Wow. I could not believe the incredibly broad strokes that Kathryn Joyce, author of Newsweek article “Christian Soldiers,” used to paint evangelicals in the military chaplaincy. Let’s examine some of the issues that jumped out at me.
-Please note that my comments in this article are based on the Army Chaplaincy, I cannot speak for differences among the various branches.
1. The title of the article, “Christian Soldiers,” is designed to immediately throw up images in the readers mind of the Crusades and a modern American military that is bent on some sort of religious domination of other people within its ranks and other cultures. The title leads to patently false assumptions about the military and sets the stage for the rest of the article which a bash-fest on evangelical Chaplains.
2. The effort is an example of what critics call a growing culture of militarized Christianity in the armed forces. It is influenced in part by changes in outlook among the various branches’ 2,900 chaplains, who are sworn to serve all soldiers, regardless of religion, with a respectful, religiously pluralistic approach. However, with an estimated two thirds of all current chaplains affiliated with evangelical and Pentecostal denominations, which often prioritize conversion and evangelizing, and a marked decline in chaplains from Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches, this ideal is suffering.
Where do I start with this statement. It seems that the author of the article did very little research into the mission of a Chaplain. A Chaplain is supposed to “perform and provide” religious services for soldiers of all religious groups. A lot of misunderstanding about Chaplains stems from a misunderstanding of that phrase.
A Chaplain is expected to “perform” religious services in keeping with the traditions of his/her endorsing agency. A Protestant CH will perform religious services in line with their endorser in the same way that a Catholic CH will perform religious services in line with their endorser. The above statement from the article does not elaborate on that fact and makes it appear that the only thing a CH can and should do is provide some type of generic religious support.
A Chaplain is expected to “provide” religious suppotrt by ensuring that soldiers who have different practices or different faiths have time, tools, and proper personnel to meet their religious needs. That means that Protestant Chaplains take into account their Catholic soldiers and make sure that they have an apportunity to conduct mass. The Protestant CH will not conduct mass himself, but will do his best to see that the religious needs of his soldiers are met. The same thing applies to all denominations and religions (i.e. a Jewish CH will not be expected to lead a Christian worship service but will make sure that his Christian soldiers have the time and tools to meet and conduct services).
It seems that many people would like to completely emasculate the Chaplaincy (or at least evangelicals) and turn Chaplains into some sort of generic religious leader. That desire is complete folly because it would mean that no ones religious needs would be adequately met.
3. Weinstein, an Air Force veteran who founded MRFF in 2005 after both he and his sons say they encountered anti-Semitic harassment and proselytizing in the service, has waged legal battles against what he sees as an improper mingling of church and state in the military, including a current lawsuit against the Department of Defense alleging service members’ compulsory attendance at military functions that include sectarian Christian prayers and a broader “pattern and practice of constitutionally impermissible promotions of religious beliefs within the Department of Defense and the United States Army.” Weinstein says MRFF hears from 400 to 500 service members monthly—including Jews, atheists and religious minorities, but mostly nonevangelical Christians—who claim religious discrimination in the military, often from chaplains or officers implying that they aren’t Christian enough. “The vast majority of chaplains now see the military as a mission field with a lot of low-hanging fruit,” says Weinstein.
Let’s start with “sectarian Christian prayers” shall we? It is a tradition in the Army to have a CH offer a prayer at such things as a change of command ceremony. Typically, such prayers consist of thanking God for the outgoing leaders and prayers for guidance in his/her new post and asking for widom for the incoming leader. What usually ends up getting reported is if a Chaplain has the gall to pray (gasp) in Jesus’ name. Fortunately, a simple phrase by the CH offering the prayer can eliminate many of the perceived “problems” with such a prayer. A CH, recognizing that a change of command is a mandatory event and that people from other denominations and faiths will be present, can choose to say before his prayer, “Please join me by praying in your tradition as I pray in mine.” That phrase recognizes that other religions might be present and welcomes people of other faith groups to pray in their own tradition.
