The Ethical Dilemma: Can Military Chaplains Promote Religious Holidays?

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And Now Halloween Is a Christian Holiday? How much do I want to get into it with the chaplain at the federally funded military organization where I work as a civilian? He sent out a holiday message listing all sorts of events coming up (including Hindu and Muslim dates, which I’m not sure he characterized accurately), and he called Halloween a Christian holiday. My sensibilities are offended in several ways here! Aside from the Wiccan and pagan roots that predate the Christian All Hallows’ Eve, I’m also thinking about how he won’t be acknowledging Saturnalia on Xmas and Ishtar/Eostre on Easter in future holiday emails. As an atheist I am of course offended that there even is an email about the upcoming religious holidays.

I fired back an email noting that it’s not just Christians who currently or historically celebrate on October 31, suggesting if he wants to be inclusive, he needs to be more inclusive. And then he sent back a lovely invitation to come to his office and teach him about my faith (he seems to have concluded I’m Wiccan).

There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about taxpayer dollars being spent on chaplain salaries here. Faith is a huge part of the culture. When I took leadership classes for my job, the teachers mentioned the strength of their faith in their introduction blurbs, right alongside their PhDs. I put together, but haven’t sent, a long essay for the chaplain, complete with links to references. It explains how I’m an atheist, so honestly I wish he’d stop the whole religious holiday observations, but if he really must continue, he shouldn’t ascribe ownership of a day observed by various groups solely to the dominant religion that stamped out many others.

I realize that if you dig deep enough and go back far enough, there are probably too many different observances to recognize, and not much to be gained from attempting to acknowledge all of them. But there are real live nonbelievers and pagans in the military fighting for recognition and to have appropriate symbols on their tombstones. Chaplains are supposed to be a resource for counseling and crisis intervention (suicide prevention, substance abuse, sexual assault, etc.), so they should present themselves as accessible to all and not lay their faith on everyone they counsel. They shouldn’t alienate minority faith or nonreligious people.

I personally celebrate seasonal change and markers of our trip around the sun. I’m human and I need festivals, and I enjoy myths and symbols—I just don’t believe in the gods.

Should I just let this drop?

Let’s Keep Christ Out of Halloween (Unless That’s Your Costume)

Dear Out,

As you note, holidays celebrated on many dates, such as Halloween on October 31, may be known for Christian roots but can also have other ones (including the very cool Mexican Day of the Dead, which now coincides with Halloween but has ancient Aztec origins). Interestingly, some Christians actually disown Halloween. I have born-again, homeschooling friends who won’t celebrate because they believe it’s pagan/Satanic, but since 10/31 happens to be a family member’s birthday and they have a lot of kids, they have softened to allow themed costume birthday parties on that day. One time it was a Renaissance thing, another year it was Lord of the Rings. Just no devils or witches, please! I’ve also run into some strict Orthodox Jews who simply ignore Halloween. But aside from these and other exceptions, in general people in the US across all religions and none celebrate Halloween these days. It has become as American as apple (pumpkin?) pie.

This chaplain seems oblivious to the fact that all those pop-up costume stores, candy sales, haunted houses, and parades are not about Christians gearing up for All Saints Day on 11/1. And like you, I rue the fact that our tax dollars are paying for chaplains who send out fact-lite holiday messages. But it seems you’re stuck with that in your current employment.

It might not be a bad idea, however, to take him up on his invitation for you to enlighten him. See if he really is open to genuine dialogue (which goes for you too). Start by chatting, without firing off anything in writing or in anger. It’s certainly possible it could prove to be a waste of everyone’s time. It’s also quite possible he’s sincere in his desire to understand and embrace non-Christian traditions.

So make an appointment. Based on how receptive he is, you could follow up with those links to your references. Who knows? Perhaps his future emails can be less solipsistic and more in line with your broader views. And he might possibly become an advocate for people like you who not only are not Christian, but also not any of the other faiths whose holidays he acknowledges or ignores. Let’s hear it for celebrating solstices, equinoxes, and reason!