you may believe that god will constantly intervene to save your butt from harm, but doesn't it show your compassion to take cover anyway so that others whom god may not be so fond of won't take a bullet? I like to think it does.

It's one thing to demand that your faith be respected, but it's quite another to expect that such respect also requires someone else to take a bullet for you for no good damn reason.

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Blogger Marf said...

Why would you pack around Richard Dawkins' books on the battlefield? I wouldn't want the extra weight. It's not like it's a religious text...

Monday, September 06, 2010 10:19:00 AM  

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