an ethic of religious Pluralism

For the u. s. army



Trenton E. Lewis

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree

Master of Theology

Harvard University – The Divinity School




Chaplains in the military face a unique challenge in the practice of some of their respective faith rites.  For the Army, the challenge to chaplains’ respective faith practices resulted from the fall-out behind the post-1979 lawsuit against the Secretary of the Army and the Army Chaplaincy by Katcoff and Wieder.  Prior to the lawsuit chaplains freely exercised the practice of using sectarian references for the divine based solely on their respective convictions and conscience. 

The impetus for me to write this paper stems from the early days of my civilian ministry and lasted up to the final daft of the larger thesis work this paper is based on.  Since the completion of my thesis for my Master of Theology degree from Harvard University-The Divinity School another event gained the nation’s attention around this subject:  a Navy Chaplain’s hunger strike to gain approval to “pray in Jesus’ name.”  It is my desire to provide a better point of departure from which to address the matter at hand: public prayers by military religious practitioners, Chaplains. 

A Washington Star[1] article in 1980 addressed, namely, the conscious and intentional avoidance of using a sectarian name for the divine by military Chaplains and serves as the date when the trend toward restricting the exercise of chaplains’ religious rites in the public-military square began.

            During my tenure in various units, I received both spoken and tacit guidance to avoid concluding public, (ceremonial, or patriotic) prayers, “in the name of Jesus.”  Army Regulation 165-1, para 4-4h, states, “Chaplains will not be required to offer a prayer, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices of their faith group.” [2]  While this may seem an appropriate remedy, many chaplains find it difficult to refuse a commander’s request to provide prayer on these occasions. 

It is the aim of this thesis to expand, and refine, an additional dimension to understanding pluralist expressions.  The desired result is a fuller appreciation for authenticity in plural religious expressions during military ceremonial and patriotic events in which chaplains lead prayer.  The goal is to engender a healthy mix, and to embrace the varied religious, and secular contributions each military member brings with her/him into the “melting pot” of the U. S. Army, specifically, and the Armed Forces in general.  When service members know that there is mutual respect, and embrace for their diverse religious, and/or non-religious personhood unit cohesion reaches optimal operational readiness levels producing a high degree of fidelity to good order and discipline within the force: overshadowed only by a Soldier’s commitment to securing our national ethos of freedom.

This thesis seeks support for Christian chaplains, and chaplains of other faith groups to exercise freely the broad range of sectarian expressions in their repertoire as they perform in military ceremonial and patriotic activities.  I will explore this matter by looking at what my research leads me to believe is the U. S. Army’s view of religious pluralism[3].  As well, I shall propose the option of allowing broad range sectarian expressions during military ceremonial and patriotic activities without violating the religion based prohibition clauses in our constitution.


Religious Pluralism in the U. S. Army


            Let me begin by saying what is not called for in this thesis.  This thesis does not call for the total cultural amalgamation that the early “enthusiasts of the ‘melting pot’” [4] ideal anticipated for America.  Neither does this thesis advocate, in the religious sphere, “a genuine blending of [religions], to which every [religious] strain would make its own contribution and out of which would emerge a new [religious] synthesis, no more [Protestant, than Catholic, or Jewish, or Islamic, or Satanic, etcetera], and yet in some sense transcending and embracing them all.”[5]  Nor does this thesis support Major Benjamin’s recommendations in DA-PAM 27-50-312 that “. . . prayers should not reference divinity by any sectarian name (Jesus, Allah) but rather use ‘generic” terms (Father, Almighty, Source of Goodness),”[6] for this, I believe, treads dangerously close to violating the “prohibiting the free exercise of” and the “establishment of religion” prohibition clauses in the United States constitution.[7]  Recommending a different way to perform invocations, benedictions, etcetera, to chaplains,[8] who are religious practitioners by trade, at military ceremonial and patriotic events, notwithstanding the regulatory “opt out,” runs dangerously close to establishing a national (Army) religion and prohibiting the free exercise thereof of another’s personal faith/religion. 

