Particularism’s Challenge to the American Military Chaplaincy

The work American military chaplains do is shaped by a tension originating in the core of American law itself: the Constitution‘s two religion clauses. One guarantees “free exercise” of religion, while the other separates church and state by saying there can be no “establishment” of religion. Recent developments have cast this tension in sharper relief.

Normative Pluralism

In the 1980s, the Army’s chaplaincy was challenged on establishment grounds in Katcoff v. Marsh and defended itself by saying the purpose of the military chaplaincy was to protect “free exercise”. The argument was that without chaplains, men and women in the military would not be able to practice their religion freely, with an underlying assumption that religiosity makes both the military and its individual members better (this assumption has been a constant in United States history).

Having relied on one fundamental rule about religion in America to shield itself against the charge it breaks another: the chaplaincy as a corps has explicitly staked its legitimacy on allowing as much free exercise of religion in its ranks as practically possible. Chaplains are expected to be inclusive and ecumenical, and are promoted partly based on their willingness and ability to facilitate the free exercise of religion for people whose beliefs they disagree with. For most individual chaplains, however, this was not a big departure from how they had already been approaching their work.  

Reflecting demographic and cultural trends in American society writ large, the military chaplaincy has always tended towards greater respect across religious boundaries and towards inclusion of newcomer minorities. By the 1950s, Waldo Burchard could describe a kind of gentleman’s agreement among chaplains not to raid each other’s flocks (“sheep stealing”) by trying to convert the enlisted. This and other norms within the corps combined with the often urgent pragmatic imperatives of military life and physical separation from denominational superiors to create a military chaplaincy dedicated to what Hutcheson calls “cooperative pluralism”. It’s also important to remember that for chaplains, the Constitution is no background abstraction: it is what they swear an oath to defend when they accept their commission as officers. Add all this together, and you get a group of men and women who largely agree to set theological differences aside for the sake of meeting the needs of military members.


My own research on the military chaplaincy shows that this principle of cooperative pluralism continues to thrive in practice. It also serves to obscure the underlying tension between free exercise and no establishment. However, the tension has become more clearly visible now than in recent decades because new controversies about religion in the military have spawned lawsuits and political debate.  Their common denominator is this: evangelical Protestantism is at odds with the pluralist ideal. 

Several developments have brought us to this point. The Vietnam War divided American religion, with many mainline denominations sending fewer chaplains to the military. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Catholic Church’s shortage of priests have exacerbated the numerical decline of non-Evangelical chaplains. It is well known that since the 1980s conservative Protestantism has gained organizational strength in American politics. They have also done so in the military, which is now full of opportunities to join Evangelical Bible study groups and similarly minded groups. While Lutherans, Episcopalians and Catholics are unable to supply the military with as many chaplains as they are asked for, there’s a veritable line of Evangelical pastors trying to get in. 

As this demographic shift impacted the chaplain corps, evangelicals were provoked to greater activism over issues such as feminism, abortion and homosexuality. According to Anne Loveland, the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuals in the armed forces was especially troubling to evangelicals in the military. Debates over sexual morality coincided with increased immigration to the United States, especially from Africa and Asia, after racist immigration restrictions were struck down in 1965. This more global immigration brought greater numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and other members of “Eastern” religions to the United States, making it the most religiously diverse nation in the world, according to Diana Eck.

Fifty years ago, “religious diversity” meant accommodating Catholics and Jews among all the different flavors of Protestantism that together still enjoyed the vestiges of cultural hegemony. Today, American society is much more fragmented and “religious diversity” brings up ever new challenges and encounters. In my interviews with military chaplains, I heard stories not only of well-established interactions such as Lutheran chaplains facilitating for Jews, but also of an Eastern Orthodox priest helping a Native American practice his traditional religion and a Baptist chaplain having to ask Wiccans to stop sending him Wiccan jokes by e-mail (they thought he was interested). In the modern American military chaplaincy, Muslims and Jews make common cause to secure religiously appropriate food, Methodists worry about how far they’re willing to stretch themselves if the enlisted want to have a Satanist ritual, and Catholics and Mormons pray together in interfaith services. It’s a pretty wild religious landscape, and many Evangelicals don’t like it.

Complaints by and about Evangelical Protestants

Evangelicals take the Bible seriously, including the Great Commission that tells them to try to convert everyone to Christianity. Some evangelical chaplains (it’s very important to note that it’s only some) effectively refuse to do what the military expects them to when they’re approached by a Jewish or Wiccan soldier, for example. Will they help that soldier be the best Jew or Wiccan possible, as they’re supposed to? Or will they be more interested in converting a Mormon or Jew to Christianity? Among “my chaplains” there were Catholic priests who told me of cases where Evangelical enlisted had tried to convert them “to” Christianity(!).  Obviously, this kind of proselytization (“sheep stealing”) can threaten collegiality among chaplains. 

