Introduction: The Attraction of Chaplain Ministry

Dr. Scott R. Borderud


The military chaplaincy is an appealing ministry. A popular recruiting brochure of the Army Chaplain Corps distributed during the 1990’s displayed a split-image photograph of a young Catholic priest cleverly dressed on one side in clergy black with clerical collar, and on the other side in the Army Green service uniform. The visual and textual message of the brochure was clear: one can be an ordained Catholic priest and a uniformed military officer at the same time, serving God and Country. Such a recruiting approach communicates the appealing idea that a chaplain is a very special person, a unique hypostatic [= elemental and indivisible] union, both fully minister and fully Army officer. This thinking is expressed compactly in the Latin motto of the Army Chaplaincy: Pro Deo et Patria [for God and Country]. This motto implies that the organization and its constituent members serve or aim to serve both God and the United States of America.

            To those seminarians and ordained ministers considering future or new avenues of ministry respectively, this motto has special appeal. First, it touches the theological orientation of such persons. God is actually mentioned in the slogan of a Government agency. This is in itself remarkable considering the increasing secularization of public life in America, reflected in the degree to which government lately has sanitized itself of particular religious words and symbols, often in response to lawsuits. These trends are certainly evident in the context of military ministry, where modern chapels are noted for their lack of distinctive symbols of faith, Christian or otherwise. Despite these developments, society expects its ministers to be God-persons who put God first, both in their personal lives and public vocations. Such persons thus feel welcomed to a chaplaincy which literally places God first. They read the recruiting brochure and become excited: the Government, a secular institution, is actually willing to pay people to serve God vocationally in the context of military forces.

            The second appeal, represented by “Country,” is clearly a patriotic one. The increasingly disproportionate representation of chaplains with respect to faith groups on active duty today can be explained easily when one looks at the supply side of the equation: those denominations and faith groups which have made the largest increases in representation in the Army Chaplaincy since the advent of the All-Volunteer Force in the mid-1970’s have also been those whose constituencies have been moderate or right-of-center on the political questions relating to war and the use of armed force. That would be the Baptists and Evangelicals. The Catholic Church and certain large Protestant denominations took official anti-war positions during the Vietnam conflict, and today these religious groups are woefully under-represented in the active Army. Their church leaders (many were seminarians during the period of Viet Nam war protests), are not strongly inclined (or able) to release large numbers of their ministers for military service. Among pro-military churches and religious groups, the ecclesiastical leaders encourage ministers to become chaplains as a visible and tangible means of serving their country and of extending the influence of their doctrine to the single largest faith group in the military: those whose dog-tags read “no religious preference.”

            There are also other appeals, often explicit in the recruiting materials, which relate to officer pay, medical/dental benefits, paid annual leave, retirement system, and housing. For many ministers considering the chaplaincy, especially those from small churches and faith groups where pastors are not historically or presently well-paid, these may not be the primary attractions to military ministry, but they are significant evaluation factors in their career decision-making. These benefits sweeten the pot, and give candidates for the chaplaincy a sense of wonder: How is it that I can serve God and my country, and be paid so well to do it? This seems almost too good to be true.

Is this the case?

            The question this paper seeks to answer is simple: Does the Pro Deo et Patria motto of the Army represent an accurate expression of the reality or possibility of serving God and one’s Country along parallel tracks as a military chaplain, or does it perhaps mask the divergent interests of these institutions, or even sublimate inherent church-state conflicts? Should we expect that chaplains are able to serve God and Country with normative internal and external harmony, or should we instead expect significant divergence between these entities and how one actually serves them? We shall answer these parallel questions by examining several aspects of military chaplain ministry: professional expectations; legal status; and organizational allegiances.

