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A Roman Catholic army chaplain celebrating a Mass for Union soldiers and officers during the American Civil War (1861–1865).

United States military chaplains hold positions in the armed forces of the United States and are charged with conducting religious services and providing counseling for their adherents. There are about 2,900 chaplains on active duty.[1]


Within the United States Department of Defense, the Armed Forces Chaplains Board (AFCB) advises the Secretary of Defense and the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness on religious, ethical, and moral matters, as well as policy issues affecting religious ministry and the free exercise of religion within the military services.[2] The three Chiefs of Chaplains and three active duty Deputy Chiefs of Chaplains of the Army, Navy, and Air Force are its members.[3]

A military chaplain must be endorsed by a religious organization in order to serve on active duty. In the contemporary U.S. military, endorsement is a complex area and many different paths are available. This religious endorsement must be maintained throughout the chaplain's military service and can be withdrawn at any time for religious or disciplinary reasons by the religious body with which the chaplain is affiliated,[4][5] though provisions exist for exceptional cases.[6][7] A military chaplain's rank is based on years of service and promotion selection from the appropriate peer group. Each is identified in uniform both by rank and religious affiliation insignia that indicate as well the branch of service.


Chaplains have served in the various branches of the United States armed forces since their formation, including in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Congress authorized the hiring of an Army chaplain in 1791.[8]

General Carl Spaatz, the first Air Force Chief of Staff, ordered the institution of a separate Air Force chaplaincy on May 10, 1948.[citation needed]

The U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard do not have their own chaplaincies, but are served by the Navy Chaplain Corps.[9]

Expanding role of military chaplains

In 1999, Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, a US chaplain, proposed widening the chaplain's role to include that of engagement with local religious leaders in conflict zones to improve the military's understanding of local religious issues and include chaplains in the conflict prevention and reconciliation processes.[10] This outreach is part of the duties listed for chaplains in Joint Publication 1-05 on chaplain operations.[citation needed]

The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers supports expanding chaplain services to support atheists and humanists. Whether they are already required to support such non-theists is disputed. Chaplains are not trained to provide such support and often oppose doing so.[11][12]



Jewish Worship Pennant, flying over the National Ensign (American flag) on a US Navy ship.[13]

Two Harvard law students brought a suit in 1979 arguing that military chaplains should be replaced with non-combat volunteers or contractors. In Katcoff v. Marsh (1985),[14] The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit determined that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit and upheld the right of the military to employ chaplains. According to one analysis of the case, the court analysis described the First Amendment's free exercise clause and establishment clause as separate issues. It noted that only the wealthiest religious sects could provide chaplains for their adherents, effectively denying to other military personnel the "free exercise" of their religion.[15] The court also established guidelines for the military's chaplaincy programs, emphasizing the constitutional boundaries governing the program's administration and operations, including accommodating the rights and beliefs of each service member, and the avoidance of evangelizing and involuntary participation in religious observances.[16] A contrary view holds that the military chaplaincy violates two requirements of the establishment clause, neutrality and non-entanglement, by promoting ecumenism, conflating military and religious functions, and controlling expenditures.[17] It cited the difficulties faced by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran since World War II in attempting to service its adherents in the military outside of the chaplaincy program rather than submit to military authority.[18]

In May 2007, Christopher Hitchens said:[19]

I don't think that we should be paying for chaplains...I don't think that the U.S. government should be employing any. James Madison, co-author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and of the First Amendment was very adamant on the point, and very clear. There shouldn't's flat-out unconstitutional to pay or to employ a chaplain ... to be in the Armed Forces.

Restrictions on religious observance or expression

Some have criticized what they feel is an effort upon the part of the United States military to put pressure upon chaplains to promote universalism, even if their personal religious beliefs and affiliation do not endorse the concept. On the other hand, many military leaders, including senior chaplains,[vague]

have taken the position that the rights of others to their beliefs must be respected, without necessarily respecting the rightness (or truth) of their beliefs,[citation needed] which might be called pluralism rather than universalism. Chaplains in the United States, like all U.S. military officers, take an oath to protect and defend the constitution, which includes the right of religious free exercise. Chaplains are expected to support the rights of personnel of all faiths to their "free exercise of religion," while maintaining their own personal right to disagree with the beliefs of others.

