Men of Cloth and Steel





A tribute to the American military chaplain.

America’s military chaplains occupy what must surely be among the most unique positions in the world. Theirs is a universe of contradictions. They are a holdover from an earlier age of faith, much like congressional chaplains or the words “In God We Trust” on American coins or religious inscriptions on the official buildings in the nation’s capitol.

Clearly, the modern understanding of the First Amendment would never have given them birth. Yet the religious nature of their nation’s enemy, the moral crises of America’s soldiers, and the spiritual passions of the new generation at war may make them more essential to America’s military efforts today than ever before.

The inconsistencies do not stop there. They wear a uniform but cannot carry a weapon. They receive a check from the state to do the work of the church in a society deathly afraid of the mixture of church and state. They can preach God’s will for the individual soul but may not preach God’s will for the war. They are ordained by a single religious denomination to preach its truth but as chaplains must tend every possible religious persuasion.

The religious nature of their calling often works against them. If a chaplain is deployed with his National Guard unit, every man he serves is guaranteed a job to come home to. Yet if that chaplain was a pastor in a church when he was sent off to war, he is not guaranteed he can return to his job. The government he serves cannot pressure a church to employ that chaplain again. It is a violation of the separation of church and state.

He is supposed to tend to the needs of soldiers at war. Yet he is not supposed to get too close to the fighting. The military is concerned that if a chaplain accompanies soldiers into battle, the soldiers will be distracted from their mission out of concern for the safety of the chaplain, whom they often love and who is required to be unarmed. Yet the biggest complaint about chaplains from soldiers in the field is that they “don’t cross the wire with us, and so they don’t know how we feel.”

Then there is the chain of command. Pastors fighting with deacons and church boards is such a common occurrence back home that there are courses on the subject in seminaries. Yet a chaplain in the military can end up working for a commander who thinks all faith is silly or who views the particular religion of the chaplain as heresy.

One battalion commander was disciplined for calling his Catholic chaplain, a Major Pappas, by the nickname “Major Papist,” a denigrating reference to the myth that Catholics worship the pope. Another chaplain was told by his executive officer, “Be as religious as you want to be, but stay away from me and my troops.” Church fights at home pale in comparison to these pressures.

Adding to these contradictions and challenges are the “knuckleheads in clerical garb” who taint the image of the role. There is the overheated evangelist who offends more than he wins, the office rat who does ministry only behind a desk, the one the troops call “Captain Kangaroo” who hands out candy but nothing more as men go off to battle, the “cheerleader” whose every sermon sounds like a pitch from an Army recruiter, and the bulbous gourmand who couldn’t pass the Army physical fitness test unless he hired someone to take it for him. Each of these leaves legacies for other chaplains to live down.

Yet despite the oddities and obstacles of their role, chaplains are often among the noblest figures in the field. There is the stunning bravery of a chaplain risking enemy fire to give last rites to a dying man. There are the highly decorated fighting men who have then gone on to seminary so they can return to the service and minister to men in arms. And there are the noble dead among the chaplains’ corps who lost their lives tending the warrior soul.

In fact, many of these chaplains are models of toughness. Colonel Gene Fowler was the head chaplain in Iraq through 2003, serving in the 3rd Corps. A slight, bespectacled man, Chaplain Fowler has nevertheless proven his steel on more than one occasion. While serving as a chaplain at a stateside post, a grizzled master sergeant once approached him, looked him up and down, and said, “Sir, if you ain’t Airborne, you ain’t nothing.”

Refusing to let the challenge go unanswered and hating the thought that, once again, a clergyman should be viewed as a wimp, Chaplain Fowler went to Ranger school and became an honored member of the Airborne fraternity. Now he wears the Ranger tab and Airborne wings on his uniform, yet when he jumps from a plane, he does so without a weapon. He is there to fight battles of the spirit.

Chaplain Fowler and the hundreds of other chaplains who serve with him today stand in an honored tradition that reaches back through the centuries. The literature of the ancient world is filled with stories of priests leading the way in battle. It was a time when war was understood as a contest of gods. Sometimes the actual fighting would have to wait until each tribe’s priest had adequately insulted the other tribe’s god, for only then was it proper to attack.

Today, the American chaplains’ corps is as fine as the nation has ever put in the field. Each chaplain has joined the military voluntarily. Each is well educated. Most are deeply devoted to those they serve and now see their ministry in a post-9/11 world as a vital service to their nation and their God. In Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of chaplains subject themselves to life-threatening dangers.

