Religion in the US Military: Comforts and Controversies

Religion in the US Military: Comforts and Controversies May 28, 2010

by Erynn Rowan Laurie

Bill of Rights

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Chaplains Under Fire ( is a documentary by Lee Lawrence and Terry Nickelson exploring the nature of the chaplaincy in the US military. Its makers wanted to approach the controversies surrounding military chaplaincy in an increasingly diverse population, exploring issues of freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, and the mandate that the US government shall not establish any religion as favored above the others. In order to do this, they followed several chaplains living on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as individual servicemembers, officials in the chaplaincy, former chaplains, secularists, and first amendment and non-establishment activists. This documentary is difficult viewing. Some scenes are shot in operating rooms with emergency surgery taking place, others illustrate the open and normative day to day sexism of the military experience that has helped create an atmosphere where sexual harassment and rape are common occurrences. Some scenes follow servicemembers into the homes of Afghanis and Iraqis as they look for weapons or signs of dissent, and the tensions and fears of both sides are very evident.

To understand what the chaplaincy is, it is necessary to see what it does and what individual chaplains do in war zones, in military hospitals, interacting with Islamic clergy in-country, and the work they do at home in the US counseling military families about the loss of a parent, a child, a sibling, or a spouse. Most of the chaplains interviewed were white, Christian, and male. This is in large part because most of the people volunteering to serve in this capacity are in that demographic. Most of these Christians are also from conservative independent evangelical churches with a strong mandate to spread their faith, as more moderate Christian denominations began to actively distance themselves from the military during and after the Viet Nam war. As Charles Haynes, Ph.D., of the First Amendment Center states, military chaplains are “both a violation and a living example of the best” of the military’s efforts to observe conflicting first amendment rights against establishment and for the free exercise of religion among servicemembers.

It’s apparent that many chaplains are providing a vital service to at least a segment of the military population that cannot be served by military mental health personnel due to differing privacy and reporting requirements. Taking problems to mental health is risky because the records of doctors and counselors can be subpoenaed, while the chaplaincy is not required to surrender records. Going to mental health is widely regarded as weakness and opens people to harassment and denigration by their fellow servicemembers, as well as potentially exposing them to losing their jobs. The chaplaincy has confidentiality requirements in place that make the chaplain’s office one of the few safe spaces for servicemembers to talk about what’s troubling them and to seek aid without worrying about those concerns getting back to the command or their coworkers.

It is also quite apparent that, in some cases at least, the chaplaincy is – or comes very close to – an establishment of a particular religion within the structure of the US military. This problem has been particularly blatant in the US Air Force Academy in recent years, brought to light primarily by activist Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. The documentary offers footage of chaplain Pat McLaughlin instructing military officers that, while they cannot attempt to convert the local populace in a war zone to Christianity, “there is a mission for you every single day on base,” and that mission is clearly stated to be evangelizing those under their command. A conservative Christian military is presented as the only moral military. Due to the efforts of Weinstein and others, these offenses are being called into question and some policies have been changing, though official orders and the actions of the people receiving those orders are sometimes at odds. For some of these chaplains, they believe their religious certainties trump the constitutional rights of non-Christians.

Individual chaplains approach the conflicts between their own faith and the need to serve others of different faiths from different perspectives. It’s clear that some of these chaplains are genuinely doing their best to look beyond their sectarian faith and offer real advice, comfort, and a sympathetic ear to anyone who walks through the door. The levels of their success will, naturally, vary depending on the empathy and understanding of other religions that any individual chaplain may possess. For some chaplains, there seemed to be an assumption that an invocation in “the name of the one who died for our sins” is religiously neutral when, in fact, it does not address the religious views or needs of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, traditionalist Native Americans, or other minority and non-monotheist faiths.  Such language is often an attempt on the part of the chaplain to get around regulations concerning what is and is not permissible at functions where attendance is mandatory, such as change of command ceremonies, retirements, and other functions were servicemembers are ordered to attend, or face disciplinary action. This language is exclusionary, as is the attitude, and there is an overarching assumption that secularists, agnostics, and atheists have no place at the table at all. These underlying assumptions can make it less likely that people who are not of the same faith as the chaplain will walk through that door at all.

It is a fact that the current majority of the US military is Christian, whether by actual professed faith or by default. Yet there are growing minorities of Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Pagans, and others within the ranks. A few Jewish, Muslim, and even Buddhist chaplains do exist in the system, but they are a comparative rarity. Military regulations regarding such concerns as facial hair and other uniform requirements can make it extremely difficult for Sikhs or conservative Jews, among others, to qualify for a chaplaincy without violating the tenets of their religions. Within this system, many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, can find the support and service they need, but it becomes difficult for those of other faiths whose practices are considered less mainstream.

