Difficult issues addressed at conference on faith in the military

By Gustav Spohn*
Director of Communications and Publications

DunlapA two-star general, the first Islamic chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces, one of the nation’s foremost legal experts on faith in the military, and a YDS professor who ignited national discussion about proselytizing at the Air Force Academy were among participants at a Nov. 13-14 conference cosponsored by Yale Divinity School and Yale Law School.

Conversation was civil, yet it was clear that a rapprochement between opposing viewpoints on weighty matters of religious expression in the military awaits another day.  The conference title was “Faith and Arms in a Democratic Society: A Working Conference on Religion in the Military.”  It brought together military chaplains, attorneys, legal scholars, ethicists and theologians who have done work on the constitutional and pastoral aspects of the military chaplaincy.

The gathering opened with a lecture in Marquand Chapel by Anne C. Loveland, the T. Harry Williams Professor Emerita at Louisiana State University, on the topic “Military Chaplains in Cultural Transition, 1946 to the Present.”  Her talk set the stage for much of the conversation to follow, including proselytization in the military, the expanded role of chaplains as religious liaisons in theaters of war, religious pluralism in the armed forces, and the differing attitudes of evangelical and mainline denominations toward the military chaplaincy.

Loveland, former chair of the History Department at LSU and author of the book American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military (LSU Press, 1996) concluded her lengthy presentation on the history of the military chaplaincy over the past half-century with several provocative observations about the military chaplaincy in the 21st century.

  • “Evangelical chaplains continue to provoke debate over proselytizing, praying in Jesus’ name, and sectarian prayers at mandatory functions.”
  • The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are testing expanded chaplains’ roles that go beyond the traditional moral guidance role to acting as advisors to commanders in the combat environment.
  • Attempts are being made by some evangelicals “to define the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as a holy war.

Panelist Richard Katskee, assistant legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, DC, commented, “There really are plenty of chaplains—it’s not the majority but a sizeable minority of chaplains—who believe that it is their duty to proselytize and push their own faiths rather than provide spiritual support for everybody.”

Noting that there are about 2,500 recognized religious denominations in the country, he added, “When the leadership doesn’t have sufficient sensitivity to religious diversity...then even the most committed, decent chaplains really can’t do their jobs.”

Law School PanelAccording to Loveland, the history of evangelical proselytizing in the military does back to at least the late 1940s, when the National Association of Evangelicals began endorsing candidates for chaplaincy, with three primary objectives:  to offset the large number of Catholic chaplains, to “annul the liberal, mainline Protestant orientation of chaplaincy programs,” and to treat the armed forces “as a great mission field and chaplains as ‘missionaries to the military.’”

Despite some signs in the early 1990s of evangelical support of rules prohibiting proselytizing, Loveland noted, there was evangelical opposition to religious accommodation exhibited—for example, opposition to the appointment of Muslim chaplains.

During a luncheon talk at the conference, author Jeff Sharlet, contributing editor of Harper’s and Rolling Stone magazines, argued that fundamentalist Christians in the United States Armed Services pose a serious threat to religious freedom in the military and abroad and continue to proselytize, sometimes in indirect ways. “Obama inherited armed forces fighting a third battle on the home front for the soul of the military,” he said.

Sharlet cited several examples of what he claimed were actions inappropriate in a military that is supposed to be religiously neutral: When he was commandant of cadets at the United States Air Force Academy, Major General Johnny A.Weida made the National Day of Prayer and exclusively Christian event; Major General Robert Caslen appeared in uniform in videos for Christian Embassy, an organization that ministers to members of Congress, Pentagon officials, and the diplomatic corps and is part of Campus Crusade for Christ International; Lieutenant General Robert Van Antwerp wore his uniform during high-profile televised religious events, including the 2003 Billy Graham Crusade.  Other military leaders have endorsed Christian books or religious-centered fitness programs, according to Sharlet.  And he reported that a group within the military, the Officers’ Christian Fellowship, created Bible studies characterizing the war in Afghanistan as spiritual warfare, and the mission of the armed forces as a holy war fought for souls at home as well as abroad.

Another of the panelists, C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister from Louisiana who leads the national organization The Interfaith Alliance, suggested that the events at Fort Hood, TX, where a Muslim Army officer is accused of killing a dozen soldiers and civilians in a Nov. 5 rampage, have highlighted the relationship between religion and the military, particularly the status of minority religious groups in the military.

“I honestly think we are at a teachable moment in this nation on the very issues we are discussing.. . What are the lessons you see coming out of that critical moment that would be good for everyone to understand about religion and the military and, really, the central, critical role that chaplains have in negotiating that truth.”

At a number of points during the conference, participants took up the question of the expanded role chaplains now have—a role that several speakers contended is not always welcomed by the chaplains.

