An advocacy group sometimes at odds with military chaplains sent a letter to the defense secretary last week calling for an investigation into a senior Army chaplain in South Korea who used military email to send 35 subordinates copies of a book that said coronavirus is part of God’s punishment for sins.
Though critics said the message was sent on an improper platform, one first amendment advocate said there’s nothing wrong with military chaplains sharing theology in that way.
Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said he’s representing 22 Christian military chaplains from multiple services, not all of whom were included on the original email. He said the individuals complained about the unsolicited theology distributed by Camp Humphreys garrison chaplain Col. Moon H. Kim and written by Christian preacher John Piper.
In his free online book, “Coronavirus and Christ," Piper wrote that the current global pandemic is part of God’s judgment.
“Some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions,” the book reads. “God sometimes uses disease to bring particular judgments upon those who reject him and give themselves over to sin.”
One of the sins listed in the same chapter is “homosexual intercourse.” Piper cites scripture in which the apostle Paul explained that men who “gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another" received “the due penalty.”
“The coronavirus is, therefore, never a clear and simple punishment on any person,” Piper wrote. “The most loving, Spirit-filled Christian, whose sins are forgiven through Christ, may die of the coronavirus disease. But it is fitting that every one of us search our own heart to discern if our suffering is God’s judgment on the way we live.”
The book sends a message to military personnel that lacks pastoral care and comfort, said Weinstein.
“So, if a Chaplain or service member or family member is infected with Coronavirus do they now believe that the Senior Chaplain at USAG Humphreys thinks it is because of some awful sin on their part?" Weinstein asked in his letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
Pentagon chief spokesman Jon Hoffman declined to comment on the situation. Kim also did not respond to a request for comment sent Friday. Camp Humphreys officials said they’re aware of the complaint, but did not go into greater detail.
“If the content of the internal email is determined to be in violation of any DoD policy or regulation, the command will take appropriate action,” garrison officials said in a statement.
In a copy of the email shared with Army Times, Kim did not explicitly endorse Piper’s book but instead wrote that it helped him refocus on his own role as a chaplain during the pandemic.
“Hopefully this small booklet would help you and your Soldiers, their Families and others who you serve,” reads the message.
There’s nothing wrong with sending that through military email, said Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, a legal organization focused on religious freedom.
“To the contrary, when a chaplain is engaging in what chaplains do every day, it’s protected,” said Berry, a prior Marine judge advocate who also taught at the Army’s chaplain school.
“The training they receive there is very robust and they’re very accustomed to dealing with other chaplains and service members who have beliefs very different from their own," Berry added. "[They] understand that the fact that somebody is merely sharing something with you doesn’t mean you’re required to believe what they believe.”
Army Times spoke with two people involved in the complaint, one a current active-duty military chaplain and the other a former military chaplain. Both individuals asked not to be identified by name.
They said sending Piper’s book on military email was an “improper platform” and risks alienating those in the chaplain corps who do not subscribe to Piper’s strict views.
“It’s okay that that’s his theology, but you don’t send it out on government email," said the currently serving military chaplain. “I just don’t think it’s becoming for a senior chaplain to send that.”
Weinstein said in his letter that the military chaplains he is representing sought anonymity because they feel they would be subjected to “retaliation if they attempted to register their objections via the chain of command.”
The letter to Esper also stated that Piper holds “complementation views,” which are opposed to the ordination of women. Some of the military chaplains who received the digital book were women, the letter added.
“It puts junior chaplains in an uncomfortable position,” said the former military chaplain. “And, from my perspective, it’s yet another incident where a senior chaplain is pushing along a particular theological agenda."
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.