The Ethics of Military Sponsored Prayer


Chaplain Charlotte E. Hunter, Ph.D.

Commander, U.S. Navy

Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute

366 Tuskegee Airmen Drive

Patrick Air Force Base, Florida



“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”  James 5:16


            Perhaps the most famous example of a military-sponsored prayer (MSP) is the weather prayer from the 1970 movie, “Patton.”  A scene in the latter part of the film shows the general, stalled by bad weather from pushing his advance toward besieged Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, calling upon his chaplain for a weather prayer to dispel the heavy rains and thus allow Allied bombers and fighter planes to attack and destroy the German forces.  Francis Ford Coppola’s script has the chaplain protest, albeit tentatively, about the ethics of asking God for good weather to kill the enemy. 

            The movie scene reflects much, although certainly not all, of the reality of the event.   Chaplain James H. O’Neill, who wrote the prayer on 8 December 1944, was commanded to produce a weather prayer.  He seems, however, to have spent no time pondering the ethics of either its genesis or intent.  Instead, knowing Patton’s determination to advance and engage the Germans, O’Neill typed up what he believed a suitable public petition:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend.  Grant us fair weather for Battle.  Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nation.[1]


            The past quarter century has produced fascinating legal cases that have grappled with the constitutional issues inherent in arguments for and against government-sponsored public prayer.  One can point to Marsh v. Chambers, [2] Mellen v. Bunting,[3] and this past summer’s interesting case, Turner v. City Council of the City of Fredericksburg,[4] to name but a few, each presenting intellectually and sometimes viscerally stirring arguments for and against the sorts of prayer that are said in various venues under the aegis of local, state, and federal governmental authority.  Governmentally sponsored public prayers have long fascinated, and often bedeviled, those who cherish the First Amendment’s freedoms and constraints regarding religion and speech.  Many legal scholars have taken up their pens or keyboards, in response to a pertinent case, to argue the merits of one decision, or the demerits of another.[5]  All have sought to pierce the legal murkiness that surrounds issues of religion and speech, but clarity has proved elusive for even the most brilliant legal scholars, to say nothing for the rest of us.  Clear answers to the questions raised by these public prayers exist only as a Grail vision, the attainment of which would comprise a tangled tale more labyrinthine than any fiction that Dan Brown could conceive.

            As interesting as these attempts have been, and as fascinating as they are to read and reflect upon, the focus of this paper lies not with these cases nor simply the legal aspects of governmentally sanctioned public prayer, although some of the points made herein have legal ramifications and consider such arguments.  Rather, the focus rests on consideration of some the ethical issues involving military-sponsored prayers (MSP).  These are public prayers sanctioned by commanding officers in the United States military, prayers written and offered by military chaplains, prayers heard by the men and women of any military unit outside the context of a divine worship service, either in a formal organized unit event, or as part of the unit’s day-to-day business.  Some of these ethical issues invite theological considerations as well, but theology is not of primary importance here.  The ethical issues of MSP, as examined here, revolve around value, relationships, and power.


            What is prayer?  It is fair to say – it is, indeed, imperative to acknowledge – that prayer is understood to mean many things to many people, and the scope and intent of this paper does not allow for a thorough examination of this complex and historic subject.  It is, however, reasonably safe to state, for the sake of the subject at hand, that prayer can be defined as an active effort to communicate with a deity (or deities) to offer praise and thanks, to appeal for guidance or favor, to confess sins, to offer comfort, or as a means of meditative reflection.  This simple working definition, which does not purport to encompass the depth and breadth of prayer’s place in humanity’s history or an individual’s faith construct, serves as a means of demystifying prayer sufficiently to allow the proposed ethical examination of its public presentation within the military.  The definition also avoids sectarian identification, being sufficiently general to encompass most faith groups with a devotion to one or more deities with personal attributes.

            Prayer is also a connective to larger issues of metaphysical significance and, when invoked, in a public setting, serves to connect the overall context to more transcendent realities.  Although the subject here is MSP by necessity, MSP connects also with the entire dimension of public or civil religion.  Public prayer – and certainly MSP – possesses a quality that has received little ethical attention and deserves much more.  It is a commodity possessing considerable value within the social and power structures of the military.  As such it acts as an integral element within various power relationships that exist within a military unit (and, to a certain degree, outside the unit), and it is both perceived and used, right or wrong, as a force multiplier. 

            Some may be taken aback by this commoditization of public prayer; they may prefer to regard public prayer a simple recitation of spiritually laden words, a tradition cherished by the military as a means of uplifting hearts and minds to contemplation of things divine in a difficult profession.  Some others may prefer to see MSP as a private possession, a specific religious act that, when performed by a chaplain and regardless of setting, deserves the same protections as any element of a divine service.  In the social marketplace of the military, however, it seems self-evident that public prayer possesses a use value that potentially satisfies some or many human needs or wants, physical or spiritual, that contribute to the betterment of individual military members and, thus, the military mission.  This use value is evident not just to the author, or conveyor, of the prayer, but to others generally, including sponsors and recipients of the prayer who recognize that public prayer, as commodity, can be traded for other commodities.  These include, but certainly are not limited to, increased pastoral intimacy with, or social acceptance by, one’s military peers, which in turn may afford its owner the benefit of others' labor.  One might see the prayer composed by Chaplain O’Neill, at General Patton’s order, as one example of prayer’s commoditization.  Patton perceived the value of prayer to his mission, both the spiritual content and the morale potential, and determined to make good use of it in boosting morale during a tough campaign through Europe, in invoking the aid and support of God on behalf of the Third Army and his own ambitions, and in demonstrating to all his own confident piety.  His chaplain, perhaps equally perceptive of the potential benefits, composed a public prayer that proved pleasing to the general.  This fact allowed the chaplain – and his subordinate chaplains – to invoke the backing of the Third Army’s leader in promoting religious attitudes, if not adherence.  The prayer announced to the entire Third Army the importance of the chaplaincy in the eyes of that army’s highest commander, and it undoubtedly improved his professional and pastoral relationship with Patton. 

            The primary relationship fostered and sustained by any prayer – certainly private prayer – is that which exists between the one who prays and the deity or spirit to whom one prays.  Public prayer, unlike private prayer, possesses social value within relationships beyond the one of the penitent and the deity.  In the case of MSPs, these extend beyond the immediate context and include moral agents not necessarily present.  Among the moral agents considered here, of first importance are commanding officers, chaplains, and unit members.  These three primary stakeholders operate in a relationship thrust upon them by the government by means of the military command structure (i.e., via permanent change of station orders and the unit chain of command), authorized by the government, and bound together by the dictates of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Within this often complex relationship, various and widely varying religious beliefs join in pluralistic togetherness as military members live, work, fight, and face death as a team committed to the same cause.[6]

            For example, the commanding officer and executive officer of a unit may both be Roman Catholic, the unit chaplain may be Muslim, and 60% of unit members may adhere to twenty or thirty different faith groups, with another 40% expressing no religious beliefs at all.  Any chaplain faced with the task of composing and delivering any MSP for this unit must perforce take into consideration all these beliefs and decide whether the MSP will reflect this religious reality.  The chaplain, by virtue of military regulations and tradition, is regarded as the primary owner of the MSP, and his or her prayer is perceived to have greater value, if not influence, than those of others. 

