Religious bigotry in the
U.S. Armed Forces' Chaplain Service
Don Larsen had a religious conversion while on duty
as a Pentecostal chaplain in the Freedom Chapel at
Camp Anaconda, the largest U.S. support base in Iraq. A crisis had been brewing
for some time in Larsen's mind as he tried to harmonize his faith's
exclusive claims to salvation
and his belief in universal salvation. The bombing
of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, Iraq on 2006-FEB-22 was the trigger. He said:
"I realized so many innocent people are dying again in the name of God.
When you think back over the Catholic-Protestant conflict, how the
Jews have suffered, how some Christians justified
slavery, the Crusades, and now the fighting
between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, I just decided I'm
done. ... I will not be part of any church that unleashes its clergy to
preach that particular individuals or faith groups
are damned. ... In Iraq, I saw what was happening in the name of Allah
and I thought, 'This has got to stop.' ... The common core of all religions,
we're saying the same stuff. I just decided that the rest of my life I will
encourage people to seek out the light however they see fit, through the
Bhagavad-Gita, the Torah, the writings of prophets and sages -- whatever
path propels them to be good and honorable and upright."
Commenting on Wicca, he said:
"You can't intellectually talk about witchcraft. You gotta show up, What
Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and a lot of us universalists think is, people
need the magical side, the mythological side, of religion. We don't need
more Calvinist rationalizing. We need mystery.
We need horizons. We need journeys."
He first learned about Wicca, an Earth-centered,
Neopagan religion, during a Chaplain's Basic
Training Course at Fort Jackson, SC, in 2005. Chaplains are required to have
some knowledge of many different religions because they will have to meet the
spiritual needs of soldiers from diverse faiths. Larsen converted to
"In Iraq, I saw what was happening in the name of Allah and I thought:
'This has got to stop.' ... The common core of all
religions, we're saying the same stuff. I just decided that the rest of
my life I will encourage people to seek out the light however they see fit,
through the Bhagavad-Gita, the Torah, the writings of prophets and sages --
whatever path propels them to be good and honorable and upright."
On 2006-JUL-06, he applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S.
Armed Forces. Switching religious allegiances is a routine request among
chaplains, but it is normally from one Christian denomination to another. In
this case, he asked to be registered under a different religion.
By the end of the year, in spite of an unblemished service record:
His request was denied.
He was withdrawn from Iraq, and
He was removed from the chaplain corps.
Some Wiccans feel that his dismissal was ultimately cause by a
misunderstanding of the nature of their religion. Many Christians still believe the
religious propaganda that has been circulated groups within the Christian Church
since the burning times (late 15th century to late 18th century) when religious
minorities were accused of Witchcraft and Satanism --
the worship of Satan and either burned at the stake
or hung. In reality, Wicca is a benign religion whose followers believe in a
deity with male and female aspects. They do not believe in Satan or any other
Reactions to Larsen's dismissal:
David L. Oringderff, a retired Army intelligence officer and an elder in
the Sacred Well Congregation, Larsen's Texas-based coven, said: "Institutionalized
bigotry and discriminatory actions ... have crossed the line this time."
Kevin L. McGhee, Larsen's superior at Camp Anaconda, and a Methodist
chaplain, believes a "grave injustice" was done. He said:
"I could go on and on about how well he preached, the care he gave.
What happened to Chaplain Larsen -- to be honest, I think it's
political. A lot of people think Wiccans are un-American, because they
are ignorant about what Wiccans do."
Wiccans in the military:
The total number of Wiccans in the U.S. is unknown. It is an almost
completely decentralized religion and no central authority counts the membership. In 2001, the
Graduate Center of the City University of New York, conducted a massive
survey of over 50,000 American adults between 2001-FEB and APR. It is
called the ""American Religious Identification Survey."
2 They reported the following weighted estimates:
Wiccans: 134,000 (A rise from 8,000 in 1990!)
Pagans: 140,000 (This probably contains a large number of Wiccans who
prefer to identify themselves as Pagans
These estimates probably represent only a fraction of the actual
number of Wiccans in the U.S. Many Neopagans are quite reluctant to admit their faith to a stranger over the telephone.
