Just How Many Religions Can Military Chaplains Serve? by Russell D. Moore
The 1970s television comedy M*A*S*H shaped for a generation of Americans the idea of what a military chaplain ought to be. The character Father Mulcahy was kind, warm, sensitive, and benign. He seemed always ready to offer a listening ear, but was decidedly nonjudgmental, rarely raising a word of protest when those in his charge included an adulterous husband, a woman so promiscuous she bore the nickname “Hot Lips,” or a man willing to cross-dress to get out of military service.
Father Mulcahy wasn’t really all that Catholic, or even all that Christian. He seemed to be more of a Unitarian with a crucifix, the very icon of amorphous, therapeutic civil religion. There was no need for a Billy Graham or Fulton Sheen type, it seemed, because Father Mulcahy was, well, a chaplain.
It would be one thing if Father Mulcahy were simply a soon-to-be forgotten face from a long-ago cancelled television comedy. It is quite another when the United States military restricts chaplaincy to the point where only Father Mulcahys need apply.
The current flashpoint is not over some hard question of uncharted constitutional territory. It is instead over whether Christian chaplains can pray as Christians whenever they pray. More specifically, should Christian chaplains be required to scratch Jesus’ name from public prayers, in order to offer more “inclusive” prayers that serve a general spiritual purpose?
In a March communiqué to army chaplains, Major General David H. Hicks, the US Army Chief of Chaplains, assured those under his charge that the army did not wish to “censor prayers.” He furthermore told chaplains he always prays in the name of Jesus, “but I don’t always use that name. It is a matter of the heart.” With this in mind, he suggested that chaplains be “sensitive” when praying in “public settings where there may be those whose religious viewpoints are disrespected by a narrowly focused, sectarian prayer.”
This “sensitivity” had been defined in United States Air Force guidelines released in February that state that only “non-denominational, inclusive prayer” will be allowed at public ceremonies “when its primary purpose is not the advancement of religious beliefs.” There is already a question about whether praying in Jesus’ name is such an “advancement of religious belief.” While no branch of the military has yet come down with clear legal language against using the name of Jesus, some chaplains are already sensing the chill when it comes to speaking, as some now say in somewhat ominous tones, “the Name.”
According to the Religion News Service, Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, met with Air Force officials to discuss the new prayer guidelines, and cannot see what all the controversy is about. “When somebody prays in Jesus’ name,” Gutow told RNS, “I wonder if they couldn’t also find another way to bring God in the room.” That comment can be translated as, “Why can’t they just be good liberal Protestants and pluralist Catholics?”
For millions of Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Fundamentalists, and Catholics, there’s not a way to “get God in the room” except through the mediation of Jesus. The United States military should understand that, for most conservative Christians, praying in Jesus’ name is not a really specifically worded prayer, akin to saying, “And, as you know, Father, I offer this prayer as a Southern Baptist.” It is the only prayer they believe that God receives. The one praying is recognizing that he can come before God only through the mediation of a priest, the high priest Jesus.
The most problematic aspect of the controversy, however, has nothing to do with the United States military or with the competing civil liberties lobbying groups, but with some of those who claim to represent Evangelical Christians. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) released a statement on the issue, which was called “very helpful” by the deputy chief of Navy chaplains.
The 23-page Statement on Religious Freedom for Soldiers and Military Chaplains, which seems intended to uphold the constitutionality of chaplains praying in public at all, reviews the relevant law and the history of ceremonial prayer in the United States, starting with George Washington. It concludes with recommendations for specific issues, including not only the work of chaplains but also soldiers’ religious rights and the duties of commanders. An appendix offers some examples (presumably NAE-approved) of ceremonial prayer.
With most of the statement, no traditional Christian will have a problem. The problem comes with its solution to the most contentious question. “A military chaplain may preside, preach, or pray in sectarian language with a likeminded congregation that has voluntarily assembled,” it states at the end of its section on general principles, but “the same chaplain ought to use the more inclusive language of civic faith when praying at memorials or convocations with religiously diverse audiences.”
The reason the NAE gives for this is that:
The purpose of the prayers offered at these events is neither to favor one religion over another nor to proselytize. It is to dignify and mark a public occasion by reflecting upon the deeper significance of that which has or is about to transpire. It is to honor the most basic human impulses of giving thanks and of invoking God’s protection, guidance, and blessing, and it is to reflect upon those religious values that unite the American people.
Praying “in the name of Jesus” would both “exclude believers from other faith traditions” and “violate the Establishment Clause,” the NAE argues. “[C]ommon courtesy, pastoral judgment, and constitutional principle commend offering a religious message or prayer respectful of all present.”
Civic faith? Is this a different religion from the private faith of the voluntary assemblies? Does it invoke a different God? A prayer respectful of all present? Is that a prayer into which anyone can put any meaning or none as he pleases?