One interview illustrated the difficulties faced by non-Christians quite clearly. Rev. Billy Baughaum of the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers, a retired military chaplain, verbally and physically expressed absolute disgust and revulsion for the Wiccan faith, openly mocking it. At one point in his interview, he said, “I think the Wicca religion is repulsive, however if there’s a Wicca [sic] chaplain who comes, I will swallow my grimace, but I believe the first amendment, he has a right or she has a right to pray to the horned god of the north. … Although I think it’s a bunch of baloney personally … if that’s what they want to pray to I will put on my greens again and get in a foxhole and I’ll support their right to do that.” A statement that he believes in first amendment rights is not a commitment to neutrality in actually helping servicemembers in need of spiritual counsel. How genuinely can someone serve another spiritually when they are attempting to “swallow my grimace” and disguise hatred and contempt for the person seeking help? I cannot imagine feeling comfortable in the office of a chaplain who openly and publicly states that other religions are false and that they find them repulsive; that hatred cannot help but transfer over to the individual practicing the hated faith.

It is individuals like this, and like those in the Air Force Academy who urge officers to attempt to convert their subordinates, who create the difficulties that highlight first amendment and establishment clause issues within the military. The immense sense of privilege and righteous indignation these people express at the idea that other religions deserve an equal place at the table is appalling. They illustrate the reasons why so many people argue that the military should not be employing chaplains at all because they create a pervasive atmosphere of officialized Christianity within the Pentagon and the entire military command structure from the top on down to lowest-ranked enlisted person in the field. This pervasiveness harms morale and alienates non-Christian servicemembers; it can be demoralizing when someone from a minority faith has no one to turn to but a chaplain who hates the religion they practice, in a time when they most need spiritual or emotional support. It also leads to an atmosphere where harassment has been commonplace and where non-Christians are passed over for promotion because of their religion or lack thereof.

The chaplains themselves also suffer under the system. Many of them struggle with the dissonance created between their own views on religious truth and the requirement to serve others who do not agree with them. When a Christian chaplain believes that an “unsaved” individual will go to hell, what do they tell the friends of the dead person when they ask about the state of their dead friend’s soul? A senior command non-commissioned officer told the friends of a man who committed suicide that their friend was now “burning in hell.” The chaplain, when those friends came to him for advice, said, “Ultimately, God is [his] judge.” This answer, while accurate from one particular Christian point of view, may have nothing at all to do with the religion and beliefs of the person who has died, or even of those asking for comfort.

First amendment issues regarding freedom of speech are also argued around public invocations. Some churches insist that a chaplain has a right to pray and counsel according to their individual beliefs, even if those beliefs do not serve the person coming for counseling. When a Buddhist comes to a Christian chaplain for help, being told that they have to pray to Jesus is a violation of the rights and dignity of that Buddhist under the establishment clause that states the US government cannot establish any particular religion as favored. Weinstein reports on receiving complaints from military personnel who said they were told by their chaplain, “Be born again a second time or I cannot help you.”

Chaplains often have no one else to talk to, yet they bear the brunt of other people’s tragedies and crises on a day to day basis. Chaplains are as much subject to developing post-traumatic stress disorder as any of the servicemembers they counsel. While they might be able talk to one another for aid, assuming other chaplains are stationed close enough to do so, there may be no outlet for them at all. People in helping professions are notoriously subject to burnout, and this is even more of a risk for people in a war zone. Some of these chaplains end up committing suicide because of the unrelenting and unrelieved stresses, traumas, and responsibilities of their position. I can’t help but think that the dissonance some of these chaplains feel between their own absolutist faiths and the need for neutrality in serving others would aggravate the problems they experience under the stresses of combat, where nothing is certain and death may strike at any moment. They express feelings of guilt over services not provided, or for being unable to help when someone has asked. They experience the same anxieties and fears around separation from their families, risks of injury and death, and the extreme contrasts between long stretches of boredom and sudden danger that every other servicemember experiences.

Although this is a difficult 90 minutes of film, it offers some very important perspectives for anyone who is interested in issues of freedom of religion, free exercise of minority faiths, and religion in a military context. Pagans are mentioned at several points, and segments from the funeral of a Pagan serviceman, Stephen Snowberger, are shown; Pagans are a growing segment of the military and our demands for equality in both the military and the Veterans Administration are helping advance the cause of other minority religions in the American military. If you want to understand what spiritual issues are being faced by servicemembers and by those who would protect the rights of minority religions within the military, this is an excellent place to start.

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