Yet the military chaplain serves in a world that is religiously very different from the one that first defined his role. His job was conceived in an age of faith, at a time when the United States was largely Christian and understood its mission in religious terms.

Chaplains were charged with making sure that fighting men were pious and conducted themselves so as to assure God’s blessing on their efforts at war. A chaplain served his troops by defining their fight in spiritual terms, calling them to deeper faith, teaching them a valiant warrior code and tending their souls in moments of distress.

Today, the chaplain’s role is defined only in terms of the personal, the spiritual and the ceremonial. “I want to talk about how to fight like men and women of God,” one chaplain stationed in Iraq said, “but I feel like I can only pray at ceremonies, lead chapel services and counsel soldiers about their problems. Our nation is in a fight for its life, but I can’t stand as the priests did in the Bible and speak to the fight. It’s like I can only pray ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ prayers, when I want to pray, ‘Lord rise up against Your enemies’ prayers.”

This “separation of faith and fight,” as one chaplain styled it, is due to a number of factors. The first is military policy. In the Army regulations that define a chaplain’s role, it is clear that the personal spiritual life of a soldier is in view and not the spirituality of his life as a warrior. The chaplain is charged with meeting the “religious, spiritual, moral and ethical needs of the Army.”

Yet the chaplain is also described as a “noncombatant.” He is not allowed to carry arms, and it is clear that his job is essentially that of a civilian pastor in uniform. In fact, he is not even supposed to go near the fighting. Many chaplains strain at these restrictions and feel that they keep them from doing their jobs.

During the Coalition’s assault on Fallujah in 2004, one bold chaplain accompanied squads of Marines as they went door to door looking for insurgents. Though the chaplain was unarmed, he entered suspect homes with the Marines and constantly urged courage in their task by quoting scriptures and praying aloud. The warriors he tended loved him for putting himself in harm’s way and for sharing the dangers they endured.

When this story was reported in the newspapers back home, the chaplain was celebrated as a hero. Pastors mentioned his courageous faith in their sermons, and religious talk-show hosts lauded him on the air. Yet this chaplain was disciplined by his superiors for exposing himself to danger and potentially distracting the men he accompanied from their mission. He was “showboating,” his commanders said, and failing to do his job.

Privately, this chaplain said, “I was doing my job. What they want is religious window dressing and someone to keep the ceremonial circus up and running. I want to be a prophet to my Marines in the crucible of their lives. I’m no good to them if I don’t face what they face when they face it.” This forced distance from the fighting only compromises chaplains in the eyes of the young warriors they serve.

The generation fighting today’s wars are the youngest children of the generation that fought in Vietnam, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who fought in World War II. Most of them were born in the early 1980s, which means that the only wars they can remember outside of movies and books are the conflict in Kosovo and America’s brief but tragic involvement in Somalia made popular by the film Black Hawk Down. Called everything from Generation X to Millennials to Echo Boomers, they are as difficult to define as they are to name.

Millennial faith is already distrustful of tradition, authority and structure. This is primarily because all three of these seem irrelevant to spirituality as the typical Millennial perceives it. For Millennials at war, the fact that their chaplains cannot “cross the wire,” cannot know what they know about being under fire, only makes them even less trustworthy.

The 1544th Transportation Company is a unique example of Millennial faith because while their captain, Brandon Tackett, says he stays out of his soldier’s spiritual lives, many under his command are deeply religious. There is Jodi Rund, for example. Corporal Rund is blond, fresh faced and not hard to imagine as a campus head-turner.

Not long ago, she was a sociology major at the University of Illinois. She was called up when she had only one semester left and now finds herself in the thick of the Iraq war. And she is a good soldier. One of her colleagues described her as “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare: a pretty woman who prays to Jesus and fights as well as any man.”

Jodi was raised Catholic and found a new interest in faith when she learned she was fighting for her country in the land of ancient Babylon. She yearned to know more about biblical history, and this brought her to Web sites that fed her spirit. She began to e-mail Christian friends at home about her faith. Soon she met other Christians in her company.

There was David Wetherell, for example, another University of Illinois student who was working on a finance degree when he was called up. Wetherell had “fallen away” from his Christian faith when he was first deployed, but the death of his sergeant on the first day he arrived, and his realization that he might die, moved him to “give my life to Jesus.”

Both Rund and Wetherell have nurtured vibrant spiritual lives in the face of war, but all without the aid of chaplains. Asked about the chaplains he knows, Wetherell replied, “Some are great and some stink, but none of them understand what soldiers go through in the field.” Rund reports that chaplains may have their place, but since they aren’t involved in the crux of battle, they are not really relevant.