From the military’s point of view, it may not seem to be all that much to ask a chaplain to pray a sensitive prayer to a generically identified God. Perhaps it wouldn’t seem too much to ask a Catholic soldier to serve himself and his friends Mass since “bread is bread,” and a Muslim chaplain to lead the troops in the rosary because “it’s just a prayer.”
But that is too much to ask from the believer’s point of view. A Muslim who would speak of Mary as the Mother of God rejects the Koran, and is just not a Muslim anymore. A Catholic Mass without a priest is just not a Catholic Mass. And a prayer to a “God” who is not clearly the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a Christian prayer.
For many Christians, including especially most Evangelical Protestants, a prayer not offered through Jesus is not a prayer. These Christians are “Christian” precisely because they believe with the Apostle Paul that “there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). They can appeal to God as Father only because they share the Spirit of Christ, through whom they cry “Abba” (Rom. 8:15).
When Christians maintain this belief, they are not being bigoted against others, or even trying to proselytize. They are simply asserting what Christians throughout the ages have always defined as the way to pray to God. Christians have never, until recently, distinguished a way of public prayer from a way of private prayer.
Chaplains cannot. They have been ordained by their churches, and offered to the military, to be Christian clerics. For them to pray as a civic-religion cleric is for them to enlist their services in an additional faith. The Christian chaplain wears the Cross, and must speak it and not put it under the bushel of a “more inclusive language of civic faith.” If he does, he is stepping outside of his calling and doing something else “on the side.”
Chaplains do not serve chiefly a civic function. They are there, first of all, to guarantee the First Amendment liberties of military personnel to the free exercise of religion. If the United States military decides that the only chaplains who can serve are those willing to pray like Unitarians in public, one wonders whether there remains any purpose to chaplaincy at all.
One has the right to disagree with a chaplain who prays to Allah. One has the right to refuse to bow one’s head in prayer. But freedom of religion doesn’t guarantee the right to never hear someone pray in that way. The same must be said for those who can pray only in the name of Jesus.
Our Christian forebears could have proclaimed, “Caesar is lord,” with a wink and a nod, understanding that they privately knew that the “eternal Caesar” is Jesus of Nazareth. There must have been those who tried such mental maneuvers, with some reasonable justification. Can we not be of better service to Jesus alive and preaching than martyred? Think of the benefits the Roman Empire provides for the proclamation of the gospel. What is a momentary acknowledgment of a civic faith, especially when I can be as specific as I want privately?
And yet, behind all these rationalizations hung a warning: “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32–33).
The church fathers’ rule seems to have been that a Christian cannot act in public in an ambiguous way, letting the world think one thing while reserving to himself a Christian understanding of his actions. He cannot pray to a God so addressed that he (or it) may or may not be the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.
More Christian Chaplains
The United States Congress is now considering legislation to ensure the First Amendment freedoms of chaplains to pray in accordance with their religious convictions. The House of Representatives’ version, just passed as I write, declares that “each chaplain shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain’s own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible.”
Such proposals do what the government should do to preserve the religious freedom of its chaplains and servicemen, but Christians cannot rely on the government to produce Christian chaplains whose consciences are properly formed. That is not the government’s job.
Local congregations should look for ways to minister to military personnel on bases nearby, so that whether or not there is a good chaplain available, Christ’s sheep there may be shepherded in word and spirit. Christian denominations should make sure that their endorsing bodies send to the military mission field those who hold to see themselves first as Christian ministers, and only secondarily as agents of the state.
Christian seminaries should rethink chaplaincy training programs—such as the inherently therapeutic and pluralist versions of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) that by their very structure work to exclude men of orthodox theological convictions from the chaplaincy. The chaplaincy ought to be the place where the most adventuresome and convictional Christian ministers serve, even if they know they may one day get a dishonorable discharge for holding to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
And, most important, all of us should remember that we belong ultimately to another City, we serve ultimately another King. We should seek to form men and women who are more Christian than Father Mulcahy, in and out of the United States military.
When Caesar asks for military service and for the taxes that support it, Christians should render such things gladly. Prayers to God do not belong to Caesar, however, and they should not be brought before him for editorial supervision. We owe Caesar submission and loyalty in almost everything (Rom. 13). But when Caesar objects to the mention of Jesus in a Christian’s prayers, we must have the conviction to say, “Sir, I wasn’t talking to you, sir.” •
The NAE's statement can be found at www.nae.net
Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
Not a subscriber? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of content!
Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives for only $19.95. NEW: Download PDF of issues! That's only $1.66 per month!
Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access for only $39.95. NEW: Download PDF of issues! That's only $3.34 per month!
Transactions will be processed on the secure server of The Fellowship of St. James website, the publisher of Touchstone.
OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)
Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.
more from the online archives