Over the past several decades, Loveland noted, chaplains have been asked to engage troops at levels that go well beyond the traditional roles of pastoral counseling and preaching—a role, for example, that has chaplains discussing just war theory with soldiers and advising commanders about the religious beliefs of the enemy.

LovelandSuch duties, explained Loveland, are “more than simply advising and consulting with the commander regarding religion, morals, and morale in the command” but also “criticizing, when necessary, his decisions, policies, and leadership.”   Surveys, she said have shown that many or most chaplains prefer traditional pastoral duties.

That sentiment was echoed by some of the military personnel at the conference, prompting one to raise the question of whether it would be better to assign those expanded duties to intelligence officers with religious training instead of chaplains.

While much criticism was leveled against the aggressive posture of evangelicals in the military chaplaincy, there were also criticisms of mainline churches’ reluctance to engage the military or, at the more extreme level, even discouraging against military service.

Said Loveland,  “The mainline Protestant denominations don’t seem to encourage people to go into the chaplaincy... and those that they have in the chaplaincy they don’t seem to support to any great degree.”

She linked much of that opposition to anti-war sentiments, going as far back as World War II and, then, the Vietnam War, which she termed not only “anti-war” but “anti-military” as well.

“The antimilitaristic viewpoint I think... is kind of a subtext of a lot of the mainline denominations,” suggested Loveland.

Shelly Rambo, who teaches theology at Boston University in classes that include a number of military chaplains, also referenced the mainline reluctance with respect to the military.

“There is a non-engagement from the liberal Protestants generally around issues in the military for obvious reasons, so it’s very ‘unpolitically correct’ for me to be in this conversation according to many of my colleagues,” said Rambo, who served on one the conference panels. “I say, ‘Can’t you protest and engage and have conversations and learn something about persons in the military?’”

After the conference, organizers and some of the participants said they believed the conference was productive because it brought people together—in some cases people with diametrically opposing views—to discuss religion in the military in a nonconfrontational atmosphere.

Arthur Schulcz, an attorney who represents 65 Navy chaplains and two agencies that recommend persons to be chaplains that have sued the Navy over religious discrimination against evangelical faith groups, said “What I hope comes out of this is a broader discussion to address the specific results and policy decisions that address some of these problems.

“You have people here from both sides of the spectrum... That’s what this conference has done.  It’s enabled people to come from different perspectives...We can still disagree, but perhaps in the areas where we agree there can be movement.”

U.S. Air Force Major General Charles J. Dunlap Jr. remarked, “It really is the kind of approach that we need for these very complex issues, how inclusive it was, how open and candid the discussions were.  This is the way we make real progress in these difficult challenges that we have today.”

Likewise, the primary organizers of the conference—Kristen Leslie, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at YDS, and Eugene Fidell, the Florence Rogatz Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School— were pleased with the conference.

 “From the outset, Gene and I were committed to bringing people together who had a direct investment in a conversation about religion in the military,” said Leslie, who was a central figure several years ago in the controversy surrounding proselytization at the Air Force Academy.  “In the past several years public conversations about this topic have been polarizing and tense. At the same time, people have sought us out to personally share their concerns and interests in having a constructive conversation about the present state of military chaplaincy and its future.

“The level of commitment and enthusiasm shown by the conference participants reflected our own sense that the time was right to have a constructive and respectful conversation....When the conference ended, participants were eager to talk about next steps.  We take that as a positive sign.”

Fidell called the biggest “take away” from the conference the need to educate military commanders about balancing free expression of religion and establishment of religion.  Commanders, he said, need to “embrace First Amendment concepts” and “think of creative sways to lead their people so that the result is a military workplace that is really consistent with our constitutional values.”

Near the end of the conference, one Air Force officer raised a question about the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allows gays in the military but only so long as they do not make public their sexual orientation.  What might be the effect on chaplains, she asked, if that policy were reversed so that gays and lesbians were free to discuss their sexuality.

There was no definitive answer forthcoming to that question, which seemed to underscore how unresolved questions on thorny issues like that point to a road ahead that will not be entirely smooth for the military chaplaincy.

Said Fidell, “For some chaplains that is going to be tremendously difficult... but chaplains do have to abide by he law of the land... and perhaps we’ll see some chaplains looking for the door.  Some chaplains may look for the exit if they find the military environment is no longer compatible with their deeply held views.

“On the other hand, there will presumably be some gay chaplains coming in who will be out of the closet and I would imagine there will be chaplains who are currently on active duty who come out of the closet themselves.  It’s hard to know exactly how it will play out, but you can at least see what the issues are going to be.”

*Gabrielle DeFord '11 M.A.R. also contributed to this story.