Jim Lee: Four chaplains send a message

A quote from American Legion Commander Daniel Dellinger in the February 2014 American Legion magazine caught my attention because it sums up the whole debate going on in Carroll regarding the Board of County Commissioners opening its meetings with sectarian prayers and why it is wrong.

"We are nondenominational and nonsectarian, but we are not and never will be hostile to faith. We celebrate it."

I had literally just finished writing a column on this very topic that was going to run today, but when I opened the mail and found the note from 83-year-old Donald Warehime, of Taneytown, along with a clipping of the magazine page that included the Commander's Message, I knew I needed to start again.

Dellinger wrote about the story of the four chaplains. If you haven't heard it, Feb. 3, 1943, a German U-boat torpedoed the Army transport ship Dorchester. According to Dellinger, "Of the 902 soldiers, merchant seamen and civilian workers aboard, only 230 were rescued."

As the story goes, four chaplains aboard the ship helped to get people to safety and calm them after the ship was hit.

"When they ran out of life jackets, they gave away their own. Those swimming in the water and floating in rafts never forgot their last glimpse of the chaplains: all four - Methodist minister, Jewish rabbi, Reformed Church in America reverend and Roman Catholic priest - were linked arm in arm, praying and singing hymns as they went down with the ship."

The column notes that in 1988, Congress designated Feb. 3 as "Four Chaplains Day," and it reminds Legion posts to mark the anniversary in some manner.

Many people in recent weeks have expressed opinions about a lawsuit filed against the county commissioners for opening their meetings with sectarian prayers. A persecution of religious freedom, some assert. Others say that since Christians make up a majority of the country, there is nothing wrong with opening a meeting with a Christian prayer. If people of other religions are offended for being excluded, well, they should just leave the country, some assert.

Most people recognize that when you start saying you have the freedom to express whatever religion you want, as long as it is the one I support, and if you don't like it you can leave, you are essentially advocating a religion-based government and a country that has no religious freedom.

Religion is interesting, I wrote in the original column, because it is something that we hold dear, yet something that the vast majority of us follow based on the religion that our parents followed, and their parents before them.

Those who think theirs is the one true religion are extremely lucky to have been born into a family that practiced that faith.

Ultimately, the path we follow in our faith is not as important as the fact that we are following a path. Do Christians, for example, really need Ten Commandments to tell them not to kill someone, that stealing is bad or that they should treat others as they would want others to treat them?

In this sense, religion is more an outward reflection of your inner moral compass. Is it your moral compass that prompts you to act in ways that follow the Ten Commandments, or do you only do so because you fear retaliation from a vengeful God?

And is God so vengeful that he would turn away billions of people because they did not follow one true path, or is he a loving God who welcomes everyone who lives their lives in ways that put others first, and their own needs or wants second?

The county commissioners could open their meetings in a way that is exemplified by the four chaplains, each taking a different chosen path, but each respecting and locking arms with the other in a supreme act of selflessness.

Instead, they seem to want to use their outward display of secular religion in an attempt to prop up their own moral credentials in the eyes of others. And there's the rub. Religion isn't about getting for yourself, it is about giving to others.

In their lives, the four chaplains followed different paths toward God, but in the end they came together, in service to others, and to each other.

In his note, Donald wrote of the four chaplains, "It was quite a headliner back then. Everyone took note."

Perhaps our commissioners could take note of the story today.

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