“Services don’t help,” she insists. “Conventional, organized religion doesn’t meet our needs. I find that e-mails keep me strong and the psalms I put on my walls. Some of us get together before going out and pray. This is what keeps me going spiritually. Praying and surviving is the heart of my faith. But there isn’t a chaplain around at those times.”

Chaplains, then, are hindered by the policies that keep them from experiencing the stresses of soldiers, and by the distrust of authority and structure inherent in Millennial faith. They are also hindered by their own doubts about their roles, and this is often due to the shifting tides of respect for religion in American culture.

One chaplain, who asked not to be identified, explained that this uncertainty among the chaplains’ corps often arises because of the military’s response to legal pressures:

“Most of us want to talk about the things soldiers need to discuss: Is this war just? Is God on our side? Is killing in this war moral? Is Islam evil? Yet every time one of these legal cases comes along, everyone gets scared that if we do anything more than pray at ceremonies and hold chapel services, we will end up in trouble. I want to serve fighting men and women while they fight. I don’t want to make the sign of the cross from a safe distance. Something’s got to change.”

The legal cases this chaplain alludes to have indeed moved many to reconsider the chaplain’s role. The simple problem is that the military chaplaincy is caught in a time warp between modern forces of secularism and the faith of the founding era. Though it is clear that early Americans were largely Christian and wanted faith at the core of society, later generations have moved away from that founding faith and have begun to interpret the Constitution accordingly.

In 1971, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), that there are three conditions the government must meet in order not to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits an enforcement of religion by the state. The government’s action must: “(1) reflect a clearly secular purpose; (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) avoid excessive government entanglement with religion.” Obviously, the military chaplaincy violates each one of these requirements.

This was a point not lost on two Harvard University law students in 1979. Building on the reasoning of Lemon v. Kurtzman, Joel Katcoff and Allen Wieder filed a lawsuit designed to challenge the constitutionality of the military chaplaincy. The suit claimed that state-financed chaplains are an establishment of religion and in violation of the First Amendment.

The case dragged on until January of 1986, and was finally dropped when Katcoff and Wieder ran out of money to fund an appeal. In Katcoff v. Marsh, 755 F.2d 223 (2d Cir. 1985), the court ruled that the military chaplaincy should remain in place to fulfill the constitutional guarantee that soldiers have freedom to exercise their religion.

The case raised serious fears, though. If two law students could nearly eradicate the military chaplaincy, the constitutional basis for the chaplains’ corps must be tenuous indeed. Moreover, the majority opinion in the case admitted that the chaplaincy was inconsistent with the three requirements in Lemon v. Kurtzman. How long would it be before judges in another case found the chaplaincy in violation of the law?

These matters loom large for military chaplains today. What they are deployed to do is under constant legal scrutiny. In 1972, a small number of cadets and midshipmen from the nation’s military academies joined together for a class action suit intended to ban compulsory chapel attendance. The effort was successful, and the resulting case, Anderson v. Laird, 466 F.2d 283 (D.C. Cir. 1972), has stood as a warning in the minds of many chaplains that the connection between religious faith and the military may one day be severed.

These same fears were awakened in 2001 when the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Virginia Military Institute on behalf of two former cadets who opposed a mandatory prayer before meals. The ACLU won the suit and immediately sent a letter warning the United States Naval Academy that it also must change its tradition of a mandatory prayer before lunch.

These efforts by the ACLU have moved several congressmen to propose a bill designed to protect prayer at the nation’s military academies. Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas have determined that the connection between faith and the training of warriors must not be severed.

“I find it incredibly ironic that liberal organizations like the ACLU are attempting to take away the very freedoms that these students are willing to go to war to protect,” Rep. Jones said.

Legal cases such as these leave many chaplains with the sense that they are living on borrowed time. “You have the ACLU and the military academy cases on the one hand,” a chaplain, who did not want to be named, complained, “and you have the fascination with faith that is thriving in American culture, particularly among the young, on the other hand.

“Chaplains are in the middle. What do you think they are going to do? They are going to do their job, but sometimes we aren’t sure where the First Amendment line is. This makes many of us hesitate to do the job we want to do: speak like prophets to men and women of God in a fight.”


Stephen Mansfield is the best-selling author of The Faith of George W. Bush, as well as a former pastor and the director of a research and publishing firm, the Mansfield Group (www.mansfieldgroup.com).

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