Will the military be a “Jesus-free” zone?

That’s the concern behind the “Military Chaplains Prayer Law,” which recently passed the House as part of the fiscal 2007 National Defense Authorization Act.

The crux of the law says: “Each chaplain shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain’s own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible.”

What concerns the proponents of this legislation is situations such as the one Chaplain Lt. Gordon James Klingenschmitt found himself in. The lieutenant is being court-martialed this month for a March 30 event in Washington, D.C., in which he prayed in uniform on the steps of the White House “in Jesus name.”

No, you’ve not stumbled into the editorial page today, this still is a spiritual column. But I think it’s important to understand the theology behind this proposal. It comes from the scriptural promise of John 14:13 that God will do “. . . whatever you ask in my name.” Literally applied, they believe a prayer must end with the postscript, “In Jesus name I pray. Amen.”

Coming from a Baptist tradition, I always have concluded my prayers in chapel worship “in Jesus name.” Call it tradition, call it habit, call it honoring what I was taught. But one thing I don’t call it is a “requirement” for God to honor my prayer.

Moses knew of many religions that believed prayers were only effective if prayed in name of the god. In these ancient religions, speaking the name of your god meant your god had to do what was asked.

God gave Moses a little commandment to address that blasphemy. He said don’t use my name in vain. In other words, knowing the name Jehovah isn’t going to get you any pull with God.

I joined the Air Force chaplain corps in 1986, and not once have I ever been allowed to utter a prayer in a mandatory assembly using the name of Jesus — nor did I want to do so. This always has been the understanding of every chaplain I’ve ever served with, whether he is Pentecostal or she is Methodist.

Chaplains never have been limited to what they can say during chapel services or religious ceremonies. But when speaking at mandatory events, we accept that we have to focus on practices common to all faiths. These rules are explained to all chaplains during their training and are the same for all faiths.

Neither the Military Chaplain’s Association nor the 200 member National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (an interfaith board advising the military on chaplain matters) have expressed a need for this current proposal. If it’s not broke, why are we fixing it?

Does that mean military chaplains show respect for our audience more than we respect God? No. Actually I think it means we honor God as a loving God who would dare not be forced on anyone under the guise of tradition or rank.

In the meantime, back in Washington, a thoroughly inconsequential debate is taking place about prayer while important things such as military pay, medical benefits and housing are put on the back burner. These are the very benefits many soldiers are including in their daily prayers.

Let’s answer these prayers quickly.

And as far as prayer surviving in the military, no worries. To paraphrase a saying: “As long as there are soldier in foxholes, there will always be prayer in the military.”