The Divergence of Professional Expectations

            Army chaplains, like doctors, dentists, veterinarians, and lawyers, are directly commissioned from their prior civilian status without the normal officer grooming at West Point, through ROTC, or via Officer Candidate School. This, of course, is done for chaplains because the U.S. Government, within its constitutional fences, cannot produce its own ordained ministers. Therefore, the Armed Forces Chaplains Board relies completely upon the sponsoring denominations or faith-groups to prepare chaplain candidates educationally, ecclesiastically, and professionally for chaplain duties. The military services do provide a short-course chaplain school experience for new chaplains which orient them to the unique mission and social structures of the military, and which give them foundational experiences in physical fitness training, wear of uniforms, and military courtesies. Markedly absent from chaplain preparation for active duty are the normal officer courses in leadership, marksmanship, tactics, and other subjects relating to combat officership. Why are these missing? Because the Army never intends chaplains to command, to lead troops in battle, or to fight. In fact, it is the policy of the Army’s Chief of Chaplains, for example, that chaplains shall not bear arms, even in self-defense or the defense of wounded comrades. It is at this point that we must offer our first qualification of the military chaplaincy’s pro Patria: the chaplain is not professionally prepared to serve his country in the same unrestricted sense as other officers. His/her preparation is confined to those competencies which support chaplain duties. This preparation factor does not itself answer the question of exactly how a chaplain serves his country. It does however move us toward two possibilities. The first is that the chaplain does not really serve (defend?) his country at all. The second is that the chaplain serves his/her country, but in a qualitatively different way. Let us suspend the choice of these alternatives for the moment.

            If preparation is the first indicator, the second relates to professional expertise. What are the professional skills and competencies of the chaplaincy? Despite the fact that chaplains receive, either in residence or via non-resident instruction, precisely the same advanced schooling as combat officers in the Army, they are never asked or directed to exercise their school-acquired expertise in the war-fighting or operational sciences and arts. Chaplains do not receive “branch-immaterial” assignments to battle staffs, ROTC instructor positions, or major Army commands. Likewise, in most Army units, the chaplain is blocked from the routine additional officer tasks of Article 15-6 investigating officer, Combined Federal Campaign coordinator, military jury duty, report-of-survey officer, and the like. They are expected instead to be the “subject matter experts” on issues relating to theology, ethics, religion, counseling, and family relationships.

This statement requires refinement. Commanders expect chaplains to be experts in theology, but do not expect them to make theological pronouncements or judgments in the course of unit ministry which exclude service personnel of other faiths (or no faith). Regarding ethics, commanders routinely task chaplains to train soldiers in Army Values, but never to lecture soldiers on the ethical mandates of the chaplain’s particular faith. On religion generally, the commander often leans upon his chaplain to be the resident authority on religions in the area of operations (technically an intelligence officer responsibility), but not to promote his or another particular religion. This refinement extends into the exercise of chaplain competence in religious services as well. The Army Chaplaincy expects Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox, and Catholic chaplains to exercise their distinctive ordained ministry without essential modification in the regular and special chapel services of their faiths. This is generally not the case with Protestant chaplains. The nature of Protestant worship in the military community routinely restricts the exercise of their distinctive faiths in chapel services.

A brief reflection on American church history is in order. The increasingly fissiparous Protestant church landscape in America began with the immigration of European national church bodies from the colonial period through the settlement of the West. In the 19th century, a variety of home-grown religious communities bloomed and pollinated, including the Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists. This inventory expanded with the north-south split of churches during the Civil War, and the theological split of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals from mainline denominations from the 1920’s onward. Doctrinal and other splits within Baptist and other Protestant groups added to the fission. The most recent phase of this phenomenon has witnessed the formation of independent church bodies based upon certain church-growth principles and not theology or ethnicity. 1

This trend has produced a spectrum of “Protestant” churches. Presently there are over 1,300 Army chaplains on active duty, representing over 180 various faith groups. This compares to about 9,000 chaplains representing some 39 faith groups during the Second World War. 2 More than 90% of the current list belongs to non-Catholic, non-Jewish faith groups or individual churches. These chaplains have the unenviable task of creating critical-mass worshiping congregations from among their micro-shares of the total military population. For purely practical reasons, these chaplains from such diverse ecclesiastical backgrounds must develop chapel worship formats and contents in which the distinctive features of individual chaplains’ theologies and liturgies are minimized. This is for the sake of both cooperation with fellow-chaplains, and the comfort of worshippers. Most active duty chaplains thus minister in a so-called “General Protestant” or “Collective Protestant” worship service. We should note that Mormons and Episcopalians would not consider themselves historically Protestant, yet they are routinely considered Protestant, and expected to participate with other Protestant chaplains in chapel services or religious education. There are exceptions to this expectation, particularly toward Missouri Synod Lutheran chaplains and other churches which restrict participation in communion or other sacraments.