            An example of this phenomenon can be discerned in a story related by the Chief of Navy Chaplains, Rear Admiral Robert F. Burt during the November 2006 United States Marine Corps Worship Service, at the National Presbyterian Church here in Washington, D.C.  Chaplain Burt recounted a story – related to him by the chaplain involved – about a group of Marines headed into the battle for Fallujah, Iraq.  These Marines, about to engage a dangerous enemy and surrounded by gunfire, saw their chaplain standing nearby.  One by one, beginning with the platoon sergeant, they approached the chaplain and begged a prayerful blessing.  The chaplain complied.  He blessed each one, praying that these men would be strong and filled with courage.

            Secondary stakeholders exist and must be mentioned, even if not all are examined in the depth deserved.  Principal among these, if only for the sake of this discussion, is the chaplain’s religious organization or faith group, which endorses the chaplain as a capable representative of that faith within the military sphere.  Normally this sponsorship is evidenced in the person who is commonly referred to as an endorsing agent, one who acts as a liaison and even advocate between the ecclesiastical endorsing body and the chaplain.  Other secondary stakeholders are embodied by the American public; parents of military members, spouses, significant others, and children of military members.  Taxpayers in general also own this status, regardless of whether they have a family member or friend serving in the military.  It is their military, and thus all citizens of the United States possess a genuine and vibrant interest in the ethics of military matters, such as MSPs, because they live in relationship to the primary stakeholders.   

            Because prayer is a commodity, and because it possesses social value in relationships within the military, prayer can be used – in the military setting – as a force multiplier, even to the point that some would consider it the most powerful weapon a commanding officer possesses.  In this capacity, MSP can be intended or used to attack enemies, to threaten perceived or real adversaries with injury, incapacitation, or annihilation, or it may be bent toward the protection and defense of allies. 

Prayer as Commodity – The Military Mission

            Let us begin by looking at MSP from the commanding officer’s viewpoint. 

            The commanding officer is bound by his or her oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution, and thus – pertinent to the subject of this paper – three first amendment rights in particular:  freedom of religion, avoidance of establishment violations, and freedom of speech.[7]  All these rights can be, and to some degree are, constrained by reason of military necessity, but within these constraints protection must nonetheless be afforded as appropriate.[8]  The commanding officer must continually focus on three questions:  First, how do I meet the military mission?  Second, how do I take the best care of the people in my unit?  And third, in ensuring such care, and relative to the two religion clauses, how do I accommodate each unit members’ constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom to the maximum extent possible without compromising military necessity?

            Why does a commanding officer need to give any consideration to MSP?  Prayer is used to give to military missions and members a sense of worth, and public prayers that speak of liberty and justice appeal to a larger purpose, something beyond an individual’s suffering in the baking desert sun, or in the face of the hostility of an occupied people.  Military-sponsored prayer justifies, even sanctifies, sacrifice as military members endure ever-escalating operational tempos, emotional and physical distress, economic hardships (certainly pertinent to members of the reserve and Guard components), and frequent separations from family, friends, and home.  It invokes One who does not make mistakes, in an organization in which mistakes are inevitable, e.g., when a unit is ready to leave Iraq, but the plane does not show up on time, or at all, or when one’s battle buddy dies as a result of friendly fire.  The commanding officer who allows or promotes MSP seeks to anchor the unit mission in a context larger than orders conveyed from the Commander-in-Chief or the Pentagon; the commanding officer needs public prayers that remind unit members of something far removed from politics, economics, and mere personal considerations.  The commanding officer needs to claim connection to the highest power, and MSP is his or her avenue of ascent.

            What are the ethical guidelines by which commanding officers sets down policy regarding MSP?  Principally, the commanding officer must comply with doctrine and policy, to include Title 10 and various instructions and directives, that dictate matters regarding religion, the command religious program, religious accommodation, and the commander’s relationship with the chaplain within the military setting.[9]

            Next we look at the MSP from the viewpoint of the unit member.  Each member of the military has agreed to be supportive of the unit to which he or she is assigned, foregoing some of the personal and professional freedoms enjoyed by civilian workers.  At the same time, each unit member retains the freedom to pursue his or her religious expression, as long as this does not compromise the integrity of the military unit.

            Finally, we look at MSP from the standpoint of the chaplain.  Why would he or she want, need, or author an MSP?  As is the case with commanding officers, chaplains are sworn to protect and defend the Constitution, and thus the chaplain must continually ask him or herself:  How do I take care of all the commanding officer’s people?  What do I have to offer?  How can I meet their needs?  And what ethical guidelines form the boundaries of this undertaking? 

            The chaplain brings to a military unit extensive education in ministry, often years of experience in civilian religious work, and – presumably – attentiveness to the religious and spiritual needs of others, including men and women whose faith traditions differ from those of the chaplain, or who claim no religious faith.  With regard to ethical guidelines, the chaplain is governed and guided by a number of legal instruments, among them many of the same doctrines and policies so important to the commanding officer, and all of them possessing ethical implications.  As an example, the SECNAVINST speaks to the chaplain of the importance of ensuring that the constitutional freedom of religious expression, inherent to every military member, receives his or her unswerving dedication.  The chaplain does this by negotiating requests for the accommodation of religious practice within the unit, thus assisting the commanding officer in his or her efforts to serve the Constitution, and doing so – and this is the tricky part – without compromising the chaplain’s own conscience and personal faith. 

            Chaplains always retain their faith group identification.  It is important to keep in mind, however, that upon taking the oath and donning the uniform, the military chaplain’s foremost responsibility no longer lies with his or her faith group, as pastor or spiritual leader, as was the case when these individuals served in their civilian religious capacity.  Rather, by virtue of the oath of office and the legal and moral agreement into which his or her endorsing agent entered with the Department of Defense, the chaplain’s foremost responsibility is to the primary and secondary stakeholders identified above, whose religious beliefs and needs may vary significantly from those of the chaplain.  It is a unique and often difficult role to balance.[10]  Chaplains are provided some guidance in this effort by means of professional guidelines.  Two sources are the chaplain’s endorsing agents and the code of ethics adopted and distributed by the National Committee on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF).[11] 

            The chaplain acts as an agent of the commanding officer, helping to ensure that constitutional freedoms are recognized and honored within the bounds of military necessity.  The chaplain’s status, and thus potential for exercising power, lies also in his or her standing as a spiritual leader for other unit members, a role bestowed upon the chaplain by military regulations and by the belief structures of unit members.

