The Military Chaplaincy of the 21st Century:

Cui Bono?


Robert J. Phillips

Captain, Chaplain Corps, U.S. Navy (ret.)





            The American military chaplaincy at the start of the 21st century is undergoing profound change.  In the early 1960’s, “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” accurately described both the Chaplain Corps and the personnel they served.  Aside from a small presence of faith groups cryptically labeled, “Other,” mainline Protestant churches shared with Catholic and Jewish counterparts the primary presence and leadership of the Chaplain Corps in proportions roughly comparable to the faith preference of active duty members.       Today all bets are off regarding the nature and future of the military chaplaincy.  Cultural, legal and religious dynamics combine to scramble the status quo.  Culturally, the role of the organized religion that sustained chaplaincy has slipped.  Roughly one-third of those entering the military in 2006 list their religious preference as “None,” while many others list only a nominal preference. A consequence is that in a strict quota system, the “Church of No Preference” would be entitled to more chaplaincy slots than most other faith groups in America.[1]

            Legal issues assail the military chaplaincy.  Some Protestant conservative and fundamentalist chaplains complain of religious prejudice against them in promotion and preferred assignment thanks to a ‘conspiracy’ of Catholics and mainline Protestants, and are suing the military, consuming enormous financial and professional resources.  Some mainline Protestants and Jewish groups are protesting the ‘pernicious’ effects of conservative and fundamentalist chaplains who, with sympathetic lay military leadership, are creating a hostile climate for non-believers, defined as anyone who disagrees with them. The uneven professional and moral qualities of some chaplains have led to actions ranging from noisy dismissal from the military to federal prison, depending on the nature of the offense.[2]

            Religious issues surround military chaplains with an aura of bickering. Secular and religious news media plays up stories of chaplains who complain about not being allowed to pray in Jesus’ name, or to preach what they wish in worship services.  Some male chaplains complain their rights are violated when required to share in worship or other ministry events with a female chaplain.  “Theologically sophisticated” chaplains complain about the narrowness or intellectual deficiencies of some fundamentalist chaplains, caustically defined as “too little ‘fun,’ too much ‘damn’ and too little ‘mental.’” 

            Those wearied with the hassles are tempted to outsource the bulk of stateside chaplaincy work to retired chaplains and “Rent-a-Rev.” operations eager to do the same ministry for less money than the cost of a chaplain billet. Outsourced counselors can bring credentialed professional education to troop personal needs without looking to chaplains, a move the Army is modestly undertaking in Iraq. Command ethical advisement, another chaplain claim to fame, can be handled by the lawyers, especially since few faith groups require any graduate education in ethics of their clergy as a prerequisite for endorsement to military service.

A tiny joint-service professional chaplain corps could focus on preparing quality lay leadership for deployed worship and religious study from the multitude of virtual and print resources available. They could offer quick email response to issues or questions arising from practical matters of providing for the free exercise of religion at a given unit. To avoid further lawsuits and morale issues, traditions ranging from the evening prayer at sea for deployed ships to prayers at change-of-command ceremonies could be abolished.

The classic Latin rhetorical question, “Cui bono,” ‘what good is it?” when applied to the military chaplaincy, can be answered with a snappish, “It’s good enough to keep, provided it is sliced, boxed, tightly wrapped and guarded well.” A severely reduced chaplain corps could serve targeted billets designed to retain a military exposure and flavor for chaplaincy while chopping most of the roughly 4,000 active duty and reserve billets currently designated for clergy.  The end of the military chaplaincy as all but a token presence really is a plausible option.


Crucial Roles

As one who served as an active duty Navy chaplain for 28 years, the author may be accused of just taking a sledgehammer to mother.  The author pleads not guilty to all charges and specifications.  The years as a Navy chaplain were deeply satisfying professionally and personally.  The author retains and cherishes friendships with chaplain colleagues who inhabit all parts of the theological landscape and all branches of service.  In that spirit, this paper argues that the military chaplaincy has a vital and legitimate role for the 21st century provided its justification and practices are refracted through the lens of current realities.  Consider two dimensions of that role for reflection, and two consequences from those roles.