Despite the general respect which chaplains in this broad category have for each other’s distinctive beliefs, there remains a strong expectation, especially among more senior chaplains, that Protestant chaplains will work together. This expectation includes the participation of these chaplains together in single-congregation collective worship settings where faith-specific doctrines or practices are muted. Despite the clear wording of Title 10, U.S. Code, installation-level chaplains do not expect or encourage each chaplain from this major category arriving for duty to establish a worship service “according to the manner and forms of the church of which he is a member.” 3 These senior chaplains have good, practical reasons for such thinking. If individual “Protestant” chaplains insisted upon following the letter of this law, the result would be a very large number of sparsely-attended worship services. Such a scenario would hardly meet the religious need for corporate worship in most faith groups represented in the military.

The point of discussing this “Collective Protestant” problem is not to imply that the Government, or the commander, or the installation chaplain has forced this situation upon junior chaplains. It is the context of military ministry in a pluralistic society which demands such non-specific, generalized religious worship for most soldiers of faith. It is enough for our purposes here to admit that this happens routinely among most chaplains, and that this phenomenon demonstrates a significant divergence of expectations from training. We shall insist that all chaplains are expected to exercise a non-faith-specific workday ministry to all soldiers, and that the vast majority of chaplains (= “Protestants”) are expected to exercise a non-faith-specific ministry in worship services as well. This is a professional irony: the chaplain is trained and ordained to provide a theologically distinctive and integrated ministry, but brought into a pluralistic military context. This ambient expects generic counseling and teaching by all chaplains, and generic worship participation from most of its chaplains. This represents a serious modification of the Pro Deo side of the motto for the sake of the et Patria side.

Beyond these expectations, chaplains are also generally considered bellwether advisors to commanders on unit morale, the ethical climate, policies, and the state of morals within the unit. The chaplains provide such advice alongside command sergeants major and other staff members. This statement also requires some precision. Commanders look to chaplains for advice on the above subjects because soldiers speak confidentially with them, because chaplains stand aside of unit accountability, and because chaplains are asked to speak the unvarnished truth. These stated, commanders are not looking for theocratic solutions (e.g. day of repentance, stoning of adulterers, etc.) to unit problems. It is generally enough that a chaplain be aware of problems and communicate those to the command.

If this is the case, one does not need a theological degree or ecclesiastical ordination to tell a commander that the barracks toilets are broken, that the field rations are unsuitable, or that a soldier was mistakenly unpaid. The military wants its chaplains to provide advice to commanders, and is willing both to pay for the professional stature of chaplains to give such advice, and to offer judicial protection (i.e. privileged communications) to the givers of such counsel. What the commander really wants in his/her chaplain is courage, integrity, maturity, and disinterest. He cares not a whit for theological depth or refinement. Thus, the chaplain’s professional expertise does not lend itself to serving God in the military in the same way as other ministers of his/her faith group would in a civilian setting, nor do chaplain competencies serve one’s country in the same way as other officers. We may use the vocabulary of military service, but these words do not carry the same meaning.

            The divergence of professional expectation finally must focus on the question of actual practice of the profession. If the chaplain has neither the preparation nor the expertise to exercise officership in the general sense of leading troops in battle, how then can we explain chaplain ministry as serving one’s country? When an army achieves victory in the field, can the chaplain(s) be credited for its victory? Conversely, when an army suffers defeat, can the chaplain(s) be culpable? These questions beg the rationale for having chaplains in combat organizations in the first place. The constitutional and statutory explanation of this rationale has to do generally with the protection of free exercise of religion in the First Amendment, and the specific requirement for chaplains to hold religious services under Title 10, U.S. Code. Under the intense scrutiny of annual manpower surveys, those reasons standing alone could result in a minimalist chaplaincy, or perhaps the presence of ministers serving under contract to perform divine services for the military. These reasons do not alone demand the battalion-level assignment of uniformed chaplains. Some additional arguments have been used to buttress the legal ones.

In the last twenty years, the Army Chaplaincy has trafficked in terms such as “combat multiplier” and “spiritual battle-proofing” as a way of telling commanders how chaplains actually make a significant and positive difference in the spiritual and emotional preparation of soldiers for combat. This approach insists that soldiers whose spiritual lives are in order (as the result of effective chaplain ministry) will face the fear and uncertainty of battle with a type of confidence or resolve not shared by the spiritually unprepared. There are several difficulties with this thesis. The first is obvious: how does one quantify the contribution which a chaplain makes to the mission of the organization and its success or failure? This writer knows of no study in which a correlation has been observed between chaplain ministry to soldiers, and the battlefield performance of those soldiers and their units. Do solid believers (of any faith group) march further, carry greater loads, kill more enemy, or sustain fewer injuries than those soldiers who never darken the chapel door? The fact that the chaplaincy has been unable to establish such metrics or correlations tells us something very important: it is not really the chaplain’s duty to multiply the combat power of the organization nor to “battle-proof”(whatever that means!) soldiers preparing for violence in the workplace of battle. Anyone in the military who attempts to justify the requirement for chaplains in the military force structure using this conventional rationale is doomed to failure.