            Chaplains normally are invited by commanders to offer invocations and benedictions at a variety of military ceremonies, including changes of command, retirements, evening prayers at sea, and the like.  The military chaplaincy neither possesses nor provides rules that govern public prayers at non-religious ceremonies, but guidance issued by the Chief of Chaplains offices and training provided by the various chaplain schools recommend that prayers at ceremonies should be relatively short and as nonsectarian as possible.[12]  The choice of language used by the chaplain can be important to whether listeners, many of whom are required to attend military ceremonies, react with a sense of gratification or offense, inclusion or exclusion.

            Sectarianism on the part of chaplains has also proved a continual issue for discussion and, occasionally, concern with regard to a chaplain’s choice of words during an MSP.[13]  With the presence in the military chaplaincy of representatives of well over 100 faith groups, often possessing radically different theologies, the fear exists that blatant sectarianism might damage the reputation of the entire chaplaincy program and disallow effective spiritual care to military members.  With each chaplain possessing the right and, indeed, the mandate to represent his or her faith group faithfully, confusion arises when, in praying publicly in that chaplain’s faith group style – which may or may not include reference to a specific religious figure, or be pointedly directed toward a unit issue about which the chaplain has strong feelings.  Resentment may subsequently be expressed by members of the audiences, some (or many) of whom belong to different faith groups, or lay claim to a blend of faiths, who wish to chaplain to offer a nonsectarian, or pluralistic, prayer.  In such cases these occasions may become representative of a controversial issue, one of military authority versus religious freedom, or in some instances, free speech.[14]

            The chaplain controls the delivery – or withholding – of that valued commodity, the MSP.  The chaplain also and alone determines the content of the MSP; he or she determines whether a prayer imposes a particular theological bent upon those enjoined to listen, or expresses respect for the diversity of religious belief by the use of inclusive language.   

            Sometimes chaplains claim that, in responding to a commander’s request or order to frame their MSPs in a manner that supports the unit (or government) mission, or that embraces many faiths rather than simply their own or a few related faiths, their religious freedom is compromised.  Each commanding officer, however, must ensure that his or her command religious program operates in a manner that at least gives the appearance of being detached from a particularistic faith expression because they are agents of the government by virtue of their commission and Department of Defense (DOD) requirements regarding religious expression in a pluralistic environment.  This is true also of unit members, who voluntarily surrender certain freedoms upon entering the military.  In this sense chaplains are no different and possess no more rights than any other military member.  Indeed, sometimes chaplains are chief among those whose freedoms are limited. 

            Chaplains operate under the deontological obligation to render respect for the faith needs of others, in accordance with their voluntary agreement to adhere with the dictates of the DOD instruction.[15]   By virtue of their oath of office and their voluntary commitment to chaplaincy within a religiously pluralistic military, serving the religious needs of others is paramount.  Thus, when faced with a conflict of priorities of religious needs (that of the chaplain versus those of others), it is difficult to argue that the ethical response can be anything other than accommodation of the needs of others. 

            From a teleological standpoint, chaplains assist commanding officers by seeking to honor constitutionally guaranteed rights of religious freedom, thus creating an optimal atmosphere within the military unit, in which the faiths of all receives respect.  This is not contrary to their professional standing within their respective faith groups.  Some chaplains might claim, for example, that they cannot lead services for Wicca military members.  This response, true and worthy of respect in accordance with the imperative to preserve the chaplain’s conscience, in no way releases the chaplain from his or her ethical responsibilities to assist the commanding officer in ensuring the religious freedom rights of those Wicca members.  The chaplain’s endorsing agent has certified, however, that that chaplain is capable of facilitating for all military members, regardless of faith or lack thereof, therefore the chaplain can and must find a way to do so.  The chaplain may decline to lead or write certain prayers, but he or she must still ensure the availability of the commodity – the prayer – to all unit members even if composed and delivered by another chaplain, a contract religious leader, or by a designated unit member.  In this sense a chaplain functions in a somewhat similar manner to a physician who, although ethically unable to perform a certain medical procedure, will find another who can do so.  While the physician is not legally obligated to find this alternative, the chaplain is so bound, as the chief facilitator of religious freedom on the commanding officer’s staff.  In providing facilitation for all, the chaplain satisfies the charge placed upon him or her by the two secondary stakeholders, the chaplain’s endorsing agent and the general public.

Prayer as Force Multiplier

            Let us return to the weather prayer that General Patton commanded his chaplain to write and distribute.  This prayer, according to O’Neill – and as depicted in the film – proved immediately acceptable to General Patton.  Chaplain O’Neill was ordered to distribute it throughout the Third Army and, in addition, prepare a Training Paper (Number 5) on the importance of prayer with regard to the military mission.  Prayer on the part of families and loved ones “back home,” the general assured O’Neill, thus far had kept the army free from defeat, famine, and epidemic.  To beat the weather and advance upon the Germans, however, all hands needed to understand the importance and power of prayer, and they needed to be pressed to pray on behalf of the general’s perceived need.  Rather than protesting Patton’s blatant manipulation of the prayer’s content and his blithe disregard for the establishment clause, Chaplain O’Neill immediately composed the Training Paper, ostensibly directed toward the 486 chaplains under Patton’s command, and this, along with the prayer, was distributed throughout the Third Army: 

Urge all of your men to pray, not alone in church, but everywhere. . . .  Pray for the defeat of our wicked enemy whose banner is injustice and whose good is oppression.  Pray for victory.  Pray for our Army, and Pray for Peace.[16]


            Both prayer and training letter reached the troops between 12 and 14 December.  On 20 December, the weather cleared, to the delight of all, with the probable exception of the Germans.  Chaplain O’Neill writes:

Our planes came over by tens, hundreds, and thousands.  They knocked out hundreds of tanks, killed thousands of enemy troops in the Bastogne salient, and harried the enemy as he valiantly tried to bring up reinforcements. . . . General Patton prayed for fair weather for Battle.  He got it.[17]


            Patton, O’Neill writes, felt justified in his importunities of God by the example of one of the heroes of the Hebrew scriptures.  Gideon, the least in his, the smallest of Israel’s clans, was yet a man of great faith.  In the face of battle against a strongly armed and multitudinous enemy, he reduced his army from 32,000 to 300 to show not only his faith in God’s care, but to teach his fellow Israelites to lean on God rather than their own valor.[18]  Neither O’Neill nor Patton felt any compulsion or obligation to adopt Gideon’s genuine humility nor follow his reductionist example.  The goal of defeating the German army, and thus helping to liberate war-torn Europe and defeat Hitler, was good, few, if any, would doubt.  The compromise of constitutional values and the use of public prayer as force multiplier were unethical, regardless of the strong desire to defeat an undeniably unjust and brutal enemy.