            First, the military chaplaincy provides the best resource for protecting and facilitating the First Amendment right of service members to the “free exercise” of religion. This is the bedrock legal and institutional justification for the existence of the military chaplaincy.  No federal court case as of 2006 has successfully challenged the constitutionality of the military chaplaincy. Organizations not generally known as friendly to government chaplaincies are on record in support of the essential constitutionality of the military chaplaincy, lest men and women in uniform de facto be denied access to religious ministry in the course of service.[3]

            The responsibility to ensure that the constitutional rights of military members are protected rests with the commanding officer.  The chaplain is the principal professional resource and advisor to provide for the meeting of those needs.  The chaplain position exists and is legally justified only insofar as those serving as chaplains effectively engage the institution to ensure the religious and spiritual needs of all personnel are addressed.[4] 

            Chaplains are not expected nor required to perform any pastoral act contrary to the core teachings of their faith group.  This enables the chaplain to directly provide for the religious needs and requirements of service members who come from spiritual traditions compatible with that of the chaplain.  This flexibility offers direct, practical benefit to the military.  However, no chaplain represents a faith group that reflects the religious affiliation of the majority of personnel at any unit.  The pluralistic nature of American religious life forecloses that possibility.

            As a practical consequence of a religiously diverse military, the chaplain routinely faces a professional requirement no civilian counterpart needs to engage. An effective chaplain ministry is one that addresses the religious needs of those who would never think to attend one of that chaplain’s worship services or religious studies.[5] 

            In such a setting, the United Methodist Protestant chaplain (for example) whose focus is on growing a worship program that attracts 20% of the unit and study groups that involve 30% of the unit has succeeded just enough to fail.  The fulcrum reason that justifies his or her presence in that unit as a chaplain is the provision for the religious requirements of the 70-80% of personnel who do not attend the chaplain’s services or studies, as well as for those whose needs are met by what the chaplain personally and denominationally is able to do.  A general, vaguely-defined availability will not suffice. 

            In a military that defends “the nation with the soul of a church,” and in which some sort of religious identity is affirmed by the vast majority of its citizens, a staff corps officer with professional background and endorsement to identify, interpret and respond to this dimension of the service member’s life for officer and enlisted personnel makes all sorts of institutional sense.  Such a chaplain officer need not bring equal expertise to the table, i.e., a Baptist chaplain does not need to understand the beliefs or specific practices behind each action a priest takes in saying Mass.  Every chaplain must bring an equal degree of serious commitment to address and facilitate the religious requirements of all members of the unit, i.e., the Catholic chaplain must be as concerned that Protestant and Jewish troops have access to worship as Catholic troops have access to Mass.

            Second, Chaplains uniquely can function within a command in areas of human wholeness. In the 2003 Iraq War, great attention was given to the role of news media reporters imbedded with various units.  This enhanced their access to the troops and their ability to report on what actually was happening in their particular area.  They were, and remained, civilians.  They were external to the life and function of the unit.  They arrived separate from the troops and departed separate from the troops.  While they were embedded, they remained observers.

            The unit chaplain is not imbedded with that unit.  He or she is incarnate with that unit.  Although the term is drawn from Christian theology, its institutional application extends beyond any single faith tradition and is central to understanding and engaging in effective and valid chaplaincy.  In a myriad of military settings, it is the insider status that comes from membership in the military that enables the chaplains to discern the religious needs and requirements of servicemen and women.  It is the fact of sharing the totality of the experiences and demands placed on active duty personnel that offers the chaplain intimate confirmation of where the needs exist, which needs he or she can personally address from their own faith tradition, and wherein other resources can be gathered to help personnel with differing religious requirements.[6]

            He or she can give presentations on singleness, marriage, stress, pre-deployment and post-deployment issues, core values and money matters.  Chaplains can offer various kinds of personal counseling to personnel who seek them out for help.  This includes situations where the chaplain becomes the counselor of preference because the chaplain has established an identity within the command by virtue of being part of the command.  Chaplains offer advice on relational, moral, ethical, leadership and parenting issues, among others.  In all of these examples, the chaplain can partner with external available helping resources to develop a comprehensive service response to personnel needs. The equation becomes “both-and,” to the service member and family member’s profit. 

