There are no atheists in foxholes…but maybe there should be.
At least, that seems to be the trend afoot in today's pluralistic military, where religious expression—conditionally allowed under existing regulations—is fast becoming more of a job liability than incoming enemy fire.
According to Directive 1300.17, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) will accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs—unless they are deemed as having an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, or good order and discipline. However, the subjectivity of these conditions makes them susceptible to the whims of commanding officers, leaving the openly faithful grossly exposed, far from the shelter of any foxhole.
Lt. Cmdr. Wes Modder, 49, found this out the hard way when he was handed a "detachment for cause"—the military's version of a pink slip—last February for being "intolerant and unable to function in the diverse and pluralistic environment" of the United States Navy. His offense? Offering biblical perspectives on homosexuality and premarital sex during pastoral care sessions in the commission of his duties—as a chaplain. Turns out, not even the ordained are immune from the burden of political correctness.
"These were very intimate and private conversations that were intended to be confidential," he tells Citizen. "It's normal for pastors to have conversations around those topics. So with these very intimate, very private topics, I answered from a biblical viewpoint, and (some people) did not like that. One sailor decided to complain, and that's how it all started."
Called out of the boat, Modder—like Peter—stepped into rough, uncertain seas, determined to take a bold stand for his job, his family and his faith.
Out of the Boat
Growing up in Clio, Michigan, Modder was the oldest of four boys in what he calls a "church family." The Modders would hit two church services every Sunday at the Assemblies of God in Flint and work on outreach and community service in between.
"Occasionally, I would volunteer at a local rest home with my mother, and help with a ministry for retirees," he says. "Essentially, I grew up in church—I was very active in the church."
Despite being blessed with tremendous size, Modder never took to sports. Instead, his main pursuit was with a church group called the Royal Rangers.
"It was like Boy Scouts but a Christian organization within the Assemblies of God," he says. "I was heavily involved with them my entire childhood, all the way to when I was 18 years old. I received the gold medal of achievement, which is the highest award in the Royal Rangers program, so a lot of my upbringing revolved around that. In Royal Rangers, we camped and hiked and were mentored by men 'to reach, teach, and keep boys for Christ.' "
The outdoorsy brotherhood of the Royal Rangers is likely what attracted him to his next club: the United States Marines.
Enlisting at 18, Modder deployed to Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and the Philippines and also served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia. After eight years in the Marines, Modder left and worked full-time in the ministry for another eight years. That's when, he says, God delivered new orders.
"My former endorsing agent from The Assemblies of God pursued me and sought me out for the chaplaincy," he explains. "He thought that I would be a good fit as a chaplain, and I thought so, too. I saw the spiritual need for religious ministry in the military. Having been in the Marine Corps and seeing what chaplains do, I thought that might be something I'd consider."
Things didn't get much further than consideration for Modder until he crossed paths with retired Navy Chaplain Charles Marvin at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in 1998.
"I took a few courses and we had a chance to meet and talk. Then the Chief of Navy Chaplains called me. He is the current Senate chaplain, Barry Black," Modder says. "He wanted to meet me, so they flew me out to D.C. to interview me in person. I was the very first chaplain candidate to do what is called the One Stop Program, where they don't just evaluate you on paper, but they meet you and interview you in person. It was a unanimous decision to accept me. They felt that I would serve very well as a Navy chaplain, and I accepted the commission."
Modder's obedience paid off in a number of assignments that would defy the quiet sanctity of most ministry jobs—being deployed to Samoa, working aboard the destroyer U.S.S. Bunker Hill and, deploying several times with Navy Special Warfare Command, in support of the Navy SEALs.
His work with the SEALs also included time in Afghanistan with DEVGRU, better known as SEAL Team 6. Modder was also among the first to offer counsel to the families of those who fell in the 2012 attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and continues to meet with them to this day. Put plainly, he has been in a class of his own as a chaplain.
Then, in 2014, he accepted an assignment as command chaplain at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina. Months after starting at the base, Modder was praised for his work by his superiors and recommended for a promotion to commander.
It was only shortly afterward that Modder was
condemned by the Navy for expressing his views during closed, private sessions with sailors on base. As a result, the Navy requested that he be:
Removed from the promotion list (where he was ranked as "Early Promote," the highest rating possible).
"Detached for Cause," which is the military equivalent of being fired, and
removed from his unit.
Brought before an official Board of
Inquiry, where he could potentially be forced out of the Navy.
It was then that Modder sought help from the Liberty Institute, a law firm specializing in religious-freedom cases—the other end of the "red phone" for those who feel their constitutional freedoms are being threatened.