            Chaplain O’Neill and General Patton were not the first, and certainly not the last, military leaders to invoke God’s special dispensation and protection for their own.  It may be that German and other Axis chaplains and military leaders did the same.  Perhaps they claimed, celebrated and praised God’s special care when weather or other conditions worked on their behalf, congratulated themselves for successfully swaying the favor of the divine to their side, and wrote articles about it.  Chaplains in Vietnam were reported to have, at times, prayed for the death and destruction of enemy troops.   In one instance a chaplain, asked by yet another George Patton (grandson of the general) for a prayer, responded with:  “O Lord, give us the wisdom to find the bastards and the strength to pile it on.”[19]  And even in the present era of supposedly enlightened thought, military leaders as well as chaplains are often found espousing publicly prayerful sentiments indicative of what may be termed an insular view of the infinite love ascribed by the Christian scriptures as a fact of God’s being.  God is for us, not the enemy.  Prayer can make this so, for it shows us more worthy than the enemy, whose prayers can avail them nothing.

            What are the ethics of praying for high body counts?  Should a military-sponsored public prayer plead with God to allow one’s friends and colleagues, shipmates and battle buddies, to smite the enemy?  Should MSPs express hope for the conversion of friends and foes to a particular theological or political viewpoint?  Does such prayer uplift spiritual sense, or simply inflame nationalistic and patriotic fervor?  The prayerful efforts of military leaders and chaplains to demonize any of God’s children, in God’s name, for nationalistic or self-serving reasons may, however, be deemed hubristic, if not blasphemous. 

            Few have addressed the ethics of such prayer more eloquently than Samuel Clemens.  Writing as Mark Twain, during the American invasion and occupation of the Philippines, which he strongly opposed as an unjust and brutal campaign, Clemens indicted such patriotic-sounding sentiment as thinly disguised religio-centric blood lust, devoid of both thoughtful theological analysis or morality.  In The War Prayer, a stranger enters a church in which the preacher has just uttered a passionate, beautiful, and moving prayer on behalf of an approving congregation, invoking God to ensure victory over their enemies.  Taking the pulpit from the startled minister, the stranger then translates the “unuttered” aspects of that pastoral prayer:

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them – in spirit – we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe.  O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.[20]


            This powerful short story remained unpublished in his lifetime but later became the subject of sermons and religious studies throughout the United States during the Vietnam War, as the nation struggled to make sense of conflict and the possibilities of an appropriate spiritual response.

            Those who espouse a Judeo-Christian faith, or who otherwise look to the Hebrew scriptures for spiritual guidance, would do well to contemplate also one particular biblical story when mulling over the contents of MSPs that seek to co-opt the favors of God in combat.  When Joshua was in Jericho, he beheld an angel of the Lord, who held in its hand a sword.  Joshua demanded to know of the angel, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?”  “Neither,” the angel replied.  “I represent the Lord, as commander of God’s army.”[21]  In other words, the angel represented no one group, advocated for none in particular, but rather appeared to Joshua as a reminder of a higher force, a greater good than any imagined by humanity, the divinely righteous that embraces all creation equally, and that demands of all respect for the Creator and creation.  The answer given by the angel to Joshua was probably not the one he expected or might have hoped for, but it was and remains a bracing, humbling truth that all who pray, particularly in public, need to hear:  God is not to be presumed upon by humanity in service to creation’s destruction.  If Joshua could not rightly claim to have the angel of the Lord on his side, how can any commanding officer or chaplain justify, within this secular nation, using MSP to invoke God’s favor in war?

            Today, issues surrounding warfare are often the subject of debate.  Proponents for and against war cite national and international laws, historical precedents, Just War Theory, and other moral arguments in an effort to make sense of what is surely one of humanity’s most morally weighted decisions, committing to wage war against others, thus to injure, incapacitate, or kill.  These debates, while often entangled in emotion or bogged down by conflicting laws and historical examples, yet stand as tribute to the determination of the American public to seek to act in accordance with the highest sense of good possible within the framework of both personal conscience and the secular – some have even said godless – U.S. Constitution. 

Prayer, Relationships, and Power

            Having looked at public prayer as a desirable commodity within the military system, attention now turns to other issues surrounding public prayer’s effect upon power relationships.  James 5:16, within the Christian scriptures, bids us be mindful of prayer’s inherent authority, for such prayer possess power.  Thus, although this section is entitled “prayer and power,” one can say, based on the examples already cited as well as innumerable others, scriptural and otherwise, that prayer is power, capable of changing hearts and minds, altering circumstances, and healing.  How that prayerful power is gained and then applied is understood differently based upon one’s theology and one’s understanding of human relationships, and it is a subject worthy of far greater consideration than it will receive here.  Rather than discussing the nature of prayer’s power, the focus here will narrow to consider prayer as a critical, but often overlooked, dynamic within the power structure of the military organization, one that can have a profound effect upon relationships within a unit. 

            Max Weber defined power as those opportunities and possibilities, within social relationships, that allow a person to carry out his or her will, even in the face of resistance, and regardless of the basis on which this opportunity rests. 

Power is defined by and confined within relationships, and its ability to constrain or enable occurs only between one, several, or many individuals.[22]  Within military unit relationships, power can be seen in four distinct aspects:  coercive power, agenda-setting power, belief-enhancing power, all of which aspects are shared or reciprocated (the fourth aspect), albeit in widely differing degrees, among unit members.

            The first, coercive power, is normally associated with the commanding officer.  Although coercive authority may be and often is delegated, under military regulations only the commanding officer may coerce actions.  In peacetime settings, this power ranges from an order to carry out a routine task, to the commander’s ability to conduct disciplinary procedures and impose punishment for failure to do that task.   

            Second, the commanding officer possesses the power to set the agenda for a military unit.  When he or she approves, for example, the Plan of the Day, the daily routine for that unit has been determined, and no one may alter this in any way without the express permission of the commanding officer. 

            Third, the commanding officer possesses and often exercises belief-enhancing power, used to anchor the unit’s efforts, pursuant to the overall mission, in a greater good (or a higher purpose) invoked through words and actions, a good that is itself often determined by the commanding officer.  The commanding officer of a Navy ship, for example, may get on the 1MC system (the ship’s intercom system) prior to a major inspection to exhort all hands to embrace the importance of that milestone: 

I believe in each and every one of you, and in this ship, the finest ship in the fleet.  We are a remarkable team, one that can meet any challenge so that we can serve our great nation’s mandate to support all possible operational assignments.  Tomorrow’s inspection will be challenging, but it will serve to inform all who see the results that this team is unbeatable, and we’re going to give them the (fill in ship’s name) absolute best!


