The Canadian Armed Forces just got its first Humanist chaplain, and she’s hopefully going to be the first of many.
In an official endorsement announced yesterday, the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service said Captain Marie-Claire Khadij would be the first person to have that title (though she was already approved by the CAF on May 18).
Khadij had been a Catholic chaplain since 2017, but she drifted away from that religion over time. That’s not unusual. A few chaplains shift faiths each year, according to one administrator who works with chaplains, though it’s typically from one religion to another. This marks the first shift in the chaplaincy away from organized religion altogether.
Becoming secular won’t have any impact on her ability to do the job, though, because military chaplains aren’t supposed to push their beliefs on others. They’re supposed to help service members get the help they need, meeting them wherever they’re at.
“Relatively few members come to see chaplains for religious matters,” says Captain Khadij. “The majority of members come simply to speak with us and get support. Most members know that the religious or spiritual tradition of the chaplain does not change the kind of service they receive. Regardless of the chaplain, each member is welcomed, listened to and supported on their journey. And if they have specific faith questions, they can be referred to a chaplain of that specific tradition.”
In order to facilitate the transition from Catholic chaplain to Humanist chaplain, the CAF’s Interfaith Committee on Canadian Military Chaplaincy (ICCMC) and the Office of the Chaplain General says it worked with Humanist Canada to “enable and facilitate” that move. Humanist Canada also said it’s establishing its own form of accreditation for fellow Humanists to take on similar roles, which means Khadij is the first secular chaplain but she will likely not be alone for very long.
It’s long overdue, and Khadij seems perfectly capable of setting an example for everyone who will follow in her footsteps.
It’s also a reminder that this shouldn’t be a big deal! And yet, in the United States, there isn’t a single Humanist chaplain approved by any branch of the military. In 2014, Jason Heap, a candidate with impeccable credentials, was rejected from becoming one in the Navy. In 2018, despite a recommendation from the Navy Chaplain Appointment and Retention Eligibility Advisory Board, Republicans in Congress helped squash his appointment yet again. A letter signed by about two dozen Republican senators referred to his possible approval a “grave mistake.”
It wasn’t a mistake. Heap had jumped through the same hoops as religious chaplains. He had all the credentials. If he attached a religious label next to his name, his appointment wouldn’t have been questioned at all. It was only because of the anti-atheist bigotry of the Right that he couldn’t get the job.
That rejection ultimately hurt the ever-growing number of non-religious members of the Navy, along with other military branches, who have to continue seeing religious chaplains to meet their personal and emotional needs. That may not be a problem if those chaplains are doing their jobs, but Republicans deprived those service members of a chaplain who speaks their language for the sake of preserving their narrow view of what a Chaplain Corps should look like.
Keep in mind that while Humanist chaplains can’t get approval in the U.S. Armed Forces, Christian chaplains who openly brag about converting people while on the job receive no punishment whatsoever.
And yet, in Canada, Khadij was appointed as a Humanist chaplain without a problem. That’s how it ought to be done.