Out of the Furnace
"He contacted me on a Friday morning," says
Michael Berry, the firm's senior counsel and director of military affairs, who previously served as a lawyer in the Marines. "He was quite desperate. He'd reached out to a number of law firms and had been unsuccessful. We were recommended to him for our work defending service members and their religious liberties."
Berry knew Modder's case held particularly far-
reaching consequences, win or lose. The repression of Christian expressions of faith is becoming far too common in the military, he explains, citing another case where a Marine was court-martialed for refusing to remove a Bible verse that she had taped to her computer. Citing her shared desk and the DoD Directive, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Appeals ruled that "it is not hard to imagine the divisive impact to good order and discipline that may result when a service member is compelled to work at a government desk festooned with religious quotations." Modder's case, however, involved religious expression where it should be expected, elevating the stakes.
"My initial reaction was, 'My goodness, if a chaplain is not allowed to be a chaplain, then nobody's religious freedom is safe anymore,' " Berry says. "You have these kids who come from these faith-based backgrounds and they hear all these rumors that you give up your constitutional rights when you join the military. They look around and they see the chaplain is being kicked out for his religious beliefs. If this is left unchallenged, there'll be a profound 'chilling effect,' where if you're a person of faith and you even think about expressing a religious viewpoint that is in conflict with the popular opinion of the day, you're going to get kicked out of military."
That effect, Berry says, can (and has) led to people of all faiths leaving the military early or failing to join altogether. Gone unchecked, such an effect could deplete the ranks of the armed forces, creating a clear and present danger to national security.
Coping with the implications and what it could mean for him and his family a year away from being eligible for retirement, Modder found comfort in a familiar place.
"One of the Bible verses I relied on was Daniel 3:18: 'But even if he does not [save us], let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.' "
Detached for Cause
Over the course of several weeks, things went from serious to dire for Modder.
"Initially, the investigator reported back and recommended a reprimand—a slap on the wrist," says Berry. "The commanding officer said that wasn't good enough. So the investigator said maybe just caution him, and the commanding officer said he should be detached for cause and sent to a board of inquiry, which is an involuntary separation from the Navy."
But last September, a two-star admiral at Navy Personnel Command rejected the recommendation to dismiss Modder, exonerating him from all charges.
"The ruling in our favor out of court was certainly the most unexpected twist," says Berry. "We were fairly certain that we'd have to go to court to vindicate Chaplain Modder. But we were very excited and grateful for the favorable ruling."
Modder had been saved from the furnace, and given his choice of duty station, but the ordeal wasn't without consequence.
"It's been difficult. The emotional toll has been very high," Modder tells Citizen. "I had to put my entire career on the line. It's been one of the most difficult things my wife and I have ever gone through in our 21 years of marriage. It impacted my children and my home, but that's the cost of being in ministry."
Modder has since relocated his family to San Diego, and although he became eligible to retire last September, he has chosen to stay on "until the Lord moves me on." Importantly, he says the whole ordeal will have no impact on his style of ministry.
"I'm a minister. I'm always going to fall on the side of Scripture and give the biblical view, so this is not going to change how I take care of people," he says. "I think sometimes people are almost trying to discourage me from talking to them by saying, 'I'm gay' or 'I'm an atheist' or 'I'm an agnostic.' That's not really how military chaplains operate. We're working with people all the time. People are hurting. I'm here to talk to them, no matter what their beliefs. I want to be available for them, to help them and to be a friend. So I'm going to take care of people no matter what the military does. It goes back to following Jesus' model. As chaplains, we must be truthful and follow our ordination. Otherwise, why are we here?"
So what does this experience really signal for the military, or the country as a whole?
"It made me realize that comfortable Christianity is over," Modder says. "I think we are living in a time where we have to stand up. It's a new reality."
"I think it's very precarious right now," he says. "If you are a person of faith or a proponent of constitutional liberty as understood by our founding fathers, these are trying times. I think the military is the proverbial canary in the mineshaft. We've often seen social changes implemented in our military as a forbearer of what we see in society as a whole."
For now, Modder is just happy to be back where he belongs, meeting the spiritual needs of the men and women of the U.S. military. And, as a result of what he's gone through, he is doing so with greater conviction.
"There's a lot of pain that comes with ministry," he explains. "A lot of times we want to avoid pain. I don't want pain, but God uses pain to shape us and to mold us, and I am better today for it. It's not something
I would wish anyone to go through, but a lot of good has come out of it. I'm a much better minister. I cry easier, I preach better, I love my family more. Those are the benefits of going through a trial. I don't believe God wastes any of it. But I wouldn't wish it on anybody."