            Such exhortations are more than mere pep talks.  The power a commanding officer possesses to enhance each unit member’s belief in the purpose, goodness, and do-ability of the military mission constitutes a kind of unofficial power, the effective wielding of which may determine success and failure.  In times of war, for example, although limited by law and regulations, the commanding officer’s coercive power in a combat situation is as near to absolute as our society permits.  But coercive power does not always yield the motivation or the behavior the commanding officer believes optimal, or necessary, to meet a dangerous task.  Thus, while a commanding officer can simply order his or her troops to go into the deadly crossfire of a city such as Fallujah, or on the roads of Anbar Province – exercising coercive power – this order can be, and often is, supplemented and strengthened by invoking a greater good or purpose.  The commanding officer cannot cause another military member to believe in anything, but he or she can enhance beliefs inherent to the majority of Americans in any given situation.  This seems, in fact, the justification used by the Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy in justifying the daily lunchtime MSP – the only service academy to conduct these – heard by any midshipman who wants to partake of a meal that does not come out of a vending machine.  These MSPs have, at least, the virtue of including many faith traditions and normally use inclusive language, and it may well be that some midshipmen find in them spiritual comfort.  Their continuation, despite some public protest, has been justified by their educational benefit to the midshipmen, rather than their spiritual import.[23]

            The fourth aspect of power is perhaps the most important; its reciprocal, or shared, nature.  No aspect of power is exclusive to the commanding officer, although it may be that not all commanding officers recognize this.  Unit members possess a considerable amount of power, power shared among themselves, power that underlies each individual’s decision to support or resist the coercive, agenda-setting, or belief-enhancing power of the commanding officer.  This is very real power, although often overlooked.  It is seen not merely in an individual’s decision to comply with the commanding officer’s authority, but in the individual’s attitude toward the military mission:  How hard will I work?  Will I comply with requests made of me, or orders given?  The commanding officer can, of course, order any action; the unit members can refuse to obey, with dramatic consequences.  In 1984, for example, 6,000 Sikh soldiers of the Indian Army refused to comply with the orders of their officers, abandoned their duties and barracks, and raced through the countryside in commandeered military vehicles – mutiny – when they felt that their religious faith had been besmirched by other military members and by the Indian government.[24]  Nearer to home, New Orleans fell into chaos in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in large part because the government – in the forms of elected officials, police, and other public servants – ceased to function on behalf of those unable to leave the city.  Where police were unavailable to ensure order, or were seen as acting illegally, looting and general lawlessness broke out.  Governments – and a military unit – exist only as long as the people, or its members, agree to its legitimacy; this is the shared aspect of power.

            Various controversies within the military have become public in the past several years, ranging from proselytizing to prayer language to endorsement of civilian religious groups.  These, and others that have occurred in the past, speak to the need for commanding officers and chaplains to be cognizant of the shared aspect of power.  Every member of a military unit, for example, may espouse some form of the Christian faith, but neither the chaplain nor the commanding officer should make that assumption.  And even if known to be the case, such religious homogeneity cannot act as permission for the chaplain or commanding officer to wade into the dangerous currents of establishment by delivering or authorizing, respectively, sectarian public prayers.  Rather, the commanding officer and chaplain must assiduously avoid all appearance or intimation of establishment – which could be assumed by the use of particularistic, sectarian language – by electing always to use the broadest, most inclusive language possible.  Doing so is not only the safest means of traversing the constitutional stream, it is the most likely approach to address effectively the religious freedom needs of the unit members and the kindred concerns of secondary stakeholders.  And it is an approach that honors the principle of respect for all, regardless of religious adherence and belief.

            Even as the commanding officer participates in all four aspects of power within the military structure in reciprocity with unit members, so, too, does the chaplain, allowing for the possibility of a power struggle over religious issues.  For example, should a commanding officer attempt to dictate the contents of an MSP, the chaplain might, in an effort to evade the commanding officer’s coercive power, appeal directly to authorities outside the military, such as faith group endorsers or religiously-oriented legal organizations.  Because the commanding officer possesses and exercises the power of the agenda, he or she determines if an MSP will occur, when it will do so, and how it will be delivered.  The chaplain might rebuff the commanding officer’s agenda-setting power, the authority to determine when and where to pray, by asserting that if the chaplain, for example, feels called by God to pray on the mess decks during meal times, or on the bridge during the night watch, rather than at taps, he or she must be free to do so.  The chaplain can affect the commanding officer’s belief-enhancing power by supporting – or confounding – the commanding officer’s efforts to appeal to higher purpose.  The commanding officer might, for example, request that the chaplain’s evening prayer at sea focus on that impending inspection, using encouragement and urging best efforts, rather than offering a prayer that is focused on matters spiritual, unrelated to the inspection.  In this sense the commanding officer is not trying to dictate the specific contents of the prayer, but rather asking that the chaplain – and prayerful tone – harmonize with the greater good discerned by the commanding officer.

            The independent prophetic status of the chaplain constitutes one of the most beneficial aspects of the potential power struggle with the commanding officer.  This prophetic voice allows the chaplain – indeed, obligates the chaplain – to speak truth to authority, regardless of personal consequences.  He or she represents to the unit members, from the commanding officer on down the chain of command, the ultimate right, goodness, sovereignty, and authority of God.  In the minds and belief structures of many individual unit members, prayer counts, and it counts especially when coming from the chaplain, whose office is recognized as a matchless calling in the military setting.

            The reciprocity aspect of power, combined with a desire on the chaplain’s part for a greater share of power (primarily agenda-setting and belief-enhancing) can prove an ethical challenge for chaplains.  Often chaplains struggle with a sense of alienation from the commanding officer or from unit members in general, precisely because of their independent situation within the unit chain of command.[25]  When this sense of alienation occurs, chaplains may behave inappropriately in an effort to gain inclusion within or recognition from a given group.  Some seek identification with the combatant mission of the military, carrying – and, at times, using – weapons within combat zones; this phenomenon that has occurred in virtually every military conflict since the Geneva Conventions were signed.  Some aspire to be viewed as the equals, in knowledge if nothing else, of ship drivers or company/battalion commanders, seeking to earn the same warfare qualifications as their line counterparts.  Others collude with commanding officers in usurping public prayer as a means to a secular end, such as happened between General Patton and Chaplain O’Neill.  While any one, or all, of these attempts may gain the chaplain some measure of inclusion, in so doing the chaplain’s most valuable status – prophet within the military – is jeopardized, even compromised.

            The commanding officer can and should provide clear guidelines regarding MSPs, advocating the use of inclusive language, or – equally acceptable – doing away with public prayers altogether.  These guidelines should be constructed to maximize the protection of religious practice and expression within the constraints of military requirements in a pluralistic environment.  Both the commanding officer and the chaplain operate in an institution that seeks to control much of the lives of its members and that can command – even coerce – the behavior of all.[26]  Because members can be coerced and often are, such as attendance at a unit formation at which an MSP is offered, neither party can afford either to ignore or impose upon the religious needs and beliefs of any particular stakeholder.  Nor should either assume what these needs and beliefs may be.