Finally, the Newsweek article carries throughout it a tone of hostility to anyone (specifically evangelical Christians) who would dare to share their faith or spread anything but generic religious gobbledygoop. Heaven forbid that a CH actually have a calling to his/her field and see it as a mission field! Heaven forbid a CH ever see a single soldier converted! I will grant that there are a handful of CH’s (and they are the ones who always make the headlines) who occasionally take things too far. They are in the minority. The Chaplains that I know recognize that they can’t go hold a mandatory big tent revival in the middle of a parade field. The Chaplains I know also recognize that they can’t go and beat people up over theological or religious differences and demand that they repent or face THE FIRES OF HELLLLLL! No, instead they go about their day mingling with soldiers, counseling soldiers, and being a source of hope and good cheer for all soldiers of all religious beliefs.
It is also important to note for those who may not realize it, chapel services are completely voluntary. Within the confines of a protestant chapel service a CH can preach, have altar calls, and say the name of Jesus as many times as he/she wants. Why? No one was forced to go.
Please note, that this next section will describe my personal philosophy of how I minister to soldiers who come to me seeking help.
If a soldier comes to me seeking counseling about a specific issue, I always try to help them resolve their specific issue by offering sound advice. Sometimes the soldier will ask very specific questions that pertain to something I hold religious convictions about. If that is the case, I share with them what I believe about the issue from my understanding of Scripture. Sometimes a door will be open to talk about matters of faith and other times it will not. However, my Christian faith will always inform any kind of counseling that I do. Some might call that proseletysing but I call it being true to your beliefs and I would expect nothing less if I was receiving counsel from a Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, or Jewish CH.
The point of all this is basically this, if a soldier comes to me and says they are scared of dying because they don’t know what will happen to them, no CH (of any denomination or religious background) worth his salt is going to beat around the bush. I am going to immediately pull out my Bible and start sharing with them the only hope that I know. The thing to recognize is that the soldier came to me and likely because of a previous relationship that I had built with the soldier by providing a “ministry of presence.” Everything that I do as a CH is a ministry that builds relationships and repertoire so that when soldiers are facing issues and have questions they know they can come to me. Then, when that soldier does come to me seeking answers about the questions of life, I will offer counsel if that is all they seek, but if they want more I will happily share with them about the sacrifice of my Savior and the true peace that can only be found in Him.
Evangelical Chaplains in the military are a big target because there are a lot of them. The truth is, the vast majority do an outstanding job providing religious support. Occasionally there will be one who causes a ruckus, but they are the minority. What you will never see in Newsweek is an article about how a soldiers life was changed after kneeling for a tearful prayer on the dirty floor of a chapel tent after a service in the field. You will be hard pressed to find an article about the marriage that was saved after a series of counseling sessions with a CH. Try to find a story about the CH who got up in the middle of the night to counsel a soldier who was contemplating suicide and because of that counseling the soldier not only did not commit suicide but found a new reason for living because of eternal hope the CH offered. Try telling the CH who works in a hospital on the frontlines in Iraq or Afghanistan that he can’t share with dying soldiers about a concrete hope they can have as they stare death in the eye. Try to find the story about the CH who gets up in the middle of the night, puts on his dress uniform, and drives for hours to deliver a death notification. You see, our job is very important because we provide a service no one else can and very few would even want to. To try and muzzle a particular group is to weaken the entire Chaplain Corps and thus the value of all the vital services we provide will be significantly dminished. Because whether or not Newsweek wants to admit it, being a CH is a calling and often soldiers come to us seeking not just advice about life but also advice about faith. How can we not share with them our faith when they ask?
note- If you read the entire Newsweek article, you will find that a large portion of it is about a specific endorser. I chose to address the issues in the article that pertained to the Chaplaincy and Chaplains as a whole and not the parts dealing with the specific endorser.