Military Chaplaincy – Interfaith at Risk

Military Chaplaincy – Interfaith at Risk September 20, 2013

As long as armies have existed, military chaplains have served alongside soldiers, providing for their spiritual needs, working to improve morale, and aiding the wounded.  The Bible tells of the early Israelites bringing their priests into battle with them.  Pagan priests accompanied the Roman legions during their conquests; as Christianity became the predominant religion of the Roman Empire, Christian chaplains administered to Roman soldiers.  In fact, the word chaplain is derived from the Latin word for cloak.

The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps is one of the oldest and smallest branches of the Army.  The Chaplain Corps dates back to 29 July 1775, when the Continental Congress authorized one chaplain for each regiment of the Continental Army, with pay equaling that of a captain.  In addition to chaplains serving in Continental regiments, many militia regiments counted chaplains among their ranks

The military chaplain was perhaps one of the first truly interfaith clergy in that the role of the chaplain is to see to the spiritual needs of all of the soldiers within the unit to which they are assigned, no matter whether that soldier’s faith is the same or different from the faith of the chaplain. Yet this is a matter which is becoming more and more controversial as the religious demographics of the United States undergo significant upheaval. In the early days of military chaplaincy the vast majority of military members were either Christian or Jewish, so the military chaplain would be familiar and comfortable with shared traditions and beliefs. In today’s multi-cultural military services there is a much broader range of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices. However, this same multi-cultural pattern is not seen in the composition of the military chaplaincy. Today’s military chaplaincy is made up primarily of Christian and Jewish chaplains, a few Jewish chaplains, five Islamic chaplains, one Buddhist and one Hindu chaplain. “The make-up of the U.S. military chaplaincy is almost a half-century behind, both in its understanding of religion and its lack of chaplain diversity.”

The lack of diversity in the makeup of the military chaplain’s corps might not be of such importance if those who were serving would remember that their calling is to minister to the spiritual needs of the soldier and the soldier’s family.  Chaplains in other venues do this all of the time, setting aside their own beliefs and stepping into the shoes of the other, ministering more by presence than by doctrine.  That doesn’t require that the chaplain believe in the same way as those they serve.  All it would require would be the willingness to respect and understand the belief structure of other religions. 

Military chaplains are required as part of their acceptance and commissioning oaths to swear to not discriminate in their treatment of soldiers under their care, no matter what the religion of that soldier might be. Yet this concept of equal treatment for all has been under pressure from those within the Chaplain’s Corps for many years; and even more so in the past two decades.  It is now estimated that between 30-60% of military chaplains are drawn from evangelical Christianity. Many of them chose military service because they saw the troops under their care as being a ripe audience for conversion and for the saving of souls. This practice has continued in spite of military regulations specifically forbidding proselytizing.

In many cases these evangelical Christian chaplains have received support from unit commanders who held similar religions views.  As an example, in 2003 Lt. Gen. William Boykin stated in regards to his battle with a Muslim warlord in Somalia, “I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.” And in 2008, the chief of U.S. military chaplains in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Gary Hensley, was charged with telling soldiers to “hunt people for Jesus.”  Incidents such as this reveal that one does not take off one’s prejudice simply because one puts on a uniform.

Recent changes in military regulations such as the overturn of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” regulation, as well as Federal court decisions such as the overturn of DOMA have led to a furor among some military chaplains. While it is understandable that someone whose beliefs do not hold with the concept of homosexuality might not wish to participate in activities that condone such practices, it is not possible to maintain such beliefs within the domain of the military chaplain. If one cannot minister to a soldier because of the soldier’s beliefs you have no business being a military chaplain at all. It is not the role of the chaplain to force the soldier or the US military to become something different just because the chaplain doesn’t share their faith or beliefs.

In the past 10-15 years many modern Pagans have joined the US military. Some of them have encountered prejudice against their beliefs from both the military command structure and from military chaplains. I recently spoke with an Army chaplain and an inter-faith panel. When I offered to provide him with some information to aid in working with Wiccan soldiers he replied; “I know all I need to know about that sort of thing.” His discomfort with Paganism was palpable. As a result, some Pagans have called for the inclusion of Pagan chaplains within the military chaplaincy. However, I find that the prejudice they complain of goes both ways. When they are told that as chaplains they would be expected to minister to Christian soldiers as well as to those who were Pagan they are appalled. They couldn’t see their way clear to work with a Christian, no matter what. Pot…meet Kettle.

Don’t get me wrong. We need military chaplains. When men and women place their lives on the line in combat situations there is sore need for spiritual support and guidance. But those same men and women need spiritual support that is non-ecumenical and which is accepting of the diverse spiritual and religious viewpoints now seen in the United States. If that cannot be provided then it is likely that the role of the chaplain in the military is doomed to failure.

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