There were two stories about the military chaplaincy in the February 8, 2011 issue of The Christian Century. The first dealt with the disproportional representation of Evangelicals among chaplains today—33%, while the number of soldiers belonging to Evangelical churches is 3%. This situation is unlikely to change. 87% of individuals seeking to be chaplains in the air force are Evangelicals. The seminary affiliated with Liberty University (founded by Jerry Falwell) has a specialized chaplaincy degree program, with a current enrollment of over one thousand. Mainline Protestantism is correspondingly under-represented. This should not be surprising. Evangelical churches have been growing, mainline churches have been declining. Of more immediate relevance, Evangelicals tend to be more patriotic and friendly to the military; mainline Protestants tend to be anti-war if not downright pacifist. All the same, Eden Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the impeccably liberal United Church of Christ, has started its own program for aspiring chaplains. Perhaps the introductory course might be called “How to Serve in a War you Oppose.”
The second story does not deal with chaplains directly, though they may well be involved. Since 2009 the army has included in basic training a mandatory “comprehensive soldier fitness” program (soldiers not deployed in a combat zone have to repeat it annually). I don’t know what other aspects of fitness are involved, but included is a questionnaire on “spiritual fitness.” Soldiers are supposed to tick off statements such as “I am a spiritual person” and “I believe there is a purpose for my life.” Captain Paul Lester, an army psychologist connected with the program, asserts that the “spiritual fitness modules” which can be used to follow up, are voluntary and do not make any religious suggestions. (I don’t know what the “modules” consist of, and I am afraid to ask.) Even so, not surprisingly, an atheist foundation is challenging the constitutionality of this program. (I wonder if these people might be appeased if the questionnaire offered options such as “I am a spiritual atheist” and “The purpose of my life is to advocate atheism”—but then I would not want to decrease employment opportunities for constitutional lawyers.)
Both stories are interesting beyond their immediate subjects. The first story implies an important problem for Evangelicals: how to balance their belief that Christians have a duty to witness to their faith with the pluralistic rules of the game in American society. The second shows how Atheists have a problem of insisting on their (for them, depressingly small) niche in a strongly religious society. And of course both stories illustrate the continuing problem of how to balance the “no establishment” with the “free exercise” clause in the first amendment to the U.S. constitution. The military chaplaincy brings the latter problem into a particularly sharp focus. Chaplains are military officers and ministers of their respective religious communities. The problem is symbolized physically: On their uniforms, chaplains display the insignia of military rank and the logos of their respective religious affiliations. (For a long time the logo was a cross for all Christian chaplains and the tablets of the law for Jewish ones. There are now Muslim and Buddhist ones, displaying, respectively, a crescent and the wheel of the dharma. Atheists have demanded “secular chaplains.” Perhaps a logo showing a large zero?)
Priests have blessed armies going into combat since times immemorial. If the contending armies belonged to the same religion, the same divinity was invoked by both sides, often with identical prayers. There is no problem as long as there is no tension between the cause for which the army is fighting and the demands of the faith. In American history, there was a huge problem during the Civil War, in continuity with the Christian rhetoric of both pro- and anti-slavery advocates throughout the antebellum decades. Abraham Lincoln was deeply troubled by this fact. I think it is fair to say that there was again no or little problem during the first half of the twentieth century. During World War II there was actually the national icon of the “four chaplains”—two Protestants, a Catholic and a Jew—who gave away their life jackets and perished together on the deck of a sinking warship. Nor was there much of a problem during the early years of the Cold War, when godly America was engaged in a global struggle with godless Communism. A problem did emerge during the Vietnam War, when clergy were prominent in the anti-war movement. Some chaplains got into trouble by participating in anti-war demonstrations, but such activity was eventually allowed as long as the chaplains were off-duty and not in uniform. Although not many individuals were involved in this type of activity, there ensued renewed discussion, within the military and in the churches, of the problems caused by the dual identity of military chaplains as officers and as clergy. In recent years there has been some enhancement of the role of chaplains in the military. After the Kosovo conflict chaplains were urged to help with conflict resolution, involving local religious leaders. I have been told that a program under consideration now would have chaplains serve on the staffs of regional commands to help strategy becoming aware of religious factors in the particular area of operations. Such a program would constitute a significant step beyond the primary function of chaplains—to provide religious services to individuals in the armed forces. It would involve chaplains in the actual planning of military operations. I would imagine that different faith traditions would vary in the degree to which they would see this development as a problem.