More deeply, if we define “serving one’s country” in terms of defending the nation and its interests, we are hard-pressed at this point to find evidence that chaplains actually do this. Aircraft refuelers, doctors, lawyers, and other support personnel have obvious and direct connections to the development, expression, and sustainment of combat power, but this is not the case with chaplains. If one were, for example, to examine the religious support annex to a typical combat organization’s operation order, he would find information about when religious services are to be held, how memorial services are planned, how distinctive faith groups’ worship is handled, and the locations of chaplains during various phases of battle. Nothing is mentioned or implied which would tell us exactly how the chaplain’s activities support the mission or scheme of maneuver. The actual challenge for the chaplain is making sure that religious support does not interfere with the scheme of maneuver or that it positions the chaplain(s) to respond to the actual circumstances of battle and its casualties. From a purely practical or empirical perspective, we are led to believe that chaplains do not serve to defend their nation. They are, in the vocabulary of the Geneva Convention, “chaplains attached to the armed forces.” 4 The wear of combat uniforms by chaplains, despite the various protections they offer, serves only to confuse chaplains with the soldiers they serve, and the mission those soldiers undertake. Chaplains do not defend their nation, and in this sense, do not serve their country. They serve other interests.

During a recent class on the psychological stresses of battle at Fort Leavenworth, the author posed this question to a group of mid-career officers: “Why is it that commanders want chaplains with them and their men in the field, especially during battle?” After some silence, a Moroccan Army major, Kamal Chemmaa, responded: “Because with all of the uncertainty of battle, the chaplain speaks about things which do not change.” Imbedded in this response is the idea that the chaplain’s expertise and practice is pro Deo supra Patria (above country). The knowledge of what is holy or sacred, what is divine or eternal is not part of the “contemporary operating environment,” as the Army calls the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the perspective of actual practice, the chaplain offers little or nothing to help win such conflicts, and we do not look to him for direction or responsibility. We look to the chaplain to put this war or that death in some eternal perspective which gives comfort and hope to those who do the dirty work of governments, and to their kin. It is obvious that such a ministry serves individual soldiers and their families. It is not clear that it serves or should serve the country’s military objectives. Perhaps we can see this more clearly in another setting.

Doris Bergen describes the tense role of German chaplains during World War II:


 “In order to protect themselves from their detractors, military chaplains in the Third Reich labored to prove and re-prove that they met a real need of the troops and boosted morale. Yet the more successfully they did so—and especially on the Eastern Front, it appears, they were successful—the more they helped legitimate a war of annihilation. Merely the presence of chaplains at sites of mass killing in Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Byelorussia, and Ukraine, offered Germany’s warriors the comforting illusion that despite the blood on their hands, they remained descent people, linked to a venerable religious tradition.” 5


Her essay serves as an astringent to the soft thinking that chaplains’ ministries should somehow enhance the military mission, but it also might give the insight we need to understand why governments, even evil ones, support chaplains. If the jus ad bellum (just reasons for entering war) or jus in bello (just conduct of war) of the army he serves are wrong, the chaplain’s service to country jeopardizes his service to God. This principle applies as well to wars in which neither side commits atrocities. Some wars become increasingly pointless. Duff Crerar’s examination of Canadian chaplains in the First World War notes how preaching themes shifted from the early war’s crusade against a German Anti-Christ, to the later trench stalemate’s courageous, comradely, suffering Christ. 6 Even chaplains on the winning side must guard against over-identification of their ministry and message with command policy and war’s rationale. Suffice for the present that both historical arguments and Geneva Convention status argue against the idea that a chaplain can safely serve Country without affecting service to God.