            My goal is to influence an embrace of and respect for the vast differences in the multiple expressions of faith that ministers bring into the Chaplaincy.  As Drazin and Currey note, there are broad nuances in religious practices, even within the same group of faith practitioners.  To affect balance within the Supreme Court’s “limited intrusion”[9] provision for governmental intrusion, Drazin and Curry provide this crucial guidance:


        If an individual follows beliefs different from the doctrines of a parent body, this

      does not detract in any way from the importance of such observances, the religiosity

      or the commitment of that person, or the protection afforded those activities under the

      First Amendment.  Constitutional guarantees are not to be restricted to groups or to

      generally accepted practices.  “By fostering this [individualism], our nation is

      strengthened, for the people respect a government that treats its charges as free-

      willed, discerning, moral beings.  Our republic prides itself on the enormous diversity

      of religious and political beliefs which have been able to find acceptance and

      toleration on our shores.”  Government officials must respect even those whose

      beliefs and practices are fundamentally opposed to the views held by the majority. 

      “The fullest realization of true religious liberty requires that government . . . effect no

      favoritism among sects.”[10]


While Drazin and Currey’s guidance appear to target non-chaplains in general, one must understand that chaplains are Soldiers as well.  Save for the bearing of arms, chaplains are considered non-combatants, in accord with the provisions of the August 12, 1949 Geneva and Hague Conventions, and Customary and International Law granting chaplains non-combatant status.  Yet, historically, this was not always the case.  “Military clergy were not only preachers, pastors and teachers, they were also fighting men.  In wartime they were expected to pick up a musket and do battle when needed.  [It was not until the] civil war, [that] other demands on the chaplain’s time largely erased the public image of the ‘fighting parson.’”[11] 

In the U. S. Army the meaning of religious pluralism for the chaplaincy encompasses understanding the diversity of religious expressions within its ranks over against “the ultimate superiority of [one] religion over all others.”[12]


        The chaplain program strives to support all religious groups while reaching as many

      Soldiers as possible.  . . .  Chaplains are charged with providing services to all

      Soldiers, regardless of denomination.  If a particular chaplain cannot provide a needed  

      service, the chaplain must find someone qualified to provide the service.[13]


In practice, the above definition stands in stark contrast to how chaplains behaved during the Chaplaincy’s formative years.  As Drazin and Currey note, “chaplains held strongly parochial views.  Primarily Protestant, they acted as exhorters striving to win Soldiers to their own particular sectarian beliefs.  Intolerant of other views, they laid the wrath of their scourge on those of different faiths, and regularly mingled (and mangled) the holy and the profane.”[14]

It is not my aim to imply in the least that we return to such a shortsighted historical approach.  But, rather, in some degree, assent to John Hick’s “modest and largely negative conclusion that, so far as we can tell, no one of the great world religions is salvifically superior to the rest.”[15]  As well, no one of the great world religions is damnably inferior to the rest.  These points illustrate a clear need for caution against articulating such positions if pluralistic religious expressions become an accepted norm at military ceremonial and patriotic events. 

Because of the historical intolerance “of other views . . . and regular[ity] in the mingl[ing] (and mangl[ing]) [of] the holy and the profane”[16] religious pluralism was not an issue up for debate within the Army Chaplaincy.  While historical intolerance was a systemic reality for the Chaplain’s Corps, the origin of this intolerant ethos is the “melting pot” assimilationist ideal of what it meant to be an American during the fledgling period of our nation’s history, viz., to be American is to be Protestant.  “. . .  The Puritans [believed America was the] chosen, covenanted nation, [chosen to] serve as an active model for the earthly construction of Christ’s millennial rule.  Americans as a nation began to see themselves as a chosen people . . . The settlers saw themselves as a new Israel, established as a model for the wicked homeland [England] that was betraying its own Reformation.”[17]  This sentiment still holds today, “the American’s image of [herself]/himself is still the Anglo-American ideal it was at the beginning of our independent existence.”[18] 

During its early history, no significant work or discussion on the meaning and practice of religious pluralism within the Chaplaincy occurred: in part due to the sola Protestant ethos mentioned earlier.  However, this would all change when a serendipitous[19] event in the chaplaincy’s history forced an examination of all its policies and practices. 

