By Norris Burkes
Posted Jul 2, 2017

It probably won’t surprise you that Independence Day reminds me of my freedom of religion. However, it might astonish you that I equally celebrate its conceptual cousin, “Freedom from Religion.”

The latter wasn’t an easy notion to articulate one afternoon when I made an appointment with a lieutenant colonel on my base.

“What’s this about, Chaplain?” asked the USAF squadron commander.

“It’s the fish, sir.”

“The fish?”

“Yes sir.” I said, pointing toward the wall military folks call the “I-love-me-wall.”

He swiveled his squeaky chair to survey his family pictures, academic degrees and his officer’s commission. While they were much the same things that hung on my wall, there was one larger-than-life exception — a fish.

Constructed of bent wood, it was a 3-foot-wide outline of a fish. Yet from my hot-seat perspective, it felt large enough to swallow me.

A similar fish outline was used by first century Christian converts. It is said that they traced the image into the sand as a covert way to identify themselves to new acquaintances. Nowadays, I see them hooked on the back of cars and dangled from earlobes or bracelets.

“Ah, the Fish,” he said. “It reminds me of Jesus’ teaching for us to be fishers of men.”

Aware we were both Baptist, he asked, “Do you like it?”

“I like it …,” I said, slamming the pronunciation of first person, I.

“Spit it out, Chaplain.” Something smelled fishy to him.

“I think some airmen find it intimidating.”

“Who finds it intimidating?”

“I can’t say, sir,” I answered, evoking the airman’s right to confidentiality. Our talk seemed to be heating up enough to crack the thin ice on which I was already skating.

I couldn’t reveal that two airmen — one an atheist and the other Wiccan — told me how the commander had recently reprimanded them for a minor infraction. During the course of the scolding, the commander suggested that the airmen might call upon the Christian faith to stay out of future trouble.

Confidentiality confined me to speak only about principles. I told him that while the fish was his reminder to proselytize, it might be exerting undue coercion on his subordinates to convert to Christianity.

“Baloney sandwich!” He said, telling me I’d definitely pegged his BS meter.

“I have a right to hang that on my wall. No one can say I don’t — not you, not our commander, not even our president.”

“The constitution guarantees freedom of religion,” I said, “but I think it also strongly infers freedom from religion.”

He just stared at me like a calf at a new gate. His idea of interfaith pluralism was more like a community prayer breakfast featuring a Presbyterian choir and a Baptist preacher.

I offered the example of his fellow squadron commander who was Mormon.

“What would it be like if Colonel So-and-So displayed a large Book of Mormon on his desk? How would folks see that?

“You have the right to practice your religion, but using oversized religious objects to do so will likely incite complaints that you disrespect the right of your airmen to be nonreligious.

“Bottom line, sir. Some folks are going to read your fish as an official goal to hook them into converting to Christianity.”

With that last point, he stood. “My bottom line,” he finished, “is that the fish stays on my wall, Chaplain.”

And so it did, at least until the commander retired a few years later. But by then, I fear he’d scared away schools of fish.

Read Norris’ past columns at Write him at Twitter @chaplain or call 843-608-9715.

Wake up to the day’s top news, delivered to your inbox