Military chaplains

Pity Uncle Sam, who struggles with an unanswerable question: What is a ‘religion’?

Pity Uncle Sam, who struggles with an unanswerable question: What is a ‘religion’?

Pity poor Uncle Sam.

The need to provide chaplains and otherwise serve  military personnel requires the government to define the indefinable -- What is a “religion”? –- and to deal with  the increasing variety of American faiths. An April 21 Kimberly Winston report for Religion News Service revealed that a Department of Defense memo to manpower directors (.pdf here), issued back on March 27, doubles recognized religious preferences, to 221.

Religion-beat writers might well pursue Winston’s scoop with local angles or see how it’s playing among military-watchers and leaders in conventional religions.

Atheists and humanists campaigned for the military’s broadened list so that chaplains will help soldiers of those persuasions to get resources and contact like-minded groups and individuals, and so that followers of new and small faiths or non-faith can be granted leave for their festival observances, travel to group   events, and such.

Among the religions that made the revised list (which, alas, is not alphabetized by DOD!): Asatru, Deism, Druid, Eckankar, Gard Wi, Magick, Sacred Well, Spiral Tree, Troth and generic “Heathen,” “New Age” and “Shaman.” But not Scientology, which long fought the IRS for recognition as a religion to gain tax exemption.

Soldiers can now be listed as “no preference, “no religion,” “none provided” or “unknown,” but no longer will be given the choice of designation as “Protestant, no denominational preference” or “Protestant, other churches.” How come?

DOD or its Armed Forces Chaplains Board flubbed the effort a bit.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Your weekend think piece: Interesting historical background about atheists in foxholes

Your weekend think piece: Interesting historical background about atheists in foxholes

Veteran GetReligion readers will know that my academic background is in history, just as much as in journalism and mass media. I have always been fascinated with the history of religion in America (this helps on the religion beat) and, in particular, church-state studies. While doing a master's degree in church-state studies at Baylor University, I focused my thesis research on civil religion in the Vietnam War era.

You can't study church-state issues and a war as controversial as the one in Vietnam without hitting issues linked to conscientious objectors, which leads you into studies of tensions between the military establishment and minority forms of religion. You also end up studying the tensions that have, for generations, swirled around the work of military chaplains.

What a paradox this is. How do people serve in the military without the support of clergy? The idea of a military force without chaplains is hard to contemplate. Yet how do you maintain doctrinal integrity in settings where it is impossible for a wide variety of faiths to be represented? How do you keep a rabbi on a submarine that contains one or two Jews? How do you ask a traditional Catholic soldier to say his confession to a female Episcopal priest?

And what about people who have no faith at all? The absence of faith is, of course, a faith position and these military personnel deserve some kind of support when it comes to stress and conflict over ultimate issues.

Please respect our Commenting Policy