A lawsuit filed by Joel Katcoff and Allan M. Wieder on November 23, 1979 against the Chaplaincy ignited the impetus for a top down review of the Chaplaincy.  Its view of pluralism and other religious programs received intense scrutiny.  While the plaintiffs were unwittingly responsible for this review, their suit goes to the heart of indicating how long it took to generate serious discussion about the meaning of religious pluralism in its military context.[20]  Everything came under scrutiny”[21] resulting in the Chaplaincy abandoning the practice of intolerance for other religious views and a vow to cooperate with other religious practitioners.[22]


Intolerance of full expression


            In reviewing DA PAM 27-50-312, one will note that embodied in the prohibition against referring to “divinity by any sectarian name   . . .  [in favor of] ‘generic’ terms” is a neo-intolerance that is reminiscent of the intolerance Abercrombie saw in the Puritans.  It is critical that the Army Chaplaincy refines the meaning and implications of pluralism to fulfill its solidly constitutional role of ensuring the religious free exercise for all.  Without its lead, the military climate will not progress to an even higher state of readiness that, for me, embracing religious pluralism offers.

The Army, long a pioneer in achieving success in social reform, can again lead the way in this vital religious “free-exercise” matter.  Moreover, taking this lead requires command support to ensure respect for and acknowledgement of all religious expressions as valid and legitimate expressions of their respective practitioners, worthy of free, non-abrasive expressions in public and in private.  Such an embrace undergirds the establishment of an affinity for the religiously diverse nation that is America.  It is through an embrace of religious pluralism as redefined that an ethos of strength in diversity ensues, and the seed for developing a “Ministry Theology of Citizenship” can germinate.

When done well we enrich America as a nation and affirm her strength through diversity.  In fact, as early as 1774 we find the founding patriarchs unafraid to embrace religious pluralism.


After settling the mode of voting . . . it was agreed to open the business with prayer.  As many of our warmest friends are members of the Church of England, [I] thought it prudent, as well on that as on some other accounts, to move that the service should be performed by a clergyman of that denomination.”  Samuel Adams to J. Warren, 9 September, 1774.  John Adams says it was Cushing who made the motion that business be opened with prayer, and John Jay and Rutledge opposed it on the ground of a diversity in religious sentiments. 

That [sic] Samuel Adams asserted he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from any gentleman of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend of his country; and nominated Duché.

     Duché attended in full pontificals, read several prayers in the established form, the collect for the day (Psalm XXXV), and then “struck out into an extemporary prayer, which filled the bosom of every man present.  I must confess I never heard a better prayer, or one so well pronounced.  * * *  It has had an excellent effect upon everybody here.”  John Adams to his wife, -- September, 1774.  Joseph Reed thought the appointment and prayer a “masterly stroke of policy.”  Ward recorded “one of the most sublime, catholic, well-adapted prayers I ever heard.”[23]


            While it is clear that no reference to divinity by a specific sectarian name occurs, the sentiment that he used one is strong—especially, if Duché’s extemporaneous prayer emanated from the “spirit” of the early settlers’ belief that our nation was embarking upon Christ’s millennial reign.  Additionally, the universal (catholic) prayer of Ward’s does not mean he closed in a non-sectarian fashion.  I suspect there were no great objections to the name of Jesus during this period since most early settlers and the framers of our government immigrated here during the Reformation movement through England.

Another significant period of this sola Protestant Christianity sentiment is evident during Lincoln’s presidency when he and his commanders “decreed ‘no person shall be appointed a chaplain in the United States Army who is not a regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination.’” [24]  In contrast, the Confederacy, long resistant to having chaplains stipulated only “that they must be clergymen.”[25] 

To usher in the same non-bigoted spirit toward prayer that Samuel Adams, et al had let us embrace the option of allowing broad range sectarian prayer expressions at military ceremonial and patriotic events.  In doing so, the public gets the opportunity to witness the varied religious richness in the make up of the Chaplains’ Corps.  With commanders’ encouragement and support for the free exercise rights of chaplains the public will become familiar with an Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, etcetera, chaplain’s prayer ritual.  Moreover, when they hear Chaplains close their respective prayers in the name of Allah, YAHWEH, Buddha, etcetera, the public becomes familiar with the unfamiliar.  The unfamiliar becomes familiar lessening the “ignorance factor” that produces intolerance.[26]

From this experience the public will realize the non-viability of “. . . an imagined past of cultural [and religious] homogeneity.”[27]  The public will readily embrace an appreciation for an ethic of religious pluralism for the U. S. Army that reflects the notion of “embracing” as the transformative agent in our current stance on religious pluralism.            Embracing religious pluralism is analogous to the expression of genuine religious disagreement and genuine religious convictions harmoniously existing: each lending an ear to listen to and appreciate another and a voice that serves as the channel through which disagreements and convictions undergo examination and clarification.