            A commitment to human wholeness does not reduce a chaplain to social worker status. A chaplain’s preeminent value to the command is not to serve as the catcher’s mitt for collateral duties and other Ensign Pulver duties humorously depicted in the 1948 Broadway play, Mister Roberts.  Chaplains engage in many of these activities as tasks derivative from their core reason for existence, that of serving as the principal resource for commanding officers in providing for the free exercise of religion for all assigned personnel. The chaplain as an incarnate part of the command can perceive the nature of what is required for a particular military member to nurture the “bonds” of their personal religious tradition, which includes relational and emotional wholeness.

            “Religion” comes from religare, the Latin verb that suggests “to bind again, to bind back.”  It is that which ties the person to his or her sense of meaning, often though not always expressed in the context of a formal religious tradition and beliefs.  There is a profoundly relational dimension to most of the religious traditions affirmed by members of the various branches of service.  The chaplain, by virtue of the insider status ascribed due to commissioning as an officer and achieved through empathetic relationships established with all levels of rank at the command, is uniquely positioned to identify, diagnose and respond both to the explicitly religious and the human needs of the unit. 

Third, the chaplain in combat, as a ‘helpful bystander,’ is an ideal point of discernment for the potential growth of moral disengagement.  A consequence of a chaplain’s presence in a unit is her or her ability to enter into the life of those in combat settings.   The chaplain can offer a humanizing point of reference to buffer against the moral disengagement by personnel who are drawn into moral vertigo by the emotional and ethical demands of asymmetrical warfare played out at the street-fighting level.[7]

“When people become morally disengaged, they are able to harm others with a clear conscience.”  This is related to the process of training and conditioning a combatant to engage the enemy on the battlefield, but goes beyond it into the darkened moral zones of the capacity to murder or mistreat individuals or groups not justly included in the category of enemy combatant.  In short, moral disengagement is the psychological, ethical, emotional and spiritual process that creates the conditions in which atrocity, or war crimes can occur.[8]

Albert Bandura has identified several dynamics that nurture the human environment in which immoral or war crimes level behaviors can occur. These decouple a sense of moral agency from an individual or group’s assessment of a situation.  Moral agency involves both “the power to refrain from behaving inhumanely and the proactive power to behave humanely.”  If personal or corporate self-regulation has been compromised, the foundation has been laid for atrocity, genocide and criminal acts.[9]

Chaplains in combat situations can enhance their value to the command, consistent with their primary clergy identity, by heightening the awareness to factors that may contribute to unit moral disengagement.  The ability of a chaplain to recognize developing trends within a unit can help set the stage to address issues from a leadership perspective before conditions reach a point where a war crime or atrocity becomes likely. 

The fact that monolithic systems and highly authoritarian institutions are more likely to fall prey to moral disengagement provide added reasons for chaplain pastoral involvement in advance of battlefield realities. This requires senior chaplain leadership to invest its highest quality people to service in these settings.  This also requires leadership at all levels to encourage chaplain access to troops facing difficult circumstances. Line leadership that devalues or marginalizes chaplain presence (for example, to guards at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo) risks the collision of perception and reality that set the stage for abuse. The chaplain can serve as a humanizing influence, which is part of the approach that can undermine a flow toward moral disengagement by a unit.[10]

Ervin Staub has identified the power of the bystander as a vital element in either continuing a push toward atrocity or in bringing it to a halt.  In his analysis of the “heroic bystanders” whose actions or interventions saved Jews in some circumstances from death by the Nazis, Staub identifies the qualities of such bystanders.  He writes:

Helpful bystanders provide a difference definition of reality.  They break the uniformity of views and call attention to values disregarded by perpetrators and passive bystanders.  They affirm the humanity of the victims.  If they themselves are not devalued by perpetrators, they set a standard and also invoke a deep-seated human desire to be well regarded by others.[11]


