Bob Smietana of the Nashville Tennessean reports on Thomas Dyer, the first-ever Buddhist Army chaplain. Dyer was able to bypass some of the strict (and Christian-clergy favoring) military chaplaincy standards due to his former life as a Baptist pastor.
“A potential chaplain must have a master’s degree in religion. But some faiths, such as Buddhism and Wicca, don’t have seminaries, so they struggle to find chaplain candidates. Dyer qualified as a chaplain because already he had earned a master’s degree as a Baptist pastor before converting to Buddhism. Chaplains also need to be endorsed by a civilian religious group. The Department of Defense has approved few non-Christian endorsement groups.”
If this all sounds somewhat familiar it is because it deeply echoes the case of Don Larsen, a former Pentecostal Army chaplain in good standing who tried to become the first Wiccan Army chaplain only to get caught in a variety of spiteful bureaucratic actions from his former endorsing body and military superiors leaving him in a procedural limbo.
“While in the process of switching faiths within the chaplaincy (normally a routine process, involving some paperwork), a senior Army chaplain disclosed to the Pentecostal Church exactly what Larsen was switching to and as a result pulled their endorsement of Larsen before Sacred Well’s endorsement could be approved … Retired Army colonel Jim Ammerman, the president and founder of Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches admits that the church went against longstanding agreements among endorsers in pulling Larsen’s papers.”
Now, in light of this new breakthrough, could we see a second chance for Larsen or renewed hope for another would-be Wiccan Army chaplain? It remains to be seen, but some have wondered if the Army’s chaplaincy program is fundamentally broken, unable to adapt to a multi-religious reality.
“…some faith groups are overrepresented among chaplains. For example, there are 54 members of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America in the military, and 22 chaplains from the denomination. That’s one chaplain for every 2.5 church members. By contrast, there’s one imam per 353.5 Muslims, and one priest for every 1,086 Catholics. And there are no chaplains to serve the 3,214 Wiccans in the military. Recruiting chaplains from diverse faiths is a challenge, in part because the recruiting system favors Christians and Jews … In the end, Bergen, the Toronto professor, wonders if creating a diverse chaplain corps is possible…”
In a chaplaincy overrun with conservative evangelicals can any other faith grouping find a place or expect fair treatment? Is the case of Thomas Dyer a fluke or the beginning of a new trend to allow more religious diversity into the Army’s chaplaincy? What we do know is that modern Paganism is quickly approaching a time when it will have its own masters-granting seminaries in conjunction with several willing sponsoring organizations. The current maze of red-tape and various organizational “catch-22s” will not last forever, and we will soon find out if the Army is equally dedicated to serving the needs of its Wiccan soldiers as its Christian ones. Until then, I wish Thomas Dyer good luck, and hope he is the beginning of a brighter future.