In 2006-MAY, the Stars and Stripes newspaper reported that: "According to 2005 Defense Department statistics,
more than 1,800 active-duty service members identified themselves as Wiccans."
3 This is probably a partial count, because in 2007-FEB, the
Washington Post lists Pentagon data as including
1,511 Wiccans in the Air Force and 354 in the Marines -- for a total of 1,865.
1 Data for two larger branches of the military,
the Army and Navy, is not included. Some Wiccans estimate that there are at least 4,000 of their members in uniform. However,
many are reluctant to reveal their religion because of ridicule, harassment, and discrimination.
The Washington Post reports that:
"More than 130 religious groups have endorsed, or certified, chaplains to
serve in uniform. But efforts by Wiccan organizations to join the list have
repeatedly been denied by the Pentagon."
"Lt. Col. Randall C. Dolinger, spokesman for the Army's Chief of
Chaplains office, said the Sacred Well Congregation has met all the
requirements to become an endorser, except one: It has not presented a
'viable candidate.' The group's previous nominee was turned away because his
eyesight was not correctable to 20-20.
It is unclear why a chaplain, in a non-combat role, must have perfect
eyesight. The Post continues:
"When Larsen came along last spring, Sacred Well's leaders thought they
finally had someone the military could not possibly reject: a physically fit
6-foot-4 clergyman originally ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, who
holds a master's degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Moreover, Larsen had spent 10 years as an officer in the National Guard,
finished near the top of his class in chaplain's training and was already
serving as a chaplain in Iraq.
But Oringderff said that his group, like Larsen, underestimated the
institutional resistance. 'Each time we advance to a scoring position, they
change the rules,' he said.
Chaplains cannot serve unless they are endorsed by a recognized faith group.
The Sacred Well Congregation applied on 2006-JUL-31 to endorse In
Larsen's case the military. But the Army could not find a copy of his previous
endorsement from the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches. After the Army
contacted the Full Gospel Churches they acted quickly to cancel Larsen's
endorsement. Since the Sacred Well Congregation was not yet an official
endorser, Larsen was without an ecclesiastical endorsement. He was ordered to
cease functioning immediately as a chaplain. He was quickly relocated from Iraq.
Dolinger stated that no discrimination was involved. He said:
"What you're really dealing with is more of a personal drama, what one
person has been through and the choices he's made. Plus, the fact that the
military does have Catch-22s."
Jim Ammerman, founder of the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches noted
that there is a longstanding agreement that ecclesiastical endorsers do not
terminate the papers of a chaplain who wants to make a valid switch. He said:
"But if it's not a valid thing, all bets are off,. ... [Wiccans] run
around naked in the woods" [and] "draw blood with a dagger [in their
ceremonies]. You can't do that in the military. It's against good order and
Brig. Gen. Cecil Richardson, the Air Force's deputy chief of chaplains
"He's right, we can't have that in the military, but I don't think we've
had any of that in the military."
Ammerman appears to misunderstand the religion of Wicca. Wiccans do use a
sword or athame (a double edged knife) at their rituals. However, they never use
either for cutting or drawing blood. Wiccans in their rituals don't cut anything
higher on the evolutionary scale than an apple or orange. The Sacred Well
Congregation does not practice skyclad (ritually nude).
Richardson said that there are too few Wiccans in the military to justify a
full-time chaplain. However, the Washington Post quotes Pentagon figures to show
that this is an invalid claim:
Number of soldiers
Number of chaplains
Soldiers per chaplain
And for the 1,865 known Wiccans and the approximately 2,000 unidentified
Wiccans there are zero chaplains. The number of Wiccans in the military is
probably between the number of Jews and Muslims. Thus one could argue that there
should be something between 11 and 22 Wiccan priests in the Chaplain Service.
It is impossible to prove that the Larsen case is one of simply religious
bigotry. However, some aspects of the case match the Veterans' Administration
and its refusal to provide Wiccan symbols on tombstones,
even as it supplies them free to followers of a vast selection of religions.
Alan Cooperman, "For Gods and Country: The Army Chaplain Who Wanted to
Switch to Wicca? Transfer Denied," Washington Post, 2007-FEB-19, at: