Should we ban military chaplains?

48502 mr chaplain CU031216 2762 stI want to revisit the always hot topic of free speech and military chaplains, because of a very interesting op-ed column in the Washington Post. We rarely deal with editorial page offerings here at GetReligion, but this piece anticipates where this hot story may be headed.

The column was called “What the Military Shouldn’t Preach” and it was written by Scott Poppleton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He is boldly asking a simple question: Are military chaplains appropriate? Are they even legal? Another question looms in the background: Is it legal to force soldiers to listen to prayers and/or evangelistic messages by clergy who are not of their own faith? Here at GetReligion, I have been asking: Is it legal to require chaplains (if they want to be promoted) to voice prayers that require them to water down, if not violate, the doctrines of the faith in which they are ordained?

According to Poppleton, it is now time to take a radical step. He believes the military services should create secular counseling services, thus removing the government from the religion business:

We are well past the point where we need to reset the baseline of individual religious freedom in our military. The first step is to provide clear-cut regulatory guidance to our commanders and chaplains requiring them to keep their religious views to themselves other than in personal settings or at church. If a solemn occasion is appropriate at a military ceremony, implement a moment of silence, as we do at every public school in our nation.

The next essential step is to reform our dedicated and government-paid chaplain corps into a nondenominational and non-religious counseling service to aid our commanders in helping everyone under their leadership. Let the counselors help with the drug, alcohol and family problems that face our forces. Give civilian clergy the right to preach and teach in the chapel. In deployed locations, provide time and space for service members to conduct services.

In other words, replace chaplains with counselors and then allow civilian clergy in a wide variety of faiths — from Baptist to Buddhist, from Catholic to Muslim — to come in and lead worship services and other activitities in which they would not be expected to compromise on issues of doctrine.

Instead of a lowest-common-denominator theism for military life, you would have a secular approach to military life backed up with a free-market system for worship.

This raises all kinds of questions, but they are questions that are already haunting military life. What happens on battlefields? On submarines with limited space? In military hospitals? Will there be no clergy in those locations at all (if local civilian clergy cannot get there on their own as Poppleton proposes)?

These are tough questions, but they are no tougher than the questions raised by the current system, in which one base may include soldiers representing a dozen or more faiths. How many chaplains can the military afford to fund for any one location so that no one is offended? Now flip that coin over. Can the military honestly expect clergy in traditional faiths to compromise on their own beliefs, in order to serve as shepherds for soldiers from a wide variety of flocks?

As I keep saying, this story is not going to go away.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I agree that military chaplains should be visited. When the practice started, I believe the nation was predominantly Christian, of which there were considered two stripes: Catholic and Protestant (I argue that Lutherans are neither Catholic or Protestant, but that is an historical topic for another day). Thus, hiring two clergy for every outpost was feasible.

    But we now have a multi-cultural military. Do we have military Muslim chaplians or Buddhist chaplains? How about Wiccan chaplains? The state prison in Waupun, Wisconsin, made news a few years ago when it appointed a Wiccan practitioner as its chaplain.

    The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) has never allowed a rostered clergyman to serve as a military chaplain, precisely because of the theological implications and the need to find the “lowest common denominator.” Instead, they call pastors to serve near military bases as pastors for WELS servicemen and women. The government does not pay their salary, therefore the government has limited say over who the pastors serve and what they can or cannot preach, say, or pray.

    John L. Hoh, Jr.

  • Fr. Raphael

    The question for this post is not whether or not we should have military chaplains, or whether LCol Poppleton is correct. Having served in the military chaplaincy of the Canadian Armed Forces, where chaplains are often closer to Poppleton’s proposal than traditional ordained Christian ministry I could very well weigh in with my own opinion. But, as I said, this is not the question for this post.

    The question for debate is what kind of news coverage this issue is going to get – and it will get coverage, because as Terry says, it’s not going to go away!

    Will fair reporting include both the rights of Christian members of the Armed Forces to assemble and practise their faith, as well as the rights of those who wish to express or practise no faith?

    Will news coverage include debate about the propriety of tasking religious leaders to ministry outside of their flocks, which is what they are doing when asked to provide general counselling services to all members of their units and/or bases?

    Will the conflict that often exists in chaplaincy settings between the theraputic ministries of clergy and social workers be explored, or will it simply be assumed that the ordained are simply (at least to those who dont get religion) social workers and therapists in collars?

    Will such reporting include the incredible and often heroic service which military chaplains have given to their flocks in time of war and strife, or will such be “overlooked” in the interests of not appearing to be sectarian?
    As a former serving chaplain, albeit in the forces of another country, I look with interest at the ongoing controversy south of the border. And I can’t wait to read what is being reported about it.

  • Daniel

    As an ex-military officer, I believe losing the chaplains corps would hurt the military and deprive young people of an important spiritual outlet.

    OTOH, if the military has to choose between accommodating the need to prostyletize and the demand for coercive prayer and nothing at all, I think the military will choose nothing at all. The oppressive nature of coercive prayers where military members are forced to listen to prayers that lack neutralness and openness is too great.

  • Avram

    Is it legal to force soldiers to listen to prayers [...]
    Is it legal to ask chaplains to voice prayers [...]

    Two very different verbs you’ve got there.

  • tmatt


    Right. I will correct and replace “ask” with “require.”

  • Matt

    Sure, we can talk about the merits. Having served in the military, but not as a chaplain, I think I can fairly say that the military will always expect a chaplain to be a uniformed office first, and a priest in a cassock second (or minister in a collar, etc.). And you’re automatically in a Catch-22 situation, potentially fired if you step too far out of the military line, but also (automatically?) fired if your church removes you from the ranks of its clergy…. I’m too old to be a chaplain; if I were to be ordained, however, I think I’d prefer to serve as an outsider than to put on the uniform again and attempt to fit into a system which, I think, will become less comfortable with/to orthodox Christians (for example).

  • Ken

    The “chapel services” I endured as rehab worker in a public mental hospital leave me ready to believe that military chaplaincy is as problematic as the hospital chaplaincy: it was neither good religion nor good therapy in the latter setting. My problem in the present issue is whether we want to replace the faith(s) of recognized religions with the secular faith of psychology/counseling. Actually, I believe counseling services are already available, at least in many settings, so it’s hard to see what would change.

    Fr. Raphael raises the salient question, of course, but, of course, the press won’t cover the debate accurately, since they don’t seem to recognize secularism as a religious ideology competing for the American soul. My bet is they will frame it as a battle between faith (organized religion) and science (counseling psychology).

  • Maureen

    First off, it’s pretty obvious that this “local clergy” thing is stupid. Even in a non-battlefield situation, in the continental US, there is likely to be no “local clergy” of any given individual’s faith. What’s more, said “local clergy” may well be unsympathetic, downright hostile, or just plain uneducated toward military people’s needs.

    Second off, it’s pretty obvious that this strikes a blow against military personnel’s personal freedom. Chaplains, unlike doctors, shrinks and counselors, have near-absolute confidentiality rights under military law, broad powers to help and counsel people who seek their help, and equally broad powers to help their families. Even an atheist soldier or sailor would find this useful.

    Third, by having these powers, and by being subject primarily to a Higher Power entirely outside both the military and civilian world, chaplains gain a unique position of trust. They thus become incredibly useful to commanders in understanding what’s really going on with morale, etc. (Because even if they can’t speak specifically, they can describe broadly what’s going on, petition for redress of general problems, etc.)

    Btw, I also thought the whole “there were only two religions” thing was pretty naive. There have always been tons of Jewish people who serve, and I think the Armed Services would probably take any rabbi they could possibly get and be happy for it. That said, the Colorado Springs chaplains were pretty lax about finding out who was Jewish and making sure they could always get off Saturdays, without any discouragement or penalization from their fellows. The cure for this is education and doublechecking, not throwing away the idea of chaplains.

    In fact, one of the things chaplains are for is making sure that all military personnel get some kind of time off to go to religious services. If we had only secular counselors on base, would they be vigilant for this? Or would they encourage military commanders to feel free to schedule exercises whenever, since religion would thus clearly become something not issued with your kitbag?

    Chaplains are invaluable protectors of rights and glues to souls and psyches, for the average soldier or sailor, enlisted or officer. Honestly, I think this whole anti-chaplain movement needs a good smack with a clue-by-four.

  • Maureen

    Two things I forgot:

    A “counselor” is not the person to ask about “Am I going to Hell?” or “How can I reconcile this religious principle with this other one?” A counselor necessarily has to answer “Is this wrong?” in a different way than any chaplain.

    If we call for “local clergy” to come on base, or for military people to go offbase to civilian places of worship, we are mandating for civilian clergy getting blown to kingdom come. Won’t that be nice.

  • Ray Trygstad

    As someone with 21 years of military service, and someone who has 50 years of military service in the two generations of my family before me, at least speaking for my Dad and I we feel the chaplaincy is essential. And yes, there are Buddhist and Muslim chaplains; the first Muslim chaplain in the Navy had a degree from a Lutheran seminary because the military requires chaplains to be seminary graduates and Muslims, having no ordained clergy, have no seminaries.

    If not for chaplains, I would have gone a very long time–way too long–without communion while at sea. And there is no one else looking after the purely spiritual well-being of service men and women without chaplains. It takes a special person to be a service chaplain, and one of the key ingredients is the recognition that you must be able to minister to people not of your faith and do it effectively. I have worked very well with chaplains of all faiths–some of whom even come from faiths that actively discourage military service: Mennonites and Seventh-Day Adventists–and they were inevitably men and women who saw service to others as part-and-parcel of their service to God. Service people are way too often in places where there would only be lay services if there were no chaplains, and no pastoral counseling, and none of the many other things that chaplains do to make the lives of the faithful in the service a bit easier to bear.

    From a Christian serviceman who has been there, I would always want chaplains around.

  • Daniel

    There have been great comments which I think demonstrate the disconnect between those asking for accommodation to perform coervice prayers and services and the reality of the military. Just as military members give up all sorts of rights, including Constitutional ones, when the join the military, the military looks for the “common good.” The “common good” means that it is bad for morale to be forced to listen to prayers and services which condemn your religious beliefs (or non-beliefs).

    Thus, it may mean that the majority faith–Christianity–must sometimes make sacrifices for the common good. In addition,it means those ministers who can’t abide by the “common good” need to avoid coervice, offensive prayers and services will be forced to compromise–as they have for decades and decades with little problem

  • Scott Allen

    As a retired Marine Corps officer, I’ll offer a few observations:
    (1) I never relied on chaplains for strong belief. If I wanted encouragement in my faith, I talked to fellow laymen or clergy out in town.
    (2) Chaplains led prayer, as did officers, they were expected to be generic and I don’t think unbelievers or conversely strong believers were offended. The prayers typically thanked “God” for the occasion and remembered our fallen brothers. Such prayer was expected, and respected. Sort of like playing a certain tune before a parade/ceremony begins.
    (3) I often sent Marines to chaplains when they were hitting trouble spots. I’d follow up with the chaplain to see if they actually showed up for counseling, but beyond that didn’t care. The chaplains were a “release valve” of sorts. Their value was greater than civilian clergy because they understood some aspects of military life.
    (4) While in Iraq, I saw different denominations hold their own services or meetings, often led by laymen.
    Overall, I guess my point is that chaplains lend a sense of dignity/purpose to our proceedings, and a potential outlet for people in crisis. I think they just need to re-sort the mix in proportion to the actual beliefs of the men. I’ve read articles indicating that mainline clergy still dominate although they most servicemen are not from their denominations. This mirrors my experience. If they change the mix to match the demographics, they’ll muddle through. You can’t please everyone, as readers of this blog well know.

  • Rev. D. Philip Veitch

    As a former Navy Chaplain, a few observations:

    (1) The promotion system was corrupted to favor Rome and mainline Protestants. Everyone knew it, although it wasn’t my concern.

    (2) The government should never, ever have given governmental, official authority, mixing power and religion. The results have been disastrous behind the scenes. All rank should have been pulled like the Her Queen’s Royal Navy.

    (3) The time may well be at hand to employ civilian clergy with respect for religous demographics and without hegemonists feathering their own denominational nests. Roman priests have notoriously promoted this, shamelessly so.

    (4) Correct, this issue is not going to go away.

    (5) Glad to be out and in civilian ministry. I know too much.

    D. Philip Veitch
    Protestant Episcopal Church (not the apostate ECUSA)

  • William E. Isakson

    I just have a couple of comments on this, and I make them as a chaplain, though not a military chaplain, rather a chaplain to elder members of our society at a retirement center. First, your article says that we, the people of the USA, USED to be primarily Christian. my real remarks here do not really interact with that notion, but frankly, we still are primarily a Christian people, and it is only a small number of very vocal people who are demanding that all these marks of christianity be removed from our sight, especially if they can find some government connection to them.
    Nevertheless, a chaplain is not exactly the same thing as a parish priest or pastor. A chaplain has to be able to serve many different denominations. He or she has to be able to work with a person whose religious life may have included a spiritual realm, but did not necessarily include a single God. The chaplain has to know when communion might not be the proper move. We work with people of all faiths. Now maybe you would like all military chaplains to be ordained as Universal Life Ministers who have been to their seminary. ULC expressly delivers its message to all faiths, including the wiccan. But I do not think that is necessary. A Catholic priest, an Episcopalian, a Lutheran Pastor, a Presbyterian minister or any of the many others that are definitely Christian are quite capable of serving as Chaplains and if they do, they will know about much more than their own tradition. The chaplain is NOT a psychologist. The chaplain does not serve as psychologist or counseler. The chaplain serves specifically spiritual needs. Trouble that requires a talented counselor or psychologist, gets a referal from the chaplain and those other services are already available in the military. The chaplain is not even the social worker. The chaplain is there for spiritual needs. If we do not see the spirit in life, and there are many people who honestly do not, then we are missing a large part of what it is to be alive.
    Finally I want to say that if we make the military chaplain into some sort of independant contractor who is not a part of the daily life of the men and women of the service, we will lose many of the properties of the chaplain that makes that office valuable.
    Bill Isakson

  • m.wilson

    God has blessed my parish with a kind and spiritual priest. He once told us in a Homily that he finally followed through with his calling of being a priest, only AFTER talking with the chaplin. That was 20 plus years ago. Today, our priest is himself a Military Chaplin with our State’s National Guard.
    God Bless ALL the Military Chaplins who provide a much needed spiritual and moral presence in a very UN-moral and ANTI-spiritual world.

  • Scott Allen

    William E. Isakson says that “The chaplain is NOT a psychologist…or counseler…not even the social worker.” I’m interested in D. Philip Veitch’s reaction to that statement, since he has actually been a military chaplain.
    My experience was that military hospitals had a few psychologists, family services had counselors, and chaplains often made referrals to both. But chaplains were the most well-known to the troops. Further, chaplains were not strictly “there for spiritual needs,” as if the “spiritual” is a separate realm from psychological or counseling needs, or from the real world for that matter. The military is its own society, and while Mr. Isakson certainly has expertise to offer, I’m not sure he can make blanket statements about what military chaplains are supposed to do in theory and actually do in practice.

  • Abp. Douglas Woodall

    As the Archbishop for the Archdiocese of the Armed Forces for the Charismatic Episcopal Church, and a retired SC Guard Chaplain, and a former enlisted person prior to going to college and seminary, I have to voice my opinion on this subject.

    The best person to ask is the soldier in the field , the Marine, Sailor, Coastie or Airman as to whether or not Chaplains are needed. From my experiences, the answer will be most certainly a great big Roger that!

    My mother died unexpectedly when I was in Navy Boot Camp in 1964. A Jewish Chaplain held me while I cried and a Roman Catholic Chaplain prayed for me. I was neither Catholic nor Jewish but my being a Protestant did not stop these men from being there for what was once of the most difficult experiences in my then young life. Those two Chaplains so influenced me that I ended up responding to the vocation of chaplain after college and seminary.

    I have never heard a young enlisted person objecting to a chaplain being there for them. However, I have heard them complain when there wasn’t a Chaplain near enough to minister to their needs.

    Chaplains do not have to minister to those outside of their faith groups but they are required to facilitate the worship of those they serve. For example, a Protestant Chaplain cannot hear confession nor serve Communion to a Roman Catholic, but they will make sure that the Roman Catholic’s religious needs are met. The same goes for all religions.

    There are Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal, Baptist, Independent, Lutheran, Jewish, Morman, Christian Science, Buddhist, Muslim and many more faith groups represented. Some how and some way they manage to not only work together in relative harmony, but also to fulfill their respective missions.

    If chaplains were to be removed, it would probably be one of the most harmful things that could happen in regards to affecting the service person’s morale.

    The Chaplains have been involved with the military for as long as there have been armies going to war, and not just in this country not in recent history.

    Thank God for the the Chaplains and the sacrifices they are willing to work to serve the men and women in the Armed Forces.