Can a person of faith serve in the military? As a retired military veteran, a Hispanic, and a man of deep faith, I was shaken to my core after reading a recent story about Chaplain (Capt.) Sonny Hernandez coming under fire for sharing commonly held biblical principles with his fellow Air Force servicemembers (“Air Force chaplain controversy: religious freedom vs. personal faith,” Sept. 21).
Unfortunately, it’s becoming the norm for Christians to come under attack for their personal faith. It happens every day in places all around the world, but increasingly it is happening in the United States, a country with a constitutionally protected right to religious freedom.
Thankfully for Hernandez, the Air Force did not follow up on the complaint filed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a group whose mission is to eradicate any religious influence in the military on the basis of instilling a “separation of church and state” — taken to mean that public life must be free of faith or any degree of religious influence.
This is not an accurate reading of our Constitution and its Establishment Clause protecting the free exercise of religion. While it’s true that the Constitution prohibits the establishment of a national church, it does not mean that there ought not be religious plurality.
Religious tolerance and religious freedom have served our country well. You might say this religious free market fostered healthy competition and innovation. Let’s remember the American colonies serving as refuges for various religious outcasts: Catholics to Maryland; Puritans to Massachusetts; Quakers, Lutherans and Jews to New York and New Jersey, for example.
This brings us back to Hernandez, whose duty is to support all servicemembers and to work in a pluralistic environment. From reports, it appears that he is carrying out this function well, while still believing in the biblical principle of Christian salvation. Sonny expressed this view in a blog post, writing: “Christian servicemembers must share the Gospel with unbelievers so they can be saved, not support unbelievers to worship their false gods that will lead them to hell.”
In other words, he’s encouraging his Christian brothers and sisters in the military to share the Good News of Jesus. This should not be controversial in a free and open society. Still, Hernandez said that he could have been more precise saying: “If I had to rewrite it, I would say this is my position. In no way would I try to tell anyone they are not equal or that someone deserves to be mistreated or is not worthy.”
I support Hernandez’ passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ because I have seen its power in my own life. As a young man I was involved in violent gangs in my native New Mexico. After my stepfather and two brothers lost their lives, I knew I had to find a way to get out. Joining the Army gave me purpose I never had, and hearing that I was loved by God and forgiven through the blood and sacrifice of Jesus — it turned my life around.
It’s a message that should be shared, but no one should be forced to accept. This is consistent with living in a free and open society that values religious tolerance and religious plurality.
We are incredibly fortunate and blessed to live in a country where you don’t have to choose between your faith and your citizenship. We are also blessed to live in a land where brave men and women like Hernandez put on the uniform to ensure that we enjoy these liberties.
Captain Hernandez, thank you for your service.
The Rev. Tommy Vallejos is a county commissioner in Montgomery County, Tenn. He retired after 21 years in the Army, including leading an infantry platoon from the 101st Airborne Division into combat during the Gulf War, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. He is active as a pastor and a gang awareness facilitator, and also serves as board chairman of Latinos for Tennessee, a group that promotes faith, family, freedom and fiscal responsibility across the state.