The chaplain in combat can function professionally as a “helpful bystander,” one who does not actively participate in combat but has a measure of standing and trust, the chaplain can contribute to the willingness of a unit to step back and morally assess directions that may be leading toward clearly immoral actions. A chaplain who has the pulse of the command is placed to discern whether or not conditions leading to potential moral disengagement are forming.  A chaplain cannot be everywhere, and nothing can guarantee moral boundaries never will be crossed.  The chaplain can provide a moral presence that offers preemptive ethical guidance in seeing whether the conditions of combat or insurgency operations are moving members of a unit into unhealthy moral directions.  No other member of the unit is so uniquely positioned to provide this guidance to the command.

Finally, the chaplain can be crucial in helping troops unpack the moral, spiritual and emotional impact of traumatic experiences.  Dave Grossman, in his book, On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society, makes clear that it is in the ability of the service member to unpack his reaction to killing the enemy that the groundwork is laid to minimize future psychological and spiritual damage, a point also emphasized by Shay.  The chaplain as a pastoral, caring, spiritually-identified presence can become a sounding board as the feelings and conflicting thoughts begin to surge to the surface. 

Grossman, building on previous studies, concurs that perhaps 2% of soldiers or Marines are basically untroubled by killing, for reasons that touch on possible sociopath origins.  As Jonathan Shay and others have made clear in works such as Odysseus in America, and Achilles in Vietnam, the availability of an empathic source to deal with traumatic experiences makes a major difference in the emotional and spiritual recovery process of the combatant as he or she enters back into the larger world.  Chaplains can be one of those key sources for help, especially as the chaplain resists the temptations to explain the combatant’s pain or to take the lead in the conversation or in the silence, which quickly can lead to the emotional disengagement of the one seeking help.[12]

It is in such areas that the distinctiveness of moral guidance as a pastoral function begins to emerge.  The chaplain brings to the conversation an identity informed by the religious collar device he or she wears.  Unlike other helping professionals such as psychologists or counselors, the chaplain’s presence and human interaction are framed by a context of faith and recognition of the spiritual dimensions and struggle implicit in the warrior’s response to the crisis.  The point is not to place chaplains over against other forms of helping professional presence, but to nurture synergy to maximize assistance.

Rebekah Miles offers keen insights into counseling or intervention that involves clear moral dimensions.  Although she writes primarily for Christian clergy in civilian parish settings, her discussion provides a relevant approach for a chaplain’s contact with combatants the moves beyond passive listening or pop psychology into a realm of authentic pastoral ministry. 

Miles argues that, unlike a secular focus on feelings and a reluctance to be directive, healthy moral guidance embraces the need for responsibility and the willingness to be direct with the person in crisis.  Hearing and respecting the feelings of the warrior are vital.  One-way monologues that serve only to meet the needs of the helper while keeping at bay the pain of the troubled combatant are specifically rejected in Miles’ approach.[13]

What the chaplain is free to do, with personal and pastoral sensitivity, is to raise the issue of the warrior’s responsibility to the unit, the nation’s values, and to the individual’s values and faith.  The chaplain can work with the warrior to sift and reframe basic moral issues arising from combat, so that neither integrity nor moral awareness are driven underground even in situations of acute trauma and confrontation with situations that present choices between wrong and wrong. 

The chaplain, whose prior incarnate presence in the unit have provided credibility and authenticity to the warrior, has a freedom to engage in moral direction as necessary in ways denied to other types of counselors.  It is permission, reflecting pastoral integrity and necessity, to assist the warrior in facing spiritual and moral implications of experiences and decisions as part of an overall ministry.  The immediate result typically will not be closure for the service member on the surge of issues and feelings combat has risen.  Rather, the chaplain can help in building a bridge for the warrior’s ongoing movement toward reflection, confession, and healing. 

