Written by Don Byrd

A chaplain in the Air Force Reserves has published a troubling column expressing his view that those who support the rights of all Americans to practice their faith are “counterfeit Christians” who “appeal to the Constitution and not to Christ.”

Chaplain Sonny Hernandez writes:

[I]s it wrong for a professing Christian service member to say, “I support the rights of all Americans to practice their faith since the Constitution protects their rights?” Absolutely!

This idea, particularly coming from a military chaplain, is outrageous for many reasons. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind in response.

First, Capt. Hernandez is of course free to believe according to his conscience and faith, including his belief that American Jews and Muslims, for example, are “unbelievers” who “worship false gods that will lead them to hell.” The controversial issue of salvation for non-Christians is a question of Christian theology, not public policy. As I have discussed in recent posts (here and here), personal theological beliefs do not disqualify an individual from public service. However, Hernandez’s post goes well beyond questions of theology. He encourages Christian service members to refuse support for the “rights of all Americans.” Though he does not explain what that refusal should look like, it suggests conduct that could impact fundamental liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.

Second, the duties of a military chaplain include ministering to those in their charge without regard to their religious beliefs (or lack of beliefs). The endorsement required for all chaplains must certify that the applicant is “willing to function in a pluralistic environment as defined in this Instruction and to support directly and indirectly the free exercise of religion by all members of the Military Services, their family members, and other persons authorized to be served by the military chaplaincies.” (my emphasis)

In other words, the chaplaincy may not be for everyone. Some Christian ministers may not feel comfortable counseling those who profess a different faith. That’s ok. But for those who do enter this important field of public service, a sensitivity to religious pluralism is a necessity, precisely because the U.S. Constitution does protect the rights of all Americans, including service members, to practice their faith or to practice no faith, whether Hernandez likes it or not.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, supporting the right of all Americans to practice their faith is not inconsistent with Christianity. Hernandez’s claim otherwise is belied by the many committed Christians devoted to the defense of religious liberty for all. Protecting and supporting the rights of non-Christians does not damage the Body of Christ. In fact, ensuring religious liberty for all Americans only increases the vitality of our faith. Religion must be voluntary to be a true and authentic expression of soul freedom.

Denying the rights of non-Christians is an offense to American liberty. But it also undermines the strength of the Christian faith by suggesting it is threatened by a truly free conscience. The success of a religion should not depend on the extent to which the rights of others are restricted. All faiths are stronger – Christianity included – when all are allowed to flourish on an equal footing, when the government is committed to religious liberty for all, when souls are free to follow their conscience.