I have had few contacts with chaplains in the course of my biography. During my two years of (involuntary) service in the U.S. army—between wars and as a lowly enlisted man (highest rank: private first-class)—the contacts were minimal. Periodically I was obliged to listen to chaplains giving very boring lectures on what was then called “character guidance.” Topics I remember were injunctions to keep a neat appearance and to avoid venereal disease. Although my dog tags displayed the letter “P,” I don’t remember ever talking with a Protestant chaplain. (I believe the purpose of this lettering was to clarify which chaplain is to bury casualties in combat situations—a contingency which happily did not arise in my case.) I did become friendly with one Catholic and one Jewish chaplain in Fort Benning, where I was stationed for most of my army time—with the former, because he wanted me to help him with a proposal to have chaplains lecture in staff colleges (the man was obviously ahead of his time)—with the latter, because he dispensed excellent Jewish delicatessen in a laudably non-sectarian way. In 1972 I published a not terribly interesting article, co-authored with a graduate student, on the way in which literature distributed by chaplains could be seen as legitimating the military. We did not take a position on the matter. During the same period I was invited to attend a meeting of chaplains to discuss different views of their role in the military. I cannot recall anything that transpired at this meeting.
Much more recently the military chaplaincy came to my attention in a rather entertaining way. A few years ago I was teaching a seminar at the Boston University School of Theology in which students were asked to write papers on issues they found problematic in their ministry. One woman in the seminar was a strongly Evangelical air force chaplain. The problem occurred when she was stationed at a small base where she was the only chaplain. Although she was not compelled to perform services of any religion other than her own, air force regulations required that, since she was the only available chaplain, she had to make sure that members of any other religion had the facilities to hold services of their own. The problem arose (for her if not for anyone else) when a group of women practicing Wicca wanted her to facilitate their holding the appropriate ceremonies. She understood Wiccans to engage in worship of the devil. (I think she is mistaken. Wicca is not a Satanic cult, but harmless worship of an allegedly sacred nature—college-educated feminists pretending to be Druid priestesses.) The question for our chaplain was this: “How could I, a minister called to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, assist people to worship the devil?” As I remember, her theological justification of this assistance was rather tortuous. But, finally, she had no choice. Whatever the “coven” needed, she had to supply. She could define Wiccan as not being a true religion; the air force could not.
However, many years earlier, I did have an encounter with chaplains which sharply illustrated the basic problem of this institution and which I remember very clearly (it is mentioned in the 1972 article). The incident occurred in the late 1950s. I was spending a year working at the Protestant Academy in Bad Boll, Germany, which then was an influential think tank dealing with significant public issues in the Federal Republic. I attended a conference at the Academy on issues connected with the new West German army which was about to be organized. One issue was the form to be taken by the military chaplaincy. Opinion in the churches was still strongly influenced by the memory of the Third Reich and, consequently, by the conviction that the ministry must never engage in uncritical legitimation of the state. Attendees at the conference were officials of the Bonn government from the department designing the new army, German Protestant theologians and church officials—and three or four American army chaplains who came in uniform. One of the Americans gave a lecture on how chaplains helped to maintain the morale of the troops. The Germans listened with some bewilderment. After the lecture, during a coffee break, one German leaned over and asked the lecturer: “How does an American army chaplain differ from a politruk?” The term referred to Communist party officials attached to units of the Soviet army with the purpose of political indoctrination. The American did not understand the term. When it was explained to him, he was not offended. He was genuinely puzzled. He did not understand why such a question would be asked. Ten years later, during the Vietnam War, he would have understood. I should add that the discussion at the Protestant Academy influenced the shape of the chaplaincy in the new German army. It was decided that military chaplains were to be paid not by the state but by the churches, that they would not be officers, and that they would not wear uniforms except when they were in the field (and then without any military insignia).