Military Chaplains: Connecting Some Dots in the Ongoing Revolution against Religion

May 12, 2022 | Freedom Forum

Barry W. Bussey

“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”

So said David McCullough, an American historian who authored some of the most engaging biographies of American leaders.  McCullough’s pithy statement is profound.  Our present is wrapped up in the package that history gave us.  Our lives, our understanding of the world, our very essence: all are, in no small part, due to the previous generations who, in turn, looked back to their forebearers for understanding.

Our history is us.  No matter how many statues we tear down.  No matter how many words we seek to redefine.  No matter how wilfully we ignore what went before.  The reality remains: history plays a huge role in defining us in the here and now.

Of course, recognizing this does not mean we celebrate every aspect of our past; there are blots as well as beauty in our heritage. But remembering both the achievements and failures allows us to grow as individuals and communities. If we see only faults and oppression in our history, we are left with nothing but shame on which to build our identities: hardly a healthy basis for human flourishing.

In fact, I suggest we are experiencing a form of social contagion that aims to destroy, through redefinition, the institutions that give shape, stability, and strength to our society. These include schools, universities, businesses, government and, most noticeably, religious institutions, which are targeted for a massive takedown. 

It may be that the desire to dismantle long-lasting institutions is part of the human condition. We see it in the impulse that tempts someone to pick up a stone when he sees a stained-glass window: instead of admiring the talent, time, or resources that created the work of art, he revels in the transient thrill of smashing the glass. 

Writing in the 1950s, C. S. Lewis described this kind of contempt for the past as “chronological snobbery” – in his words, the “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”[1] Lewis observed that we ourselves live in a “period” of time which has “its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”[2] In our current, progressive age, one of those unquestioned assumptions (at least for many in the halls of government or learning) is the notion that religion is unequivocally harmful, discriminatory, and oppressive. Thus, to be on the “right side of history,” we must hurl rocks of condemnation through the religious principles and traditions that have guided believers for millennia.  

Of course, this attitude is not new. We can see it in Voltaire’s battle cry against the church, “ecraser l’infame” (crush the infamous), which was taken up by the French Revolutionaries as a call to destroy all religion.[3] In the violent overthrow of institutions, even the calendar, with its religious holidays, was replaced with a “rational” new decimal system, while Christian churches were converted into atheistic Temples of Reason. In the centuries since that upheaval, those seeds of animosity against religion have taken root and matured. Religion is no longer seen as offering spiritual solace or moral guidance. It is now viewed as nothing more than discrimination. “Égalité” remains the slogan for today’s experts who advocate for the annihilation of religion and religious freedom.[4]  

Just listen to what the National Defence Advisory Panel on Systemic Racism and Discrimination[5] said about religion as it relates to the military chaplaincy:

It is necessary as well to recognize that, for some Canadians, religion can be a source of suffering and generational trauma. This is especially true for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirited members of Canadian society. And Indigenous Peoples have suffered unimaginable generational trauma and genocide at the hands of Christian religious leaders through initiatives such as Residential School and Indian Day School programs.

Another important point is that […] some of the affiliated religions of these chaplains do not subscribe to an open attitude and the promotion of diversity.

For example, some churches’ exclusion of women from their priesthoods violates principles of equality and social justice, as do sexist notions embedded in their religious dogmas. In addition, certain faiths have strict tenets requiring conversion of those they deem to be “pagan,” or who belong to polytheistic religions. These faiths’ dogmas and practices conflict with the commitment of the Defence Team to value equality and inclusivity at every level of the workplace.

[…] [The Defence Team] cannot justify hiring representatives of organizations who marginalize certain people or categorically refuse them a position of leadership.

The Advisory Panel has observed that there are varying degrees of misogyny, sexism and discrimination woven into the philosophies and beliefs of some mainstream religions currently represented in the cadre of chaplains in the CAF.[6]

In this caricature of religious faith and practice, there is no acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by the military chaplains who gave of themselves to assist soldiers in dire need throughout the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) history.  For example, Padre John Foote, VC, served with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry during WWII.  Foote carried the wounded to landing craft during the Dieppe raid in August 1942 and courageously refused to be evacuated. He chose to be captured with those who stayed on the beach, and remained a prisoner of war until May 1945.

