Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America
Reviewed by Gregg Brekke
The formation of an “American religion” is an often discussed topic that generally weaves together a narrative consisting of Pilgrim religious persecution, pioneer independence, and patriotic zeal. Few, however, have sought to trace another unique aspect of religion is the United States – its peculiar and overarching pluralistic identification in modern secular society.
Ronit Stahl addresses the formation and dissemination of this association via the lens of the military chaplaincy throughout the 20th century in Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America. Her argument centers on the ways in which chaplains were trained and worked to serve all soldiers, regardless of creed, instilling values in military personnel that ultimately influenced the broader culture.
She writes, quoting a 1926 chaplain training manual The Chaplain: His Place and Duties, “The four overlapping main tasks of the chaplain consisted of 1) providing opportunities for public worship; 2) offering ‘spiritual ministration, moral counsel, and religious guidance’; 3) championing ethical behavior; and 4) promoting character.” (55)
Beginning with the American Civil War, Stahl traces the development of the chaplaincy and their role in delivering and disseminating this spiritual-moral message as an integral part of the U.S. military. Although the establishment of a professional chaplain corps was seen by some as a violation of the separation of church and state, those objections largely disappeared in the years prior to World War I and especially in the years leading up to World War II.
Importantly, she says, what was learned through the instillation of these values and practices by GIs found its way into American culture. Concepts of pluralism, civil rights, and equal rights for women – no matter their stuttered progress among the general public – were instilled by chaplains and began to influence society as those under the chaplains’ care returned to civilian life.
Through presentation of official documents, records, and personal correspondence, Stahl tells the story of how military chaplaincy – led by strong ecumenical voices – served as a stabilizing influence for the thousands of primarily young (primarily) men who would come of age while they served their country. For all its success in creating a unified spiritual presence for members of the military, she argues there were many exceptions within this perceived unity.
First, for most of the history of military chaplaincy in the U.S., three religious identities were officially recognized: Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. Even within these broad categories, the most ecumenically minded voices represented and set policy for the military chaplaincy.
Numerically smaller and evangelical voices within Protestantism, such as Seventh Day Adventists and Baptists, were asked to set aside their traditions of Saturday Sabbath services and conversion practices in pursuit of service to all. Catholics were not afforded a Catholic mass if served by a non-Catholic chaplain or “meatless Fridays” during Lent. Jews are not accorded kosher meals, and many Jewish religious bodies made exemptions for military members to eat pork. The military deemed Sunday the day for religious services, so a traditional Shabbat was a rare occurrence for most Jewish service members.
For their part, chaplains were (and still are) expected to serve the spiritual needs of all the service members in their care. Questions of sectarian nuance – such as should Protestants receive communion from a Catholic priest, or a Jewish rabbi for that matter – were set aside in order to foster unity.
Second, numerically smaller denominations tended to get lumped together in an effort to ease distinctions and, in practical terms, reduce the administrative overhead of record keeping and identity. Upon entry to the military, each enlistee or officer candidate was assigned a religious preference that was stamped into their name tag. Through WWII, these designations were limited to P, C, H, X, and Y – Protestant, Catholic, Hebrew (Jewish), other, and no religious affiliation or no preference.
Stahl says this presented a challenge for members from groups such as the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and Christian Scientists, who were not fully accepted as part of the American religious mainstream at the time. A compromise was reached and these groups were categorized with Protestants, fostering a greater acceptance and affiliation for these groups with American Protestantism in the public mind.
Still, chaplains were limited to the three primary affiliations – Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish – until much later. Distinct designations for Hindu and Muslim chaplains were added in 1990 and 1993 respectively.
Third, privilege of a pluralistic chaplain corps applied only to white members of the military and white chaplains. While White chaplains could serve African American units, Black chaplains were assigned only to black units until the time of the Korean conflict.
Stahl dedicates considerable space in her book to exploring this inconsistency in the overall momentum of the chaplaincy toward pluralism. Pluralism was lauded and exalted, as long as it didn’t cross racial lines. While generally, though not universally, regarded as equal colleagues among the ranks of chaplains, Black chaplains weren’t afforded the same respect in the field or in administrative priorities.
Black, and other minority ethnic group, chaplains consistently had lower than projected numbers, according to Stahl. Although this shortfall was, in part, explained by differences in endorsing criteria between Black and White denominations, much of the fault rests in the low priority given to recruitment and training of non-White chaplains. It only further contributed to the segregated nature of pre-WWII military life and enabled the continuation of racist policies in the military.
Not even the desperation of war could undo such attitudes. Stahl relays several stories of white troops and field commanders rejecting the ministrations of Black chaplains, the confusion over where a Pilipino chaplain could serve, and how best to discipline and sanction a Black chaplain who encouraged troops under his care that their victory abroad would lead to new freedoms at home.
Fourth, female chaplains did not receive endorsement for service until 1973. Even as women rose in the ranks of military service, female chaplains marked a turning point for the chaplain corps. Stahl’s characterization of the entry of female chaplains into service as a gauge for further acceptance in what had been a military culture – despite the efforts of many to change the norm – made up of primarily white men.
It shouldn’t be lost on the reader that Stahl isn’t attempting to discredit or even criticize the military for this timeline or these staged advances. Integration of minority religious voices, chaplains of color, and female chaplains often foreshadowed similar advances in the broader society, while still reflecting the measured reluctance of many within the military to expand ideals of pluralism, civil rights, and women’s roles in religious leadership.
Stahl determines the project of pluralism within the military, or rather the experiment as seen through the history and development of the military chaplaincy, “has served as a fairly reliable bellwether of the politics of religious toleration and accommodation.” (265-266) She further concludes, “questions about who is included, what counts as American religion, who can be a military chaplain, and what religious practices are supported,” are woven through the story of this experiment and American religious history.