Opinion: God on Their Side? | Poli Psy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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Opinion: God on Their Side? 

Poli Psy

"The Chaplain is not a law enforcement officer, but a representative of God . . . Believing that God is the answer to man's dilemma, the Chaplain stands ready to bear witness to the forgiving love and redeeming power of God, through Jesus Christ, to all people, especially to those in crisis."

So reads the official Hardwick-Greensboro Police Department Chaplain Training Manual, to be used by the town's new police-sponsored cadre of clergy, the volunteer component of Hardwick's new Police Education and Community Enrichment program. PEACE, for short.

Recruited from among Hardwick's eight houses of worship -- four traditional and four modern evangelical Christian churches -- the God Squad will offer counsel to stressed-out officers who request it. They will also ride along, at the officer's behest, on calls promising conflict or crisis, from fights to car crashes -- "situations," says Police Chief Jim Dziobek, "where people's faith might not be the strongest."

Among the qualifications for service are "God-like compassion" and a valid driver's license. The uniform includes black shoes you can run in and, on the chaplain's person, a small Bible and latex rubber gloves.

The training manual is an amalgam of statistics and anecdotes, psychobabble and conventional counseling techniques for dealing with SIDS or suicide, prayers and constitutional interpretation, and a species of paranoia commonly circulated among politicized evangelicals: "Diversity is being taught in schools the problem is that diversity is for everyone except Judo-Christian" (sic).

The bulk of the document is the oeuvre of Reverend Bill Hinckley, of the Shield of Faith Ministries in Plainfield, Connecticut, to whom Dziobek was introduced two years ago by pastor James Tousant of Hardwick's Promised Land Ministries. Since Hinckley conducted training in Morrisville, Tousant has served as Hardwick's "unofficial" chaplain, accompanying officers on death-notification visits. After the bad news is delivered, the minister says, he sticks around to talk, to call family or funeral home -- and, if asked, to pray.

Dziobek is optimistic that an agent of a Higher Authority will help the worldly authorities manage Hardwick's rowdier citizens when the program expands to include the drunk, disorderly and domestically violent. "People behave differently in church than they do at home," the chief explains. "You bring that church point of view to the home, and people act different . . .

"But we're not trying to press religion on anyone," he stresses, "or any particular religion."

*******

I am not reassured. In fact, when this atheist Jew envisions a fundamentalist Christian padre at the elbow of a cop telling me my boyfriend has just been crushed on Route 14, I also imagine the Hardwick PD with a padrecide on its hands.

Dziobek several times mentioned a similar program of the Vermont State Police. But Wayne Whitelock, a minister on the VSP's Peer Support Team, emailed me to "make sure you did NOT refer to me as the 'Vermont State Police Chaplain.' The Vermont State Police does not have a Chaplaincy program and provides no religious services to their troops. There is a careful separation between church and state." The team also does not work with the public.

*******

So are the well-meaning Jims, Dziobek and Tousant, unwittingly establishing a state religion in Hardwick? Since constitutional law relies on the perceptions of a "reasonable person," I seek one: Mitch Pearl, at Langrock, Sperry and Wool, cooperating attorneys for the Vermont ACLU (on whose board I serve).

The answer, says Pearl: It depends. To pass First Amendment muster, a state-sponsored function must be predominantly secular. The Salvation Army may receive state money to ladle soup to homeless people, so long as it doesn't serve up Jesus with the meal. Presumably, the Promised Land pastor may hold a widow's hand.

But the program can't have either the purpose or the effect of inhibiting or advancing religion, or one religion. "What if a Wiccan volunteered?" Pearl muses. "If they said, sure, join us, that would be less of a problem."

Still, references to Jesus in the manual take him aback. "It's hard to imagine a public body adopting as an official policy that God is the answer to man's dilemma," he says. "But it seems to me that this is a statement that the Hardwick Police Department not only endorses religion but endorses a particular religion. It sounds highly problematic."

Might the program be intrinsically religious and coercive? A chaplain is a chaplain, after all -- religion is his business. And the cops aren't offering a psychotherapist or a pie to comfort the bereaved. The police, moreover, are the police -- coercion is their business. Even if the officer doesn't order anyone to kneel and pray, the minister arrives under his aegis. Notes Pearl: "The police are authority figures. Most people believe they should cooperate with them."

Add to this the pressure to get along in a small town and, legality aside, some may feel disinclined to refuse the minister's kind offer. "This is another of these things about being in a minority in a small town," says one Hardwick Jew. "Usually, you don't make too much noise."

*******

Following "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy being," the training manual's second of Ten Commandments for Law Enforcement Chaplains is "Thou shalt love thy Police Department and all its personnel." That may be balm to Hardwick's police, who don't get a whole lotta lovin'. The town of 3100 spends a quarter of its budget -- $445,000 in FY2007 -- on the force, and folks generally don't feel they get what they pay for. (The department failed to arrest anyone for a series of break-ins last year, even though one victim watched the perpetrator take his wallet. Meanwhile, it issued 527 traffic warnings and 705 tickets.)

So it's reasonable for Chief Dziobek to try to make PEACE with the public. As America slouches toward theocracy, it's not surprising he's chosen God as his squad-car partner -- or that I may be accused of churlishness for objecting. So be it. The U.S. is a secular democracy. Its Constitution protects my right to exercise religion -- or not to.

For now, my lawyer is drawing up a DNR order: Do Not Redeem. And if the good pastor decides to pray in my dooryard anyway, he'd better be wearing those black running shoes.

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About The Author

Judith Levine

Judith Levine

Bio:
Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. She was also the author of "Poli Psy," a column that appeared in Seven Days from 2005-2016.

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