The irony is appropriate.  In Christian tradition, a pontifex was a high priest with crucial roles in leadership and service.  Literally the Latin word means, “One who builds a bridge.”  As a point person for the free exercise of religion for all personnel, as a incarnate presence in nurturing the human worth and needs of service members, as a ‘helpful bystander’ in settings of potential moral disengagement, and as a caring bridge-builder for the combat veteran’s spiritual and emotional reentry into the larger world, the military chaplain can offer the armed forces a unique and  indispensable service without betraying the integrity of the faith group ethos that has endorsed him or her to serve.



[1] The classic description of the cultural religious triad in the middle 20th century United States is Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology, Garden City, Anchor Books, 1960.  The demographic shift among active religious adherents in the military has been recognized by such as Richard Hutcheson in the revision of his classic,  The Churches and the Chaplaincy (revised edition), U.S. Government Printing House, 1998, pp 1-2. In 2001, 35% of active duty military personnel listed their religious preference as “None” or “Other,” from any organized religious category.  See Kent Annan, “For God and Country,” Inspire, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring, 2002, p. 12.

[2] Although subjectively skewed and hampered by some factual inaccuracies (i.e., an endorser’s claim to speak for the Associated Gospel Churches’  six million members), Ward Sanderson captures some light and lots of heat from the chaplain wars in his three part series on “War in the Chaplain Corps,” Stars and Stripes Sunday Magazine, November 23, 30, December 7, 2003.

[3] An excellent discussion of the questionable constitutionality of the military chaplaincy is found in Ralph Jonakait, “Is the Military Chaplaincy Constitutional?, in Military Chaplaincy: From a Religious Military to a Military Religion, Harvey Cox (ed), New York, American Report Press, 1969, pp 129-138.  The article from an anthology critical of military chaplaincy was produced at the height and heat of the Viet Nam debate in the churches.  An insightful study favoring the constitutionality of the military chaplains is from Israel Drazin and Cecil Currey, For God and Country: The History of a Constitutional Challenge to the Army Chaplaincy, Hoboken, KTAV Publishing House, 1995.  Drazin was an Army reserve chaplain, rabbi and attorney who participated in successfully defending the chaplaincy against a constitutional challenge by two Harvard Law School students.  An insightful paper affirming the legal legitimacy of the military chaplaincy within constitutional boundaries from a skeptical source is Ira Lupu and Robert Tuttle, The State of the Law 2006: Legal Developments Affecting Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations, Rockefeller Institute of Government, Pew Charitable Trust, 2006, pp. 61-79.

[4] As an example for the Navy, see SECNAVINST. 1730.78 of October, 2000. 

[5] DOD Instruction 1304.28 of June, 2004, “Guidance for the Appointment of Chaplains to the Military Departments,” includes the professional expectation of inclusive ministry as one of the principal criteria for acceptance into the military chaplaincy.

[6] Rear Admiral Hutcheson, drawing on the research of Erving Goffman’s concept of Total Institutions, articulates this point in depth in his Churches and the Chaplaincy, pp. 33-41.

[7] Great caution and self-assessment is required in this dimension of service, lest the chaplain become a numbing buffer to excuse or exonerate unethical or immoral actions.  For example, although Nazi leadership was openly disdainful of Christianity in general and military chaplains in particular, many of those chaplains served Nazi interests by providing absolution to soldiers who engaged in atrocities against Jews and non-combatants.  For an excellent, if disturbing study of this issue, see Doris Bergen, “German Military Chaplains in the Second World War,” in The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century, Doris Bergen (ed.), Notre Dame, Notre Dame Press, 2005, pp. 165-186.

[8] Alfred McAlister, “Moral Disengagement and Support for Military Action: Measurement and Modification,” submitted to the Journal of Peace Research, November 19, 1999, pp. 1-2.

[9] Albert Bandura, “Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency,” Journal of Moral Education, Vol. 31, No. 2, 2002, pp. 101-2. 

[10] Alfred McAlister, Albert Bandura & Steven Owen, “Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement in Support of Military Force: The Impact of September 11,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2006, pp. 156-163.

[11] Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 165-6.

[12] Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Viet Nam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. 115.  See also David Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Boston, Little Brown & Company, 1996, pp. 48-50, 161.

[13] Rebekah Miles, The Pastor as Moral Guide, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1999, pp. 40-51.