Military Chaplains

During World War II, war correspondent Ernie Pyle penned a phrase that has become a commonplace: There are no atheists in foxholes. This adage, though hotly contested by irate atheists, succinctly expresses the unique spiritual need of soldiers who daily risk their lives in the line of duty. American military chaplains have the vital and arduous duty of providing comfort and guidance to military personnel and their families around the world, sometimes in dangerous and stressful circumstances. However, America is a religiously pluralistic society, and this diversity of faiths is reflected among the men and women enlisted in the military, including the military chaplains. This religious diversity naturally produces controversy: Mormon chaplains leading Protestant services, Wiccans celebrating their pagan rites on military bases, Muslim chaplains serving Muslim soldiers in a war against an Islamic country. Many Christians find these situations alarming. How could such things be allowed? And how are we as Christians to respond to this? To answer these questions, we must first look at the origin of the U.S. Military Chaplaincy. Second, we will examine how the First Amendment impacts this issue. Finally, we will look at what concerned Christians can do about cults and world religions in the military and their influence on enlisted men and women.

Origin of the Chaplaincy: Tradition of Diversity

The relationship between the American military and the clergy now embodied by the chaplaincy began on April 19, 1775, at the battle of Concord Bridge:

A number of New England clerics served at Concord: William Emerson, later to die while on active duty; Joseph Thaxter, soon to be wounded at Bunker Hill; Edmund Foster, a theological student; and the Reverend Doctor Philips Payson. The latter three not only ministered to the minutemen but also "shouldered their muskets, and fought like common soldiers." It was written of Rev. Payson: "Seizing a musket he put himself at the head of a party, and led them forward to the attack." William Emerson served at Concord in the capacity of a chaplain only, and so has the distinction of being the first Revolutionary War chaplain. (

On July 29, 1775, the Continental Congress legally established the military chaplaincy. From the founding of this country, chaplains were an integral part of our armed forces.

The U.S. military has a long history of recognizing and accommodating the religious diversity of its soldiers. Initially, the U.S. Military Chaplaincy consisted of Protestant clergy. Catholic chaplains were first recruited during the Mexican-American War, and later Jewish chaplains during the Civil War. Today the chaplaincy has over 200 groups that have been granted ecclesiastical endorsing status, including Muslim groups, Buddhist groups, and Mormons.

The First Amendment: Equality and Accommodation

The heart of the diversity in the chaplaincy is the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibit the free exercise thereof.

Men and women have the right to worship as they desire, even in the military, and the chaplaincy was established to guarantee the free exercise of that right. As army regulation AR 165-20, chapter 3 states:

Commanders are responsible for the religious, spiritual, moral, and ethical well being of all personnel in their commands . . . The staff chaplain has primary staff responsibility to assist the command in the planning, development, and implementation of these command responsibilities.

Because our country is pluralistic in nature, the soldiers come into the service with varied beliefs. Therefore, the pluralistic chaplaincy reflects our nation.

The purpose of the military is to defend the safety and interests of our nation, not provide pastoral care and spiritual edification to the troops. Therefore, the chaplaincy is not the military doing ministry, but receiving ministry. This means the chaplaincy does not provide religious training but instead receives qualified ministers. These ministers must be qualified according to the standards of the religion, denomination, or church that is their endorser. These requirements usually include a bachelors degree and a seminary M. Div. or some equivalent educational certification.

However, a chaplain is not only responsible for meeting the needs of those in his or her own religion, church, or denomination. The chaplain also must be able to work with other faith groups. That is, a chaplain must either perform or provide for the spiritual needs of all the soldiers in his assignment. For instance, if a Protestant chaplain cannot, in good conscience, perform a Mass for Roman Catholics, he must be able to provide for their needs by getting a Catholic chaplain or what is called a lay eucharistic minister (L.E.M.) to administer the sacrament for them. On the other hand, a Catholic chaplain must be able to get a Protestant chaplain for Protestants. This is referred to as accommodation. However, accommodation is not always possible. Army regulation AR 600-20, paragraph 5-37b states:

The Army places a high value on the rights of its members to observe the tenets of their religions. The Army policy is that requests for accommodation of religious practices should be approved when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, health, safety, or discipline. However, accommodation of a soldier's religious practices cannot be guaranteed at all times but must depend on military necessity.

