“Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper last week fired the head of the bureau’s chaplaincy program.” Apparently, chaplains Lara Zinda and Keith Smith were nice people but somewhat underqualified for the job: they hadn’t been officially ordained.
This issue raises two main questions for the skeptical community–or maybe more (you tell me). Here’s what I’m asking:
- What really qualifies a person for ministry? I have been legally ordained online; it was fast, free, and now I can officiate at weddings, funerals, etc….But it’s just a piece of paper. If we define theology as “the study of God” (and I think we have to), it’s inherently the study of something we know nothing about. (Parenthetically, studying the holy books of a religion, which we do know something about, is “anthropology,” “sociology,” or “mythology.”) What I mean here is that it’s hard to pin down exactly what would qualify someone as a theologian. If the chaplaincy program in Pittsburgh is requiring certain religious credentials (beyond objective counseling experience, which Lara Zinda and Keith Smith seemed to have), on what basis are they assessing the qualifications? Studying “God” is empirically equivalent to, oh, studying the family structures of Bigfoot social groups.
- What should the role of religious affiliation or ordination be in government-sponsored chaplaincy programs? I’d like to say “none,” but this is obviously a major national debate. We’ve drifted too far from Jefferson and Madison’s ideal of church/state separation (Madison, in fact, was adamantly opposed to military chaplains in any sense). If you have counseling experience and can be there to comfort people in need, I don’t see any reason for the government to require further religion-specific credentials. According to the current interpretation of the law, federal military chaplains have to remain roughly neutral when providing services to the army, regardless of their personal affiliation. This is a standard that, as far as I can tell, is generally assumed for police chaplains as well. It’s a step in the right direction, but it seems to indicate that personal religious beliefs and religion-specific credentials are (and probably should be) irrelevant.
So: does anyone have an opinion about what happened here in Pittsburgh with the police chaplains, or the requirements for chaplaincy positions in general? Do you think the chaplains were fired for dishonesty (which is probably valid) or simply lacking the proper religious “credentials”?