Conclusion:  Overall benefit of Embracing Diversity


            My concluding word seeks to address several questions this work may raise for those who think my position shortsighted and/or insensitive to those who are a-religious or of other religious traditions.  One misses the point of my argument if one thinks this.  My argument is not only a call for authenticity for those called on to perform such tasks, but to expose believers and non-believers to the beauty of the religiously plural nation we all work, live, play, and die in.  It is an attempt to live out the full letter of our highly valued constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression.  In my opinion, we lessen the First Amendment when we restrict public religious expressions.[28]

            Carrying this conversation a little further, yes, most public prayers are communal.  They are communal in the sense that other community members are present.  Yet, this is not an excuse to permit disingenuousness.  Persons must be true to who they are or their integrity is suspect.  Integrity is the greater value to maintain.  We expect our politicians, military leaders, and other civic officials to maintain sound ethical behavior, why should we advocate a diminished level of authentic integrity from clergy when they pray in the public square.

            Additionally, “the concept of the national state”[29] absent a religious voice is a flawed idea of “the bourgeois revolutions.”[30]


The triumphant bourgeoisie wanted to make the public sphere free of religion.  They claimed that the public realm could be one of ‘rational’ politics and of social emancipation.  Therefore, by definition there could be no specifically religious participation in the public sphere.  It was to be a realm where only open debate, rational argumentation, and logical persuasion were to be employed in a discussion of public policy issues.  It was to be a “value free” realm . . . in which authoritarian, superstitious, or religiously legitimated ideas were excluded by their very nature.[31]


It is clear to the author that those who find themselves in favor of the maintenance of this bourgeois ethos will continue to object to what this thesis seeks.  Yet, I challenge them to ask themselves, “why not allow religion in the public square?”

            Inherent in my optimistic personality is a strong belief that the road to change begins with the first step.  For the military, I believe, the public embrace, through respect and acknowledgement as valid and legitimate plural religious expressions will strengthen unit readiness.  A spiritually fit Soldier is a ready Soldier.  Implementation of this refined definition of religious pluralism will aid in increasing acceptance of the multicultural and multi-religious composition of our force.     As Cox more eloquently states, “if [military leaders] understand and respect the religious pluralism of the United States and the fragile fabric by which persons and groups with different [or no] spiritual orientations are bound together in society, then they may be able to bring a gift that will strengthen and deepen citizenship in a democracy rather than diminish it.”[32]

Embracing religious pluralism as redefined is a step in this direction and provides support for Christian chaplains, and chaplains of other faith groups to exercise freely the broad range of sectarian expressions in their repertoire as they perform in military ceremonial and patriotic activities.





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     [1].  “In 1980, the Washington Star strangely and erroneously reported that chaplains were forbidden to mention God.”  Israel Drazin and Cecil B. Currey, For God and Country:  The History Of A Constitutional Challenge To The Army Chaplaincy (Hoboken, New Jersey:  KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1995), 112. 


     [2].  “Military and patriotic ceremonies may require a chaplain to provide an invocation, reading, prayer, or benediction.  . . .  Chaplains will not be required to offer a prayer, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices of their faith group.”  Religious Activities:  Chaplain Activities in the United States Army (Washington, DC:  Headquarter Department of the Army 25 March 2004) [hereinafter AR 165-1].


     [3].  Chaplains must minister to all service members irrespective of the Soldier’s religious (or non-religious) affinity.  (See quote in my Religious Pluralism in the U.S. Army section.)


     [4].  Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew:  An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden City, New York:  Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1955), 33.


     [5].  Ibid.


     [6].  Major Michael J. Benjamin, “Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue:  Legal Analysis of Religion Issues in the Army,” The Army Lawyer:  DA-PAM 27-50-312 (November 1998): nov98religionissues.pdf.


    [7].  Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v., “Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.”  Amendment I. * “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech . . .”  *The first ten Amendments (Bill of Rights) were ratified effective December 15, 1791. 


