Saturday, April 12, 2003

Lots of bloggers were up in arms about the Army chaplain who supposedly had exclusive access to water in a particular area and wouldn't let soldiers have access to it unless they agreed to listen to a sermon and be baptized.

Now Radley Balko posts this item suggesting that the chaplain may have been joking around with the reporter, who took it far too seriously:
My friend who has connections to the big cheese Army chaplains writes with an update on the Army chaplain who boasted about withholding water from troops until they accepted Jesus:
So I spoke with the chaplain who I go to church with. He was the one who was initially saying that the man was going down.

Their investigation is far from complete, but he told me that it appears to be a case of a young, stupid chaplain not following the first rule of chaplain/journalist relations: Journalists either willfully or unknowingly don't understand religious humour.

Apparently the guy was making a deliberate joke and was completely in jest. Already, all the typical suspects -- People for the American Way, ACLU, Separation of Church and State folks, etc. -- are threatening litigation.
I suspected that the chaplain was joking from the first time I read the story. At the end of the article that started it all, you find this:
Earlier this week, word went out that portable showers might be installed here soon, but Llano was undaunted.

''There is no fruit out here, and I have a stash of raisins, juice boxes and fruit rolls to pull out,'' the chaplain said optimistically.
Isn't it pretty obvious, even in print without the advantages of seeing his facial expressions and hearing his tone of voice, that this chaplain was just pulling someone's leg?

Anyway, it was always unclear to me just what people found objectionable about the story in the first place. My friend Eugene Volokh wrote, "Federal employees can't distribute federal property (and I'm pretty sure that Llano didn't truck the 500 gallons of water himself in his personal stores) based on religion. They can't say 'Only Christians get to bathe, others don't; they can't say 'You can only get to bathe if you agree to become a Christian.'"

Well, sure. But the chaplain didn't say that at all. He never said, "Here's a pool of water in which you can bathe, but only if you're a Christian and participate in a separate ceremony of baptism." Rather, he was telling people, "I will baptize you -- which might feel really nice, by the way -- if you are really and truly interested in becoming a Christian." And what's wrong with that? I would assume that chaplains have every right to say, "I will only baptize people who are really interested in becoming a Christian, not just anyone who walks up and wants a bath."

Granted, if the chaplain was speaking seriously, he shouldn't be attempting to entice people to undergo religious ceremonies for mercenary reasons -- but that is a matter between him and God. But as for whether it's fair to the soldiers, there is nothing wrong with a chaplain of the Christian faith making a religious ceremony available only to people of his faith. What else would you expect?

If a Jewish chaplain said that he had matzah available for Jewish soldiers to eat at Passover seder, no one would find that shocking, even if the chaplain added jokingly that it was nice to have something to eat other than MREs. We wouldn't expect the Jewish chaplain to use up all his supply of matzah handing it out to every random hungry soldier who walked by, and we shouldn't expect the Christian chaplain to use up his baptismal water giving baths to soldiers who aren't Christians and don't intend to be. Right?


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