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.