It is obvious from the quote above that the demands of duty have priority in the military. This is the overriding concern of the commander when accommodation is requested. To fulfill the Army's policy of accommodation, the commander must give consideration to a soldier's request to exercise his freedom of religion. The most basic request is time to attend a worship service, but other requests may concern diet, medical treatment and dress standards. As stated above, these requests must be looked at in light of the military requirements of military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, health, safety, morale and discipline. For example, if a soldier requests to be allowed to grow a beard in accordance with his religion, that request will be denied for the highly practical reason that a gas mask will not seal properly over a bearded face. This is not religious persecution, but a recognition of the fact that a beard can affect the health of the soldier and by extension the morale and effectiveness of his unit. While the military does try to accommodate its soldiers whenever it can, the optimum functionality of the military is the overriding concern, and sometimes a soldier will have to adapt.

To aid chaplains in accommodating other religions, the military issues a manual entitled Religious Requirements and Practices, No.165-13-1 that describes many religions and their beliefs and practices. They selected particular religions based on the following questions:

1. Given the size of the group and the nature of assignments of Army Chaplains, is it likely that members of the group will be found on Army command posts where no Chaplain of that particular faith or of a related faith is stationed?

2. Is the group known to the Office of the Chief of Chaplains as one about which questions have been previously raised by existing Army Chaplains or Commanders?

3. Is the nature of the group such that Chaplains or Commanders may raise questions about it in the near future?

Because all groups are to be accommodated equally, groups that Christians would call cults are accommodated as well. The basic categories, with examples of problematic groups, are listed below:

Christian Heritage Groups: Christian Science; Latter-day Saint and Reorganized Latter-day Saint; Seventh-Day Adventist; Holy Order of Mans; Unification Church (Moonies); Watchtower or Jehovahs Witnesses; The Way International; Worldwide Church of God.

Indian Heritage Groups: Divine Light Mission; Hare Krishna; Sri Chinmoy Center; Transcendental Meditation. Islamic Groups: Hanaafi-MadhHab Center of Islamic Faith; Islamic Center; Sufi Order; World Community of Al-Islam in the West.

Japanese Heritage Groups: Buddhist Churches of America; Church of Perfect Liberty; Nichiren Shoshu; Zen Center of Rochester, New York.

Jewish Groups: Black Hebrew Israelite Nation; Conservative Judaism; Orthodox Judaism; Reformed Judaism; Reconstructionist Judaism.

Sikh Groups: Eckankar, Healthy Happy, Holy Organization, Sikh Dharma.

Other Groups: American Council of Witches; Church of Ageless Wisdom, Inc; Church of Satan; Church of Scientology; Gardnerian Wicca; Native American Church; Rastafarians; Universal Church of the Masters; Universal Life Church.

While it is significant that the military recognizes the existence of these religious groups, this list does not mean the military endorses these groups or that all of these groups have their own chaplain. Instead, it is meant as an aid to commanders and chaplains in answering questions and accommodating those under their supervision who are members of minority religions.

Because the most important resources of the military are people, and because people are religious in nature, the religious makeup of enlisted personnel determines the task of the chaplaincy. If there are thousands of soldiers following a particular religion, then this group may request ecclesiastical endorsing status. With endorsing status, a group can train and endorse its own chaplains. If, however, no chaplains from an endorser enlist in the military, or if those that do try to enlist fail to meet military requirements, then a group may have endorsing status yet have no active chaplains. But even if there is no particular chaplain for a religious group, the chaplains on duty must still facilitate the free exercise of that group's religion and/or train lay leaders of that group to meet those needs.

