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Military Chaplains Orders: Follow Policy, Not Scripture

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CHARLESTON, S.C. -- A Navy chaplain could soon get booted out for biblical views some consider politically incorrect. Defenders of religious liberty warn that if that can happen to a chaplain, it means no service member's religious freedom is safe.

Lt. Commander Wes Modder points out it's essential to understand that he's not just a Navy chaplain; he's also an Assemblies of God minister. As such, Modder explained, he must accurately present his denomination's biblical viewpoints.

"It's important that I follow my conscience, my relationship with Jesus Christ, and my ordaining body, the Assemblies of God. I have to," Modder told CBN News in an exclusive interview.

And he did just that at the Naval Weapons Station, Joint Base Charleston. In following his denomination's conservative views, he took a strong stance in counseling sessions on subjects like sex outside marriage and homosexuality.

After several service members complained about his counseling, Modder's commander confronted him with a dossier that surprised the chaplain with how it made him look.

"I'm in Trouble!"

"I'm like 'Wow, this must be a terrible chaplain. But wait a minute, that's me! And that's not true. And I'm in trouble!'" Modder recalled.

He was blindsided when this controversy suddenly erupted around him because what was getting him in trouble was presenting the same viewpoints he'd been doing for the past 19 years.

He hasn't changed, but apparently the military culture has.

"The Navy accused Chaplain Modder of being politically incorrect, to put it succinctly," said Michael Berry, a Liberty Institute lawyer representing Modder.

"The accusation against him is that he's 'incapable of functioning in a pluralistic and diverse Navy,' Berry added. "Those are the exact words used. And that therefore he should be removed from the Navy."

Berry is also director of Military Affairs at the Liberty Institute, a religious rights group. His colleague, General Counsel Jeff Mateer, sees these attacks in the military rapidly increasing.

"You've got chaplains who are being told they can't share their personal faith testimony," Mateer told CBN News. "You've got chaplains who are being told that in one-on-one counseling, they can't share biblical principles."

Follow Policy or Scripture

"Policy may change, culture may change, but God's Word will never change," Modder explained. "I will be truthful to Scripture no matter what."

"If we come to a point where the Navy is going to ask me 'follow policy or follow Scripture,' there's no question for me where I'm going to fall out," he said.

Mateer took a look at the big picture.

"Unfortunately, I think our government and certainly the Obama administration and the leaders at the Pentagon are engaged in a social experiment where they're really trying to transform society," he said. "The impact of that is starting on our chaplains."

There are people in high places, however, coming to Modder's defense. Thirty-six members of Congress wrote to the Navy on his behalf, including Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga. This is a special matter to him.

"I share something different than all of my other colleagues: I'm an Air Force chaplain," he explained. "I'm an Air Force reservist who's served in Iraq, who's been overseas. For me, this is just personal."

Collins expanded on Modder's point that chaplains are duty-bound not just to present the Navy's viewpoint, but that of the denomination they serve.

"All chaplains serve under we'll just sort of say two masters. They're full military officers under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. They follow every military protocol," he explained. "But at the same point, they're also endorsed by their specific denominational group. And they have to live within its tenets."

Tremendous Ripple Effect

Those involved in Modder's case say if he loses, it could set a frightening precedent.

"The worst-case scenario is that there's going to be a purge of any chaplain who actually believes in something," Mateer said.

But Modder and Berry suggest it could be even worse than that.

"If it turns negative for me, that's going to create a tremendous ripple effect," Modder warned.

Berry believes this faith-bashing will quickly lead to fewer Americans of faith joining up or staying in the service.

"Because people of faith who are in the military are going to look at that environment and think, 'This is a hostile environment. I don't want to be here anymore,'" he explained.

"They're going to begin leaving," he said. "They're going to say, 'I will find something else to do where my faith and my service is valued.'"

He suggested people put themselves into the shoes of a new recruit.

Imagining himself as that recruit, Berry said, "And then all of a sudden I start hearing all these stories about 'Well, did you hear about the chaplain who got kicked out of the Navy because of his religious beliefs?' 

"I'm going to do a double-take and think, 'Well, wait a minute. If a chaplain can be punished and kicked out of the Navy because of what he believes, I don't stand a chance,'" he said.

The Warrior Ethos

"We are jeopardizing the very fabric of what I believe the American military is made of," Modder warned.

Modder and Berry both worry about how such attacks on religious liberty might affect the fighting ability of the military.

"Faith is part of the DNA of the warrior ethos," Berry, who is a combat veteran and former Marine, explained. "And faith is what gets you through the horrors of combat."

A study of War War II veterans found what made them stand and fight.

"It was faith; it was prayer. That's what got them through," Berry said.

"In wartime situations, I can tell you that there are a lot of people calling upon the name of God and Jesus Christ," Modder stated.

"That has remained very much part of our warrior ethos up until very recently," Berry added. And now we're seeing these efforts to get rid of that."

In this age of terror and global threats, Rep. Collins insisted America's troops must not be left spiritually high and dry.

"They need their spiritual guidance. They need their chaplains to be there to help them through these things," he said.

Effect on National Security

"I'm not even afraid to say that I think it could have a profound effect on national security," Berry suggested.

Today's global war with ISIS and al Qaeda is all about faith and ideas.

"If we're going to be able to fight and win the war of ideas, we need our service members to be spiritually prepared, every bit as much as they are physically prepared," Berry said.

But critics warn the military is losing sight of how important unfettered faith is for its warriors.

"This is an issue in which I believe we have to stand up for religious freedom for all," Collins said.

"That's the reason that we broke off from tyranny," Modder stated. "That's the reason that we came to this great country, is to have the freedom of religion, the free exercise of religion."

Modder told CBN News he'll keep fighting for his religious liberty.

"I don't want to leave the Navy the way it's happening today. I don't want to be bullied because I don't agree with everybody," he said. "I don't think any chaplain -- I don't think any American in the workspace -- should have to be bullied because they have a particular faith."

Critics warn what the Navy has to remember in going after Chaplain Modder: it's not just dealing with the fate of one man but the believability that there really is religious freedom in today's military.

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About The Author


As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress. Strand began his tenure at CBN News in 1985 as an evening assignment editor in Washington, D.C. After a year, he worked with CBN Radio News for three years, returning to the television newsroom to accept a position as editor in 1990. After five years in Virginia Beach, Strand moved back to the nation's capital, where he has been a correspondent since 1995. Before joining CBN News, Strand served as the newspaper editor for