The Way Ahead

            Policy regarding MSPs is too often forced into a Procrustean bed of religious willfulness whose proponents, on one hand, cite the military and its relationship with America’s faith groups as a national and necessary tradition, in which men and women have engaged in orderly association with one another on the basis of religiously informed values, albeit values – it is usually (and incorrectly) claimed – based solely on conservative Judeo-Christian traditions.  On the other hand, these same people paint the military as a soulless bureaucracy that little regards the needs of the religiously minded, that instead applies the blunt instrument of godless regulations to hamper the free exercise of religion and free religious speech.  The proportions of the bed change seemingly as ego, opinion, fancy, and a desire for notoriety dictate, rather than as the result of reasoned discussion of what is meant by the accommodation of religious particularities within a secular institution whose members espouse widely diverse religious views and who must plan, play, fight, and pray in harmony.    

            Thus, in a quest for power over the messiness of religious diversity, arguments over MSPs too often become instrumental means of rejecting – on the part of commanding officers and chaplains alike – the present and escalating religious diversity within the military.  This, in fact, is what so many of the arguments for and about the language and form of MSP boil down to:  the growing religious diversity within the military. 

            How are the ethical issues regarding MSP to be addressed in a meaningful, manner, with results that are beneficial to all the stakeholders involved without trampling upon the highest possible ethical standards?

            First, training.  Commanding officers and chaplains should receive systematic and periodically updated training on their roles with regard to constitutional mandates regarding religious freedom.  At present, prospective commanding officers (PCO) and – in the Navy, at least – prospective executive officers (PXO), receive short (one- to two-hour) briefs on their roles vis-à-vis these rights and their relationships with unit chaplains.  Too little time is spent on the every-increasing religious diversity in the military.  Nor, apparently, is sufficient time allocated to instilling in senior leaders an understanding of the boundaries that must be set on their own religious enthusiasms, as evidenced by the apparently unconcealed Christocentric and evangelical atmosphere encouraged at the U.S. Air Force Academy just two years ago,[27] or the more recent appearance on video of a number of senior officers who, in uniform and within the Pentagon, effectively advertised and advocated for a civilian evangelical group called Christian Embassy.[28]  While attention of late has focused on power struggles between chaplains and commanding officers regarding MSPs, it is to be hoped that commanding officers remember that ultimately they set the ethical tone in any military unit.

            It is true that commanding officers normally have on staff, or have reasonably quick access to, a military lawyer, who can research and advise on the commander’s legal requirements vis-à-vis religious freedoms and responsibilities.  Just as important, however, is the need to educate commanding officers on the special role of the chaplain within a command:  As religious and ethical advisor, as caretaker of unit members’ religious freedoms and practice on behalf of the commanding officer, and delineating the relationship that exists between commander and chaplain.  The Chaplain Corps ought to ensure that these PCO and PXO training classes – in so far as the training module on religion is concerned – address these issues in a substantive manner, including read-ahead materials that include recent and real-life case studies, lessons learned, reference links, and copies of all pertinent military instructions, directives, and policies.  Moreover, these classes should be taught by certified chaplain instructors, rather than by senior chaplains chosen more by virtue of their rank and position than their expertise in either ethics, the sociology of religion (as this pertains to religion and ministry in the military).

Chaplains currently receive initial training, upon commissioning, at the Chaplain Schools operated by the Navy, Army, and Air Force, and a considerable portion of this training is directed toward inculcating new chaplains with their responsibilities both in meeting the religious needs of unit members in a pluralistic environment and the ethics thereof.  All three services offer their chaplains the opportunity to receive updated training on this issue at about the mid-career point.[29]  What has been evident in chaplain training, however, whether at the accession level, mid-career, or senior level, is an unwillingness – particularly evident during the manpower-intensive Global War on Terror – to dismiss chaplains who show themselves either unable or unwilling to commit to the inclusive nature of the military and military ministry.  Much of this unwillingness springs from reluctance on the part of Chaplain Corps’ and other military officials to cite a candidate’s non-inclusive, or non-pluralistic, attitude as sufficient reason for recommending dismissal, perhaps out of fear of legal reprisals on the part of the student or outside agency.  Yet surely the chaplain’s status in the military structure, which allows unparalleled contact with men and women in the unit (which I term “extraordinary access”) and, thus, potential ability to affect lives during dangerous and/or isolated missions speaks to an obligation on the part of the military to access onto active duty and the reserves only those men and women of the highest intellectual, spiritual, ethical, and inclusive caliber.  Reluctance to devise and set clear, demonstrable military ministry ethical guidelines with respect to inclusiveness, and then abide by them in recruitment, training, and retention, is not in the best interest of chaplains or the U.S. military forces.

            Training and retention for chaplains should not, however, be responsibilities borne solely by the military.  Representatives of the many faith group endorsing bodies would do well to institute systematic and mandatory training for all who desire endorsement as military chaplains, training specifically designed to enlighten these candidates regarding the often nebulous and frequently intricate relationship that exists between the institution of military chaplaincy and the U.S. Constitution, and about the significant differences between ministry in its civilian and military forms.  There exist examples of such training, training that has proved effective in producing chaplains that embrace respect for the religious needs of others, even those adherents of faiths diametrically opposed to the chaplain’s own, inherent in inclusive MSP language and general ministry.  The First Church of Christ, Scientist, for example, requires that all its candidates for military chaplaincy take part in a three-year training program – one that normally parallels the candidate’s seminary education – that intentionally includes learning objectives that speak to the ethical issues of inclusivism within the military setting.  This training ensures that chaplain candidates from this faith group, upon entering the military ministry, have already explored, with the supervision of their endorsing agent, the ethical challenges of their new responsibilities regarding the assurance of religious freedom, their relationship with the commanding officer, the challenges of balancing religious conscience and military obligations, and the primacy of their commitment to the Constitution.

            Deliberate, dialectical training on the part of endorsing bodies prior to a would-be chaplain’s accession onto active duty or entry into the reserves would do much to provide to chaplains vital tools for discerning and understanding the ethical import of this uniquely demanding ministry.  Well-trained chaplains, knowledgeable about their raison d’etre vis-à-vis the military, are unafraid of holding themselves accountable to the men and women – from commanding officers to the newest recruit – whom they have agreed to serve when they enter military chaplaincy, understanding that such accountability offers no threat to their religious freedom.  Chaplain candidates who demonstrate an unwillingness to embrace the necessarily inclusive nature of the military and military ministry would, one hopes, either receive further training or have their endorsement withdrawn prior to commissioning.

            Second, and with regard to MSP specifically, all three stakeholders – commanding officers, chaplains, and endorsing agents – must be willing to engage in dialogue and research and then, subsequently, curriculum development for effective training and education, as well as substantive discipline-linked standards necessary to continue and improve upon the tradition of military ministry.  Dialogue and research are particularly important.  How do commanding officers and chaplains avoid the pitfalls of MSPs – as a tug-of-war in a power struggle, or the temptations of prayer as force multiplier, and avoiding establishment dilemmas?  These and other questions would to beyond wrestling matches revolving around inclusive versus exclusive language, and instead effectively address important and specific ministry needs in light of the growing religious diversity in the modern United States and around the world. 