Christian Response: The Opportunity of Pluralism

It should be plain now why the chaplaincy may be problematic for some Christians. Because the First Amendment guarantees the right of free exercise of religion, military personnel may practice their faith freely. Naturally Christians applaud this recognition of the individual's right to worship and of the importance of faith in all aspects of life. However, the First Amendment also dictates that all religions be treated equally, which means that military personnel from all religions are given accommodation. Christians may be uncomfortable with this idea, since one of the foundational principles of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is the only Way, the only Truth, and the only Life. (John 14:6) However, this is a case of all or nothing: if we as Christians wish to exclude other religions from the chaplaincy, then we have to be excluded as well. There can be no bias under the Constitution. If Christianity is given preference over all other religions, then that will be a reason to get rid of the chaplaincy altogether.

Some suggest that eliminating the chaplaincy is actually the best option--better to have no religion supported by the government than all of them! Instead of paid chaplains, these people recommend that ministers in churches help the soldiers. And in fact many churches outside of the bases already do just that through fellowships and outreaches to the military. Certainly these churches need to continue in this effort. But let's imagine for a second that there is no chaplaincy: who will go with the troops into combat? Pastors of churches who minister to military personnel cannot leave their church and go off with the troops. Besides, most pastors, knowing very little about the military, would not be able to function within the military context. The pastor would need to be physically qualified to survive the rigor of extreme environments and situations. The pastor would need to know the military culture, know protocols and standard operating procedures, know how to give and take orders, and know the special stresses and problems unique to the life of enlisted men and women. In other words, the pastor would need to be a chaplain, a special minister for a special ministry.

If we view the military as a culture of people with needs specific to their culture, the chaplaincy becomes almost a biblical mandate. In I Corinthians 9:19-23, the Apostle Paul writes about his strategy of becoming all things to all men:

19 For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.
20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
21 to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.
22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to allmen, that I might by all means save some.
23 And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.

What is a military chaplain but a minister who becomes a soldier that he might win soldiers? To understand and minister to soldiers, the chaplain must become one of them. Isn't that what Christ did in the incarnation, become one of us? As John 1:14 declares, The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. Therefore, Christ and Paul are our great examples for a Christian in the ministry of the military chaplain.

The U.S. military is both a congregation and a mission field that requires many well-trained workers to meet the needs it presents. The First Amendment allows Christians to minister in the military. However, we also have to accept that this same amendment also allows other religions and cults to enter. We must recognize that if we are there, others will be there too. How should we respond to this reality? Here are some suggestions for assisting Christian chaplains and military personnel to deal with the pluralistic environment in which they work.

Rules of Engagement

1. Find out about your denomination's military chaplains. Have one of them come and speak to your church about the opportunities and stresses of ministry in the military. Adopt a chaplain for your congregation, and encourage them through prayer and correspondence.

2. Learn more about the process of training for a chaplaincy, and encourage Christians searching for a ministry to consider becoming a military chaplain. The best assistance we can give to the military chaplaincy is to provide well-educated and mature chaplains.

3. Find out which churches in your denomination are close to military bases, and what kind of ministry they have (if any) to the military. Find out what your church can do to assist them in their ministry.

4. Churches near bases should have strong teaching ministries that stress the importance of doctrinal discernment. Christians in the military need education on doctrine, world religions, and cults to help them respond to followers of other faiths. Watchman Fellowship and other apologetics and counter-cult ministries can assist these churches in acquiring the materials they need for this area of ministry.

5. We should pray for our men and women in uniform on a regular basis. Pray for the chaplains and their assistants so they can do the work of the ministry under the power and direction of the Holy Spirit. Pray that Christian chaplains will be able to teach doctrine in a positive way, and that Christian soldiers will live their faith before others and answer questions and objections with grace and wisdom.


The U.S. Military Chaplaincy has been around as long as our country, and it has grown to reflect the religious makeup of our country. The First Amendment, the foundation of the chaplaincy, cuts both ways: while the Christian faith is well represented in the military, other religions and cults are as well. The answer to this problem isn't withdrawal from the military or complaining about the military and chaplains, but embracing the fact that the military needs good ministers of the gospel. Only if we as a Church educate our people in doctrine and discernment, send qualified ministers into the military, and train our young people who enlist in the military to be spiritually mature will we effectively counter the non-Christian influences present in the military.

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