Another area of concern has to do with prayer at military ceremonies where, unlike Sunday services in the chapel, attendance is mandatory. On such occasions chaplains have offered – and still offer - prayers “in your Holy name” or to an unspecified “Almighty”. In principle, such invocations are inclusive at least of all theistic religions. Increasingly, however, Evangelicals have insisted offering explicitly Christian prayers “in Jesus’ name”, effectively making non-Christian military personnel endure prayers that signal they’re not part of the “we” that is praying (which may be understood to be the military, or the United States). Whether or not military chaplains can pray “in Jesus’ name” has been the subject of Congressional action, a flurry of military instructions and revisions of instructions, lawsuits, and an attempt at civil disobedience that ended in a court martial. There have also been about half a dozen lawsuits alleging that Evangelical chaplains are discriminated against in promotions, because they proselytize, pray, or preach in ways the military doesn’t like. Evangelicals argue that the military can’t tell them to not proselytize or how to pray because that would violate their free exercise of religion (and freedom of speech). Part of the problem is that they’re probably right.

The other part of the problem is what happens when Evangelicals are free to run religiously amuck in the military. A series of scandals at the Air Force Academy a few years ago illustrates this well: Evangelical officers encouraged cadets to warn their non-Christian classmates that they were going to Hell, Mel Gibson’s controversial movie about the Passion was promoted in the Academy’s dining hall, several hundred faculty and staff signed and published a letter inviting cadets to come talk to them about Jesus, the football team rallied under a banner proclaiming them part of “team Jesus” and Jewish cadets were subjected to taunts and slurs. Evangelicals at the Air Force Academy were clearly using military resources and prestige to promote one particular religious view at the expense of others, effectively treating the military as a mission field. One response to this has been the creation of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which now works as a watchdog over religious excess in the military, filing lawsuits to curtail it.

It used to be the case that chaplains joined the military to protect the free exercise rights of others.  Now, however, some Evangelicals are concerned with asserting their own religious rights, in defiance of the pluralist ideal. To the extent that evangelical particularity (e.g. proselytizing or praying in Jesus’ name publically) is suppressed, the military chaplaincy is vulnerable to charges of violating free exercise of religion. However, if Evangelicals are unrestrained in their effort to convert everyone to Christianity while salaried, clothed and housed at taxpayer expense, the military chaplaincy is vulnerable to charges of violating the Establishment Clause. 

Difficult Balancing Act

The American military chaplaincy has a difficult balancing act to perform, weighing freedom of religion against separation of church and state while under pressure from an increasingly assertive Christian particularism. Recently, it has looked less steady on its feet than it did before. To keep it from falling over, there are some steps that can be taken. One is for the military chaplaincy itself to pay increased attention to the professional socialization of its members, articulating and inculcating shared norms so that sanctions against those who still break them become rarer and less controversial. Another is for Evangelicals to restrain themselves, with churches supervising and controlling the chaplains they send into the military more closely, and for individual Evangelical chaplains to remember (as many of them do) that they’re in the military for the enlisted, not for themselves. At the moment, the first step seems more likely to be taken than the second.

Dr. Kim P. Hansen teaches Sociology of Religion, Military and Society and Sociology of Medicine at Mount St. Mary's University, Maryland


Key readings:

Burchard, Waldo W.  “Role Conflicts of Military Chaplains.”  American Sociological Review 19
no. 5 (1954): 528-535.

Drazin, Israel and Cecil B. Currey.  For God and Country: the History of a Constitutional
Challenge to the Army Chaplaincy
.  Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, 1995.

Eck, Diana. A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s
Most Religiously Diverse Nation
.  San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 2001.

Hansen, Kim P.  Military Chaplains and Religious Diversity.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan,
2012 [October].

Hutcheson, Richard G.  The Churches and the Chaplaincy.  Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975.
____.  The Churches and the Chaplaincy (Revised Edition).  United States Department of
Defense, 1997.

Loveland, Anne C.  American Evangelicals in the U.S. Military 1942-1993.  Baton Rouge:
Louisiana University Press, 1996.

Weinstein, Michael L. and Davin Seay.  With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an
Evangelical Coup in America’s Military
.  New York: St. Martin’s, 2006.

By Kim Philip Hansen
Published May 29, 2012 9:29 AM - Last modified June 4, 2015 1:49 PM