     [8].  I recognize that many Protestant faith groups do not mandate that their clergy conclude prayers using a standard formula (e.g., “in Jesus’ name”).  However, Christian chaplains choosing to do so based on their belief that John 14:12-14, 16:19-28 KJV requires this practice deserve to have their practice of the same honored.


     [9].  Drazin, For God, 117.


     [10].  Ibid., 117-118.


     [11].  David B. Sabine, “The Fifth Wheel:  The troubled origins of the chaplaincy” Civil War Times, Illustrated (Harrisburg, PA:  Historical Times Inc., 1980), 15.


     [12].  Ibid., 64.


     [13].  Benjamin, “Justice, Justice” 16-17.


     [14].  Drazin, For God, 5-6.


     [15].  Quinn, The Philosophical, 58.


     [16].  Ibid., 6.


     [17].  Clarence L. Abercrombie, III The Military Chaplaincy Vol. 37, Sage Library of Social Research (Beverly Hills, CA:  Sage Publications, Inc., 1977), 36-37.


     [18].  Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew:  An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden City, New York:  Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1955), 33-34.


     [19].  Serendipity usually implies something “good,” results from an accidental discovery, but for the Chaplaincy, the lawsuit did not come about because of an accidental discovery.  However, good did come:  A more deliberate approach to and an affirmative view of religious pluralism resulted.


     [20].  Whether this was pre-lawsuit thinking is unclear, but starting “in the late 1970s . . . a study group . . . grapple[d] with the problem of how [to respect]  . . . free exercise of religion [and simultaneously maintain] . . . good order, discipline, and morale.”  The “principle of ‘accommodation’” resulted after several years of study.  This principle allows, “free expression of religious beliefs unless they impinge on such things as readiness, good order and discipline.”  John Wesley Brinsfield, Jr., LinkEncouraging Faith, Supporting Soldiers:  the United States Army Chaplaincy, 1975-1995 (Washington, DC:  Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Dept. of the Army, 1997), 130. 


     [21].  Brinsfield, Encouraging, 125.


     [22].  While Katcoff and Wieder would later abandon their lawsuit, the unfettered validation of the Chaplaincy’s constitutionality would not come for some time.  On July 8, 2005, unfettered validation came from “Ms Helen Sullivan, Sr. Associate Deputy General Counsel, Office of the Deputy General Counsel . . . [she] declared that the military chaplaincy (Army, Air Force, and Navy) is Inherently Governmental ‘Across the board, based on the rationale provided in the Katcoff case with respect to the requirements and interplay of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.’”  Johnny Mims.  “FW:  Decision of the General Counsel,” 08 July 2005, personal email (25 July 2005).


     [23].  Worthington Chauncey Ford, editor The Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, Vol. 1, 1774 (Washington, DC:  Government Printing Office, 1904) 26n, 27n.


     [24].  Sabine “The Fifth Wheel,” 15.  This policy changed to “a regularly ordained minister of some religious denomination” after nearly a year of Congressional debate.


     25.  Ibid., 15.


     [26].  And since a “religious service does not take place à la AR 165-1’s guidance, and denominationally specific worship is not occurring, there is “no violation” of the establishment clause.  It is “minimal exposure to religion” or other forms of religious/faith expressions that I propose.  I propose this, not with the intent of having, as Drazin notes, “some effect on the minds of” those in attendance, (as is the intent of proselytizing), but of exposing and educating all about the truly diverse nature of our diverse nation—religiously and otherwise.  For discussion on this, see Drazin, For God, 49-50.


     [27].  Ibid., 119.


     [28].  The exact point of “the [1993] Religious Freedom Restoration Act . . . though the Supreme Court later struck it down,” this decision merits revisit.  Bill Clinton, My Life, (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 558.  In For God and Country (50), Circuit Judge MacKinnon sees such court decisions as an “almost mechanical, robot-like, reliance on constitutional tests,” for deciding First Amendment questions: the Supreme Court appears guilty.


     29.  Harvey Cox, “Citizens and Believers:  Always Strangers?” in, In Gods We Trust:  New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America, 2nd ed., eds., Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony, 449-462 (New Brunswick, U.S.A.:  Transaction Publishers, 1990), 453.


     [30].  Ibid.


     31.  Ibid., 453-454.


     [32].  Ibid., 455-456.