This does not mean that the government does not intend chaplains to serve its purposes. Studies in the aftermath of the 1996 Aberdeen Proving Grounds sex scandals between drill sergeants and female trainees resulted in actions by the Chief of Staff of the Army to increase the number of chaplains assigned to basic training/advanced individual training schools. These actions were not taken because the Army believes that chaplains can prevent the sexual misconduct of non-commissioned officers directly, but because the victims of this misconduct had no chaplain or other person with privileged communication within a reasonable distance from their barracks. The idea behind this is clear: the chaplain’s presence gives soldiers the protected opportunity to communicate a work-related grievance and seek guidance on how to address it at an early stage. This is not the only way chaplains actually serve the government’s interests.

Leaders of the Armed Forces have become increasingly concerned about suicides and suicide prevention among service personnel. Because of their special status as non-command officers with privileged communication, chaplains have been actively involved both in the teaching of suicide prevention to troop units, and in the direct responses to suicidal soldiers. The military has this concern chiefly for three reasons, none of which is spiritual. The first is force protection: any unnecessary loss of a soldier is inherently bad. It reduces available combat power and forces the military to expend additional resources to recruit and train another soldier to perform the same job. The second reason is unit morale: the death of a soldier through suicide creates problems of emotional loss, sorrow, and guilt in those who survive and must continue the mission. These emotions can only reduce unit morale and thereby its effectiveness. The final reason relates to public relations. Any number of suicides statistically above demographic norms reflects poorly on the public image of the military and affects its ability to recruit.

We mention these responsibilities to acknowledge that chaplains actually do serve the specific interests of the nation in connection with their duties. It could be easily argued that these are not necessarily chaplain duties, and could be relegated to other persons in the military with privileged communications. This brings us to our second major consideration.

The Divergence of Legal Status

Military chaplains and their talk with clients are protected under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 7 This privileged communication is so universally respected within the military culture that chaplains are routinely exempt from a variety of normal officer responsibilities which might interfere with clergy-client relationships. Conversely, the Army routinely loads chaplains with certain types of duties (see above discussion) precisely because the chaplain has absolute protection of communication with service personnel and their families. This is also why the majority of military families who seek counseling go to chaplains instead of other professionals on military bases. Other than a JAG defense counsel, no other position in the military holds such protections to the same extent as the chaplain. Contrast this with officers generally. Their communication is, by the nature of officership, always official and subject to public scrutiny.

This protection of chaplains creates a predictable distance between him and his commander. The chaplain regularly hears things in private session with soldiers, sergeants, and officers which could possibly affect soldier and unit readiness. Sometimes this information is time-sensitive. The commander would love to know this information to make decisions, to sustain the force, or to avert disaster. Unfortunately, the chaplain cannot and should not divulge this information to serve the commander’s purposes, even if those purposes involve the highest levels national security, or the loss of lives. Because military organizations place a high value on loyalty, especially upward in the chain of command, the silence of a chaplain could easily be misinterpreted as disloyalty or injurious to good order and discipline. Whatever the interpretation of motives or (in)action, the fact remains that the legal status and protection of the chaplain isolate him and his work from the interests of the state.

We then must ask: why should the state grant absolute privileged communication to chaplains when both the theoretical and practical consequences argue against it? We might respond sociologically. Every organization needs someone who is a disinterested person, a confidant or ombudsman to whom others may go with problems or complaints, without fear of reprisal or whistle-blowing. Perhaps this is a convenient way to explain the survival of the chaplaincy as an institution in the military, where we have found it increasingly clear that the chaplain does not otherwise serve his/her country in a substantial way. We think otherwise. The military’s protection of the chaplain’s communication with soldiers is simply an extension of the absolute secrecy of the priest-confessor relationship, which has a venerable history in the West. Because our Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion of its citizens, it must import into the military’s own law the various vehicles which realize this freedom. One of those is privileged communication. Another is the chaplaincy itself. We could further state that the constitutional right of the people to worship freely in the military context (on this point of confidentiality) trumps the needs of the state to execute its constitutional duty to defend. Thus, all of the additional responsibilities which the chaplain inherits (suicide prevention, family counseling, counseling of sexual harassment victims, etc. ) hang upon this pivotal absolute clergy privilege. This is pro Deo contra Patria(against Country).

The Divergence of Organizational Allegiances

If there is a divergence of the chaplain’s service to God and service to Country, it must somehow find its roots in the separate constituencies he represents, and also the consequent obligations and standards which these organizations enforce. Being a chaplain is not the same as holding dual citizenship. The latter condition involves an allegiance to two entities which are of the same class or type. The former status involves allegiance to entities of very different sorts. These organizations differ significantly in at least their constituencies, their agendas, and their obligations or standards for leaders. We should expect that the fundamental differences between Church and State should be reflected in the dynamics of chaplain ministry. Stated negatively, we should not expect that chaplains committed to the service of God will find service to Country without significant tension.