            Third, and last, consideration ought to be given to addressing issues of religious import and content within a professional organization, comprising civilian faith group representatives, that establishes and operates by means of a common language and possessing authority voluntarily invested in it by the endorsing agencies.  Similar to the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association, membership for military chaplains and their endorsing agents would be mandatory for maintaining one’s status as a chaplain, whether active, reserve, or Guard.  The chaplain’s need to provide ministry semi-independently of the commanding officer, which necessitates a high degree of ethical savvy, cries out for the sort of professional support that such conventions and authority could and should apply, but which do not currently exist to any effective degree. 

            For example, no uniform definition exists within the DOD with regard to the differences, as faith groups perceive these, between proselytizing and evangelizing, yet these ministry functions are key components in the faith practice of many chaplains.  Because of their extraordinary access to military personnel – at home, at sea, and abroad – and because courts have said that chaplains are not empowered to proselytize within the military,[30] standard definitions are desirable as guidelines both for chaplains and for commanding officers, but neither the DOD nor any other federal agency may provide these.  Clearly defined, consistent language and professional standards, agreed upon by an agency of endorsing agents possessed of clear enforcement authority, would constitute a shared agreement upon which effective military ministry might be based that would ground respect for religious diversity and commitment to religious pluralism in terms of policy and – in the best of all possible cases – theology, rather than mere military or legal pragmatism.  Attempts at such standards, such as the 1986 Covenant and Code of Ethics published by NCMAF, have enjoyed more presence on the NCMAF website than in Chaplain Schools; even if taught, neither the Covenant nor NCMAF, a wholly voluntary organization, possess legal standing with the DOD or certification authority among themselves.

            Such an organization might well raise establishment questions – these are for the faith groups and lawyers to work out – but from an ethical standpoint, a NCMAF-with-teeth would comprise a means of addressing issues such as MSPs effectively and fairly.  Such a pluralistic and professional agency could provide support for chaplains who encounter constitutional conflicts, disperse information to church-state issues both military and civilian, provide training input to military Chaplain Schools, and, when necessary, take appropriate actions regarding endorsement certifications with regard to those chaplains who provide proof that they honor the inclusive, pluralistic basis of military chaplaincy. 


            Military leaders and the Chaplain Corps seeks to ensure that the religious free exercise rights of all service personnel are honored within the military system.  The chaplaincy seeks to promote religious facilitation and downplay destructive incidents of sectarianism by promoting cooperative pluralism by means of MSPs and other ministry practices.  Because of this, however, the chaplaincy system has been accused of infringing on religions by promoting this pluralist religious environment.  This requirement of respectful interaction and cooperation displeases some chaplains, who consider the demand to so acknowledge, respect, and engage religious others as a means, allegedly, instituted by so-called liberal faith groups and by the DOD, to eliminate chaplain candidates of conservative religious perspectives.[31]

            No uniformity of religious belief or conscience is or can be required of citizens of the United States, and certainly not of those who voluntarily enter military service to serve as chaplains.  Neither, however, is the military bound to ignore or tolerate military members who do not themselves wish to live in civil obedience to military authority within a religiously pluralistic environment.  A military member may, for example, adhere to strongly liberal political views, which may be diametrically opposed to official policy; such adherence cannot be gainsaid as the member’s right.  However, no military member can with impunity, during public ceremonies or even in many day-to-day activities, use language that subverts good order and discipline to maintain unit integrity, language that contradicts the reality of the military population’s religious diversity, or language that expresses not the words of a prophet seeking justice for all, but rather exceptions for self.  This is a challenge for some, but not for most military members.

Religious diversity within the United States military cannot be ignored, not in terms of leadership nor in military-sponsored prayers.  It is a phenomenon to be celebrated for the gifts of broadened understanding, of religion itself and the meaning of religious accommodation, it bestows upon all members of the military.   Honoring diversity, however, can be – and often is – a messy affair, as eminent religious sociologists have pointed out, that invites resistance.[32]  Some, observing the growing pastiche of religion and the rise of pluralism react to the necessary messiness with fright rather than joy, repulsion rather than pleasure, and allegations of religious degradation rather than celebration.  The military and all its members must today function effectively in “an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity” in which “pluralism is about the most important global fact.”[33]  This world, replete with the challenges and delight of religious pluralism, demands a professional military that can meet the demands of diversity and pluralism with intelligence, compassion, strength of conscience, and acceptance.[34]  Anything less jeopardizes the status and mission of the military and, in fact, calls into question the future of MSPs and even of the chaplaincy as components of the military institution.



[1] O’Neill, James H., Msgr. (MGen, USA, ret.),  “The True Story of the Patton Prayer.”  Review of the News, 6 October 1971.  Available at; accessed 31 December 2006.

[2] 463 U.S. 783 (1983).  The Supreme Court found the opening of legislative sessions with prayer to be constitutional.

[3] 327 F.3d 355 (4th Cir. 2003), cert. denied, 541 U.S. 1019 (2004).  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the Establishment Clause strictly prohibited school-sponsored prayer during mealtimes at the Virginia Military Institute, concluding that “the First Amendment prohibits [a publicly funded military academy] from requiring religious objectors to alienate themselves from the [academy] community in order to avoid a religious practice.”[327, n.9, citing Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992) at 596].

[4] Civil Action Number 3:06-CV-00023 , United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division , 2006.  A federal judge ruled that prayers delivered at the start of council meetings are “government speech” (4) and thus cannot promote Christianity or any other specific religion.  For other cases addressing government versus private speech and sectarian prayers see, for example, Hinrichs v. Bosma, 410 F. Supp. 2d 745 (S.D. Ind. 2006) [“No individual has a First Amendment right to offer an official prayer  reflecting his personal beliefs.” (750)]; Simpson v. Chesterfield County Bd. of Supervisors, 404 F.3d 276 (4th Cir. 2005) [holding that the opening prayer of the county board was government speech, where it was not intended for public discourse (288)], and Wynn v. Town Council of Great Falls, 376 F.3d 292 (4th Cir. 2004) (holding that sectarian legislative prayers, invoking the name of a specific deity, are unconstitutional (294)].

[5] See, for example, Arlin M. Adams and Charles J. Emmerich, “A Heritage of Religious Liberty,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 137 (1989): 1559-; Gregory M. McAndrew, “Invocations at Graduation,” Yale Law Journal 101 (December 1991): 663-83;

[6] Pluralism herein is defined in accordance with that of Peter Berger, who defines it as “coexistence in civic peace – that's very important – of different racial, ethnic and religious groups, with social interaction between them.”  See Peter Berger, “Religion in a Globalizing World.”  Event transcript, The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 4 December 2006.  Available at:; accessed 4 January 2007.

[7] Freedom of the press is not at issue here; assembly is controlled by military regulation.

