The story so far:
Over the weekend, a number of the lefty blogs that I read carried a story about an army chaplain in Iraq. The story was by Meg Laughlin and syndicated by Knight-Ridder (and published in, at least, The San Jose Mercury and The Miami Herald) and concerned a chaplain named Josh Llano who had somehow found himself controlling a large quantity of water in a very hot and arid place. The story doesn't explain how he he found himself in this monopoly position. The good chaplain capitalized on his market dominance by insisting that any soldiers who want a bath must first sit through one of Llano's sermons (estimated at 90 minutes) and agree to be baptized (another hour). Laughlin treated the story as a cute human-interest piece about American entrepreneurship.
Most of the blogger response was outrage and disbelief (see Atrios, CalPundit, and Yglesias). And rightly so, I think. Some took action, tracked down the commanding general of the chaplain's corps, Maj. Gen. Gaylord T. Gunhus, and wrote complaints about Llano's behavior. American's United for Separation of Church and State, one of the premier religious liberty watchdog groups, had its legal department dash off their own letter. Gen. Gunhus promised an investigation and prompt action.
So far no one has managed to confirm the facts of the story or provide any follow up from Iraq. The whole business raises a bunch of questions. Does this guy really exist? How did he get a monopoly over that much water? The unit named is a supply unit; they should be handing water out, not sitting on it and making troops come beg to use it. In the article, Llano describes himself as a "Southern Baptist evangelist" and affiliated with the North American Mission Board, yet using coercion to gain converts is against their teaching. Is this just some late and not very funny April Fool's joke or reject from The Onion?
But if it is true, what's the big deal? Why do we lefties have our panties in such a collective bunch? After all, isn't the good chaplain just doing his job, doing what men of the cloth are supposed to do: using the tools at hand to try and save a few souls? Well no. That's not his job.
Chaplains are government employees. They get around the wall of separation by being regarded as necessary for the free practice of religion by the soldiers. Since the military is kept in a society that is often apart from many of the supporting institutions of civilian life, the government feels that it has an obligation to provide parallel institutions, so as not to create unnecessary, and possibly unconstitutional, hardship for the troops. Because soldiers are called on to work under extraordinary-potentially fatal-stresses, their desire for spiritual comfort is eminently reasonable. However, the responsibility of the government only extends as far as providing for the practice of a soldier's existing religion. The government does not have a duty to bring religion to those who do not have it. The government is strictly prohibited by the constitution from supporting one religion over any other. When a government employee uses his position to proselytize, he is in violation of the law. When he uses a strangle-hold over water in a climate with midday highs of 110 degrees to compel conversion he is in violation of common human decency.
Americans United's letter to the Army sums it up:
Especially at this time, it is imperative to be sensitive to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of all our soldiers regardless of faith. In fact, that is one of the requirements of the job description of an army chaplain. According to the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, a chaplain is required to be "[s]ensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members and civilians who work for the Army." Chaplain Llano's actions do not exemplify this commitment to religious pluralism and are therefore not in the best interest of our troops.
If there is an ounce of truth in the story, Chaplain Llano should be relieved of his position, shipped home, and subjected to the severest discipline available to the chaplain's corps. If the whole business is a hoax, someone needs to expose it as it is a terrible slander on an otherwise honorable and little publicised branch of the service.