Nor does the panel acknowledge the various beliefs and religious commitments of the military as a whole. Do all members of the CAF find religious beliefs unacceptable?  Or is it just the advisory panel and the government that feels so strongly?  Are the doctrines of Christianity, Islam and Judaism so problematic that members of the military cannot embrace the Abrahamic faiths without offending the advisory panel? In other words, should the entire military ranks be purged from holding “discriminatory” beliefs?

Among the panel’s recommendations is:

6.1 Do not consider for employment as spiritual guides or multi-faith representatives Chaplaincy applicants affiliated with religious groups whose values are not aligned with those of the Defence Team. The Defence Team’s message, otherwise, is inconsistent.[7]

The acceptable narrative today, as promulgated by Canada’s “progressive” opinion, is that religion is a source of pain for those who find traditional teachings on morality anachronistic and indeed harmful.  It matters not that the individual chaplains prove themselves to be compassionate, sensitive, and non-discriminatory in service to the soldiers.  What matters is that the padre and the religious community he or she represents may hold “unacceptable” views on behaviour and leadership within the religious community. To hire such chaplains would be seen as condoning their religious views, which is against diversity and inclusion.[8]

This is the same flawed logic that the Supreme Court of Canada used in denying Trinity Western University a law school.  TWU’s requirement that its students sign on to a community covenant agreement was deemed “degrading and disrespectful.” It mattered not that TWU was a private school with a Charter right to freedom of religion.  When the zeitgeist says that religious practice is akin to discrimination, there is no need to accommodate.

Similarly, with the present case of the CAF, in the name of anti-discrimination the panel has recommended discrimination against those with whom it disagrees – not the least of whom are those members of the military who hold the same religious beliefs, if not membership, as the chaplains who have been singled out for opprobrium.

The rejection of our historical roots is a rejection of who we are.  Religion remains one of the key identifiers of Canadians.  According to Statistics Canada, some 68% of Canadians report a religious affiliation.  The Pew Research Centre says that 55% of Canadians identify as Christian, with 14% identifying as “other” religions. 

Not everyone will agree as to matters of religion.  That is okay.  We are a multicultural society that had, and still has, a strong affinity to the Christian religion.  The question is how we move forward so that everyone can live their lives as they see fit. 

We must resist the zero-sum game that would, for example, remove the religious chaplain who holds “unacceptable” views on social issues.  Rather, we would do well to recognize that the basis of religious community is formed on foundational understandings of human relationships. These communities are not to be shunned but embraced as we live together in a country that supports freedom of conscience. A country that recognizes that there are profound differences of opinion, yet works together to maintain civil peace, is a country worth living in!


[1] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955), at 206-08.

[2] Ibid, at 208.

[3] Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Voltaire, The Story of Civilization IX (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), at 738. The Durants note, “We may conclude that by l’infâme he meant not religion in general, but religion as organized to propagate superstition and mythology, to control education, and to oppose dissent with censorship and persecution.  And such was Christianity as Voltaire saw it in history and in France.”

[4] The irony, of course, is that the concept of equality is embedded in religious teachings that recognize the equal worth of all human beings as created by God. 

[5] Note that the panel of four retired CAF members, struck in 2020, was tasked with studying discrimination in the CAF in order to “eliminate racism and discrimination within the organization.”

[6] “Minister of National Defence Advisory Panel on System Racism and Discrimination with a focus on Anti-Indigenous and Anti-Black Racism, LGBTQ2+ Prejudice, Gender Bias, and White Supremacy: Final Report” (January 2022), at 42, online: file:///C:/Users/Admin/Documents/First%20Freedoms/Forum%20Blog/mnd-ap-final-report-7-jan-2022.pdf

[7] Ibid, at 43.

[8] It is worth pointing out that this notion of “condoning” runs contrary to the whole concept of pluralism, not to mention the rule of law, which is based on the understanding that the government treats everyone equally, regardless of their identity. This equal treatment before the law does not mean that the government is endorsing the beliefs or practices of every citizen, it simply means that every citizen is respected and remains free to participate lawfully in society without fear of reprisal or repression.

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