The pre-commissioning pastoral training and experiences of chaplains generally occur in the context of a confessionally-cohesive body of believers from which the chaplain has been ordained an official representative. As a rule, pastors, priests, and rabbis focus their pastoral care primarily on these believers. The baptism or circumcision of infants, the performance of marriage ceremonies, the conduct of worship services, and the burial of the dead are all sacramental functions of their offices. In most cases, the ministers perform these functions for or on behalf of members of their congregations. Such ministers have no legal or denominational obligation to perform many of their functions for those outside of their faith. In the chaplaincy, the military mission and care for soldiers demolish these walls of inclusion and exclusion. This does not mean that the military would ever demand that a chaplain perform sacramental ministry against the dictates of faith or conscience. It does mean that the military has significantly expanded the constituency this chaplain serves. This expansion brings into pastoral responsibility soldiers of different faiths and no faith. The chaplain will routinely spend an enormous amount of time arranging for the accommodation of religious practices for soldiers of faith groups with which he would otherwise have no contact. Since Vatican II (and the consequent decline in active priests) this has been especially true of Protestant supervisory chaplains. 10 They spend considerable working hours on the problem of providing religious support to large numbers of Roman Catholic soldiers with a shrinking pool of active duty Catholic chaplains. The vocational justification of such Protestant ministry must begin with a significant re-definition of service pro Deo. The question is not whether the military generally or the chaplaincy specifically accepts this re-definition. The real question is whether the ordaining body of the chaplain accepts this re-definition of ministry, especially when the installation chaplain tasks an Evangelical or Baptist chaplain oversight of a Muslim or Wiccan service on a military base.

Related to this question of divergent constituencies is the matter of obligations. The chaplain often enters active duty with a fresh set of ecclesiastical obligations codified in ordination vows. Ministers generally undertake such solemn vows for life, and they do not expect that a subsequent Oath of Office, taken at commissioning, will supplant these vows. So serious are these vows which bind the chaplain to his endorsing body, that the U.S. chiefs of chaplains will respond instantly to a request by the endorser to recall a chaplain from active duty. Even when a chaplain is engaged with troops in combat, the military must honor such requests without qualification. These requests are clearly not in the best interests of the Army and its war-fighting units in the field. It matters not. The allegiance of a chaplain to his/her ordaining body is absolute and permanent. The loan of chaplains to the military is always temporary. Chaplains in this sense serve at the pleasure of their ecclesiastical authorities, pro Deo contra Patria. When that pleasure turns to displeasure, in the instance that a chaplain has seriously run afoul of the teaching or conduct standards of his church, this person will find quickly that he cannot serve Country without serving God under the aegis of his endorser (= nullus Patria sine Deus). Celibacy, divorce, and other matters important to religious groups may have absolutely no importance to the chaplain’s commander, but could well end the chaplain’s military career. Although the Army chaplaincy recently codified the means by which a chaplain may stay on active duty upon the loss of ecclesiastical endorsement (i.e. professional qualification), the regulations provide a very short period of limbo. 8 No chaplain may continue ministry without current ecclesiastical sponsorship, regardless of years of service or rank. Thus, the obligations of a chaplain to his ecclesiastical body generally trump the obligations to his country.

We must note briefly at this point that a chaplain in serious trouble with the Uniform Code of Military Justice should not look to the sponsoring church for a life-ring: the military law holds jurisdiction over chaplains, and the request for recall by a chaplain’s endorser will not rescue him from the deep waters of a court-martial. In the recent case of Navy Chaplain (Lieutenant) Gordon Klingenschmitt, his commander brought charges against him for attending a press conference in uniform (against specific orders). 9 Chaplain Klingenschmitt’s refusal to allow a representative of the government to determine the content of his prayers collided with the state’s interest. That interest was to eschew a perception that it endorses a particular religion by allowing its specific prayers by a representative of the military. This is a recent, visible example of the clash of obligations in service to God and Country in an activity which is central, and not peripheral to the official duties of a chaplain or minister. This is not pro Deo et Patria, but for God or Country (pro Deo aut Patria).