[8] For discussions of how the courts have viewed constraints upon first amendment freedoms, pertaining to military members, see Earl Warren, “The Bill of Rights and the Military.”  New York University Law Review 37 (1962):  181; Dwight H.  Sullivan, “The Congressional Response to Goldman v. Weinberger.”  Military Law Review 121 (1988):  125; and Stephen Lewis Rabinowitz, “A Review of Recent Decisions of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit:  Note: Goldman v. Secretary of Defense: Restricting the Religious Rights of Military Servicemembers.” American University Law Review 34 (Spring 1985):  881.

[9] United States Code, Title 10, governs the structure and conduct of the military.  Title 10 states, in part:  Each commanding officer shall furnish facilities, including necessary transportation, to any chaplain assigned to his command, to assist the chaplain in performing his duties. [Title 10, Subtitle D, Part II, Chapter 843, X8547].  Available at  In the Navy, for example, SECNAVINST 1730.1D states:  The chaplain is a staff officer who carries out the commander’s religious program and provides worship or worship opportunities for military members and their families through the command’s religious ministry [5.b (2)].   OPNAVINST 1730.1D, 5b (4) (h) states: The chaplain is charged to participate in “cooperative ministry” with other chaplains to meet the religious needs of service personnel.  Further, he or she also acts as the command’s moral and ethical advisor [Ibid, 5b (1) (b)].


[10] For one of the best discussions of the delicate balancing act required of military chaplains – e.g., military versus faith group responsibilities and allegiance – see Richard G. Hutcheson, The Churches and the Chaplaincy.  Atlanta: John Knox, 1975. 

[11] In the mid 1980s NCMAF, then the only organized body of endorsing agents for military chaplains, agreed upon a set of ethical guidelines that address various aspects of this ministry.  The guidelines are as follows:

  • I will recognize that my obligation is to provide for the free exercise of religion for ministry to all members of the military services, their families and other authorized personnel.  When on active duty, I will only accept added responsibility in civilian ministry if it does not interfere with the overall effectiveness of my primary military ministry.
  • I will defend my colleagues against unfair discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion or national origin.
  • I will hold in confidence any privileged communication received by me during the conduct of my ministry. I will not disclose confidential communications in private or in public.
  • I will not proselytize from other religious bodies, but I retain the right to evangelize those who are not affiliated.
  • I will show personal love for God in my life and ministry, as I strive together with my colleagues to preserve the dignity, maintain the discipline and promote the integrity of the profession to which we have been called.
  • I recognize the special power afforded me by my ministerial office. I will never use that power in ways that violate the personhood of another human being, religiously, emotionally or sexually. I will use my pastoral office only for that which is best for the persons under my ministry.

Available at; accessed 4 December 2006.

[12] Alan Cooperman, “Military Wrestles With Disharmony Among Chaplains.”  Washington Post, August 30, 2005; A01.

[13] See, for example, Johnson, Olenda E., “Diverse Views of Religious Pluralism:  Implications for the Military Chaplaincy.”  DEOMI Research Series Pamphlet 01-13 (2001): 12.

[14] Terry A. Dempsey, “Asymmetric Threats to the United States Army Chaplaincy in the 21st Century,”  Strategy Research Project, U.S. Army War College (April 2000): , Carlisle Barracks, PA.  See also Benjamin, Benjamin, Michael J.  “Justice, Justice, Shall You Pursue:  Legal Analysis of Religion Issues in the Army.”  Army Lawyer (Nov. 1998): 17; and Brown, Steven, Trumping Religion:  The New Christian right, the Free Speech Clause, and the Courts (2002):  136-45.

[15] DODINST 1304.9.  In accordance with this instruction, each endorsing faith group agrees that its military chaplain representatives agree to abide by military regulations.

[16] O’Neill.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Judges 7:4-22.

[19] Ann Loveland, “Clergy in the Military - Vietnam and After.” In The Sword of the Lord:  Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century, Doris Bergen (ed.), Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame: 236.

[20] Maxwell Geismar,  Mark Twain:  An American Prophet (1970).  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin:  386.  Also available at

[21] Joshua 5:13-15.

[22] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1995).  New York:  Knopf;  205.

[23] David A. Fahrenthold, “Naval Academy Urged to Drop Prayer.”  The Washington Post, 25 June 2005:  B05; Rowan Scarborough, “Naval Academy Retains Prayer; Holds To Tradition After Air Force Changes Policy.”  The Washington Times, 1 September 2005: A03;.

[24] This mutiny followed on the heels of the notorious assault upon the Sikh holy site, the Harimandir, in Amritsar, India.  Codenamed “Operation Bluestar,” the assault resulted in hundreds – possibly thousands of Sikh dead, many innocent pilgrims at the site.

[25] Hutcheson, 34.

[26] Goffman, Erving.  Asylums:  Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (1961).  New York: Anchor Books.  Goffman describes the military as one form of what he termed a “total institution,” which seeks to control as many aspects of its members’ lives as possible “to pursue some worklike task” such as national defense (p. 5).

[27]Capps Calls On Secretary Of Air Force To Thoroughly Investigate Religious Intolerance And Harassment At Academy.” States News Service, May 20, 2005; Josh White, “Intolerance Found at Air Force Academy; Military Report Criticizes Religious Climate but Does Not Cite Overt Bias.”  The Washington Post, 23 June 2005: A02.

[28] Alan Cooperman, “Inquiry Sought Over Evangelical Video; Defense Department Asked to Examine Officers' Acts Supporting Christian Group,” The Washington Post, 11 December 2006: A01; Editorial, “Questionable Mission; A Christian Embassy Campaign at the Pentagon Tests Constitutional Boundaries.”  The Washington Post, 7 January 2007: B06.

[29] While all three services mandate such training, operational demands upon a chaplain’s time, funding constraints under which commanding officers operate, and a shortage of DUINS funds can frustrate the chaplain’s training and, thus, career progression plan.

[30] Katcoff v. Marsh, 755 F.2d 223, 228 (1985).  The primary function of the military chaplain, the court noted, is to engage in activities designed to meet the religious needs of a pluralistic military community, including military personnel and their dependents.  Evangelization by chaplains within the military was addressed directly by Judge Mansfield:  “No chaplain is authorized to proselytize soldiers or their families.” 

[31] E. F. Klug, “The Chaplaincy in American Public Life.”  In Church, State, and Chaplaincy:  Essays and Statements on the American Chaplaincy System, ed. A. Ray Appelquist, 70-100.  Washington, D.C.:  General Commission on Chaplains    and Armed Forces Personnel, 1969:  85-6.

[32] Robert Wuthnow, American and the Challenges of Religious Diversity.  Princeton: Princeton University Press: 84; Martin E. Marty, “The Frightful, Beneficial Mess of American Religion,” Christian Century (14 December 1988): 1150-52.

[33] Berger.

[34] Ibid.