In July 1950, during the Battle of Taejon early in the Korean War, enemy forces cut off and trapped a number of wounded U.S. troops who could no longer move across the difficult terrain. One Army chaplain, Herman Felhoelter, provided physical and spiritual care even as North Korean soldiers approached. After ordering the medic assisting him to flee, the chaplain continued to minister to the wounded up until the moment he was shot along with his men.
Felhoelter’s story is only one among many throughout the distinguished history of our military chaplaincy. For 247 years, the U.S. Army has provided for chaplains in order to facilitate the free exercise of religion by those serving in our armed forces — such as those who lay wounded and dying on the Korean Peninsula that day. Who knows what spiritual care and comfort they drew from Chaplain Felhoelter as they took what they likely knew were their last breaths?
While closer to home and removed from such daily reminders of our mortality, the chaplaincies of the U.S. House and Senate — and other bodies of government — are no less essential. Our elected officials at all levels and of all parties are constantly being called upon to make very difficult decisions, and they need spiritual wisdom that chaplains can help provide.
An account known as the Judgment of Solomon describes the delicate wisdom required of government officials. The Book of 1 Kings tells of two mothers (each with a baby of their own) who came to King Solomon. One baby had died, and the remaining baby was being claimed by both women as their own. Solomon directed that this baby be divided in half, with each woman receiving an equal portion. When one woman cried out in protest and asked that the baby be given to the other, Solomon realized that she was the living baby’s mother.
Such wisdom in ascertaining the truth is incredibly valuable. We should encourage our elected officials to seek it. Chaplains can help them find it.
Still, some doubt whether religion should be in our public life. Skeptics should look to accounts like that of a former bank robber and the FBI agent who arrested him, a story that reveals a friendship and reconciliation that only happened because faith played a role in the criminal justice system. When agent Richard Beasley showed up at John Ponder’s home the day after he was released from prison to let him know he had been praying for him, he found out that Ponder had actually come to faith in prison. The men went on to become good friends, and Ponder now runs the Hope for Prisoners ministry to help prisoners transitioning back into society.
Despite its obvious benefits, some still suggest that religion in public life is somehow vaguely improper, or unconstitutional. They reiterate claims like “church-state separation is the law of the land.” Yet this assertion is simply inaccurate. There is no legally required “separation” of faith from the public square, at least not in any broadly applicable way that could justify such a statement.
In the face of the overwhelming benefit of religion in public life, it is inevitable that the “separation” argument will be revealed for the foolishly unworkable argument it is. Our Navy servicemembers sing the Navy hymn, “Eternal Father,” to call for God’s help on the seas; must we declare that to be “unconstitutional” too?
When the government calls service men and women away from home and requires them to serve our nation around the world, it has a special duty to provide for their spiritual care. This is one of the reasons that even under today’s increasingly far-fetched judicial interpretations of the First Amendment, the military chaplaincy is upheld — it is no Establishment of religion, and the Free Exercise Clause actually requires it.
Members of Congress are also called away to our nation’s capital for much of the year. While they are not deployed on an aircraft carrier, they are often separated from their families and hometowns at length. This makes caring for their spiritual needs a heightened responsibility. In addition, they should be able to call for spiritual wisdom for the decisions they face — regardless of their party or political views.
Military service members rely upon chaplains for spiritual strength and comfort. Shouldn’t we allow our elected officials the freedom to do the same?