In summary of our discussion thus far, we observe that the pro Deo et Patria motto of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps suffers from an overdose of hope and a deficiency of reality. At the heart of the God and Country problem is the coordinating conjunction “and.” Institutions which include “and” in their title must necessarily face the tension of repeated internal competition for direction. The moment we ask chaplains to serve two masters, and do it faithfully, we place them in a difficult position. The Japanese proverb reminds us, “He who chases two rabbits catches neither one.” This is one of three probable outcomes of chaplain ministry: serving God well; serving Country well; or perhaps serving neither well. We believe that the chaplain actually stands between God and Country. He represents God to his country through his endorsing body, and he represents his country and its soldiers to God through his prayers and other sacerdotal ministries. In this way, inter Deus et Patria is much more representative of the actual situation. We are however, reluctant to offer this alternative motto as a replacement for the pro Deo et Patria, because either the current motto or a substitute must face a serious problem. That problem is the future.


Pro Deo and the Future Chaplaincy

The most publicly unpalatable aspect of chaplain ministry is its fairly recent support of fringe spiritual or religious groups which stand well apart from the mainstream religious life of America. Once group is Wicca (i.e. witches). Despite the congressional grand-standing associated with the Army chaplains’ support of Wiccan soldier worship at Fort Hood, Texas in 1999, 11 this author has no reason to believe that the Army Chaplaincy will not have at least one Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, or Satanist in its future ranks. The Constitution’s protection of religious freedom and simultaneous proscription of “an establishment of religion” certainly places a legal and moral obligation upon the Government to provide for the free exercise of all religious beliefs, not just those acceptable to certain elected officials. This is the central rationale for installation chaplains’ accommodation and support of Wiccan and other groups on military bases. In the case of all four groups mentioned above, the traditional monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is absent from their belief systems. They may choose to serve Patria, but certainly not Deo.

Would the Army alter or drop its slogan at the point when such chaplains might enter the active forces? We have only to look at the actions of Chaplain (Major General) Matt Zimmerman, Army Chief of Chaplains (1990-94), who in 1993 commissioned the first Muslim chaplain on active duty. He also directed, almost instantly, the removal of the Christian cross and Jewish tablets & Star of David from the Chaplain Corps Regimental Crest and other heraldry. Despite the very strong allegiance of many active and reserve chaplains to the “Cross and Tablets” of the old crest, it was no longer a symbol which could be worn by every chaplain in uniform. The admission of only one non-monotheistic religious person into the chaplaincy will automatically place the pro Deo et Patria in jeopardy, not because of the internal conflicts outlined earlier in this paper, but because of the external misrepresentation of the chaplaincy as monotheistic in its service. For these other groups, it could only be non Deus sed Patria (not God but Country).

The issue of future faith groups represented in the chaplaincy is much larger than symbols and slogans. The nature of military life demands that chaplains of all faith groups work together to support the religious needs of all soldiers. Beyond this incontestable general obligation, we have also the devil-in-details of chaplains’ institutional obligations. Were a Satanist chaplain assigned to a brigade-size unit ministry team, the brigade chaplain (regardless of faith) would have an ex officio responsibility to develop this chaplain to be effective in his/her ministry to troops. Likewise, were a Satanist chaplain promoted to major and assigned to supervisory chaplain duties, his subordinate battalion chaplains would be obligated to cooperate with this supervisory chaplain’s religious support plans, perhaps contra Deus pro Patria (against God for Country). This scenario would be especially troublesome if the subordinate chaplain (Christian) were to receive an unsatisfactory performance evaluation from the Satanist. Undoubtedly this has already occurred among non-chaplains somewhere in the military. The difference in this case is that such an occurrence among chaplains would involve the official representatives of their faith groups. Some ecclesiastical bodies might not wish their chaplains to serve with such implied risks.

An historical defense against this argument would point out the fact that chaplains have dealt with other confrontational interfaces routinely throughout the history of chaplain ministry. What is the problem here? Protestants and Catholics, long at odds theologically, have served with one another as chaplains since the earliest days of the Republic. Both of these groups have managed to deal successfully with the advent of Jewish, Mormon and more recently Muslim chaplains without apparent frictional losses to their own effectiveness. Our response to this good argument takes the form of a rhetorical question: Is there a point at which the pro Patria demands of pluralistic cooperation with anti-Christian chaplains in the future could totally eclipse the pro Deo motivations and principles of the majority of chaplains? We predict here that the Army  Chaplaincy will face the future issues much as it has the past. Because it is a re-socializing institution like the rest of the military, it will train-out the troublesome individual theological convictions of its chaplains under the banner of pro Patria, while reinforcing the chaplains’ deeply-rooted love for soldiers and their families (pro Militis).


We have looked briefly at the Army chaplaincy’s motto, pro Deo et Patria, in the context of the actual dynamics and tensions of chaplain ministry. It appears to be a representation of the unique opportunity to serve one’s God and one’s country along parallel tracks. We find this to be a romantic misrepresentation, both of the reality of chaplain work, and of the legal and regulatory landscape which determines chaplain ministry. The tracks of service to God and service to the Nation are rarely parallel, but more often divergent or intersecting. In the latter case, collisions are inevitable. This is neither because we hold a pessimistic view of chaplain ministry, nor because we esteem chaplaincy leaders lightly. The inevitable, inherent, and normal conflicts of God and Country in chaplaincy service are simply the consequences of the manner in which two institutions with non-parallel values and objectives collide in the course of being what they are and doing what they do. The chaplaincy has lived with a misrepresentative motto for some time now, supported as it is by three monotheistic religions. That support does not and will not extend to other, newer religious groups represented in the future.



1.                  One example should suffice: The Willow Creek Association is a group of churches whose “seeker-sensitive” approach to worship is modeled after a mega-church by the same name, pastored by Rev. Bill Hybels. This association includes over 10,000 churches from over 90 denominations. Its Statement of Faith is clearly interdenominational. For additional information, see

2.                  Telephone conversation with Chaplain(Major) Keith Goode, Accessions Officer, Office of the Chief of Chaplains, U.S. Army, 21 December 2006.

3.                  U.S. Code, Title 10, C, II, 555, § 6031. “An officer in the Chaplain Corps may conduct public worship according to the manner and forms of the church of which he is a member.” Also: B, II, 343,  § 3547.Each chaplain shall, when practicable, hold appropriate religious services at least once on each Sunday for the command to which he is assigned, and shall perform appropriate religious burial services for members of the Army who die while in that command.”

4.                  Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field of August 12, 1949. Article 24 (Personnel).

5.                  Doris L. Bergen. The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to Twenty-First Century (Notre Dame: UND Press, 2004, p. 166.

6.                  Duff Crerar. “’Where’s the Padre?’: Canadian Memory and the Great War Chaplains” in Doris L. Bergen, ibid. p.146-7.

7.                  Joint Service Committee on Military Justice, Manual for Courts-Martial (Washington: GPO, 2005), “Military Rules of Evidence,” Rule 503, p. III-24.

8.                  Army Regulation 600-8-24, Officer Transfers and Discharges, Table 5-2 gives a chaplain under such circumstances 30 days to be sponsored by another faith group, to choose another branch of the Army in which to serve (e.g. infantry, adjutant general, finance, etc.), or to be separated. During this period of non-endorsement, the chaplain may not conduct any chaplain-specific ministerial duties. It is thus technically possible for a chaplain without endorsement to continue serving his country, but this would necessarily be without God (= pro Patria sine Deus).

9.                  William H. McMichael. “Navy chaplain at center of prayer controversy to be court-martialed” in Navy Times, 19 May 2006.

10.             Chaplain (Major General) G.T. Gunhus, Army Chief of Chaplains (1999-2003) and an ordained minister of the conservative and evangelical Church of the Lutheran Brethren, spent considerable executive energy on the strategic objective of raising the count of active duty Roman Catholic chaplains in the Army from about 100 to 300. He was not successful, despite a number of front-office initiatives. It is not clear how the rank-and-file of his sponsoring church would feel about the energy he devoted to increasing Roman Catholic “market share” in the Army chaplaincy. In partial defense of Chaplain Gunhus, we should also state that it became obvious to him during his tenure that he would never attain the lofty goal of 300 Catholic priests. From that point onward, he referred all criticisms from field commanders about the shortage of priests directly to the Military Archdiocese, whose problem it is and always has been.

11.             Hanna Rosin. “Wiccan Controversy Tests Military Religious Tolerance” in
Washington Post, Tuesday, June 8, 1999, Page A1. Also see
Jeremy Leaming. "Georgia Lawmaker calls on military to stop Wiccan celebrations," (First Amendment Center:, 24 May 1999.