A September 14, 2006, court-martial resulted in a reprimand and fine for US Navy Chaplain Lt. Gordon Klingenschmitt, an evangelical Protestant, who participated in uniform at a March 2006 protest in front of the White House, though he had been given a direct order not to wear his uniform. The protest was in support of his and other chaplains' complaint that the military restricted the free exercise of their religion by allowing only non-sectarian prayers at public ceremonies.[20]

Denominational favoritism

In August 2002, the D.C. District Court granted class action status to a lawsuit on the part 17 evangelical Protestant chaplains who challenged the Navy's chaplain-selection criteria.[21] They argued that the Navy adhered to a promotion formula that underrepresented "non-liturgical" Protestant chaplains by allotting positions in three equal parts—liturgical Protestant denominations such as such as Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians; Catholics; and non-liturgical Protestant denominations such as Baptists, evangelicals, Bible churches, Pentecostals, charismatics and other faiths—though non-liturgical Protestants constitute far more than one-third of the Navy's service members.[22] In April 2007, the court held that the Navy had abandoned the thirds policy and that its current criteria were constitutional because the Navy has broad discretion to determine how to accommodate the religious needs of its service members. This decision was affirmed in 2008 by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.[citation needed]


Numerous complaints have been made against chaplains for mandatory prayers, coercion, and using government money to promote Evangelical Christianity.[23][24][25][26][27] Atheists, whose religious position would not be represented by references to a generic God or in the "spiritual fitness" initiatives of the Army, have created groups to ensure the separation of church and state in the military.[23][28] Groups representing atheists have advocated the appointment of a non-believer to the chaplaincy.[29]

Sexual orientation

During the 1992 presidential campaign, the possibility of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military became a political issue. During the summer, Capt. Larry H. Ellis, a Navy chaplain, sent senior military officers and senior chaplains his analysis that said: "In the unique, intensely close environment of the military, homosexual conduct can threaten the lives, including the physical (e.g. AIDS) and psychological well-being of others". He called the presence of homosexuals in the military a "physical and psychological" threat. Advocates of the policy objected that the Department of Defense might exploit Ellis' role as a chaplain in opposing the policy: "It's as if the religious attribution somehow gives their argument more credibility."[30]

Chaplain groups and religious organizations took various positions on "Don't ask, don't tell" (DADT). Some felt that the policy needed to be withdrawn to make the military more inclusive. The Southern Baptist Convention battled the repeal of DADT, warning that their endorsements for chaplains might be withdrawn if the repeal took place.[31][32] They took the position that allowing gay men and women to serve in the military without restriction would have a negative impact on the ability of chaplains who think homosexuality is a sin to speak freely regarding their religious beliefs. The Roman Catholic Church called for the retention of the policy, but had no plans to withdraw its priests from serving as military chaplains.[33] Sixty-five retired chaplains signed a letter opposing repeal, stating that repeal would make it impossible for chaplains whose faith teaches that same-sex behavior is immoral to minister to military servicemembers.[34] Other religious organizations and agencies called the repeal of the policy a "non-event" or "non-issue" for chaplains, claiming that chaplains have always supported military service personnel, whether or not they agree with all their actions or beliefs.[35][36][37]

In May 2011, revelations that an April Navy memo relating to its DADT training guidelines contemplated allowing same-sex weddings in base chapels and allowing chaplains to officiate if they so chose resulted in a letter of protest from 63 Republican congressman, citing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as controlling the use of federal property.[38] A Pentagon spokesperson replied that DOMA "does not limit the type of religious ceremonies a chaplain may perform in a chapel on a military installation", and a Navy spokesperson said that "A chaplain can conduct a same-sex ceremony if it is in the tenets of his faith".[39] A few days later the Navy rescinded its earlier instructions "pending additional legal and policy review and interdepartmental coordination."[40]

On September 30, 2011, Under Secretary of Defense Clifford Stanley announced the DOD's policy that military chaplains are allowed to perform same-sex marriages "on or off a military installation" where local law permits them. His memo noted that "a chaplain is not required to participate in or officiate a private ceremony if doing so would be in variance with the tenets of his or her religion" and "a military chaplain's participation in a private ceremony does not constitute an endorsement of the ceremony by DoD".[41] Some religious groups announced that their chaplains would not participate in such weddings, including an organization of evangelical Protestants, the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty[42] and Roman Catholics led by Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.[43]

Free speech

A January 5, 1991, letter to the Abilene Reporter-News from Lieutenant Colonel Garland Robertson, a Southern Baptist US Air Force chaplain who had served as a reconnaissance pilot during the Vietnam War and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, questioned the use of U.S. military force against Iraq. He wrote that "The need to use military force in this circumstance ... is an open issue." When reprimanded, he wrote a lengthy rebuttal that he shared with the press. Air Force officials noted that he identified himself by rank to the newspaper, when he could have written as a private citizen. Robertson's orders to relocate to Germany were canceled. He submitted to three psychological examinations, and was relieved of his pastoral duties. He was honorably discharged without benefits in September 1993 based on a record of "poor leadership". He told the New York Times: "If you're consistent with the teachings of your church, there will always be tensions between being a minister and being an officer".[44] He initiated a lawsuit and lost in both the District Court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found his free speech rights had not been violated, noted that "a chaplain is a member of both military and religious denomination institutions", and reaffirmed the lower court's finding "that the conflict between the Air Force and [Robertson] as an Air Force chaplain does not establish a constitutional violation of the religion clauses."[45]

Chaplain deaths while on active duty

Death during service (combat and non-combat)[46]


See also


  1. Christianity Today: Sarah Pulliam Bailey, "Chaplains Watch and Wait after DADT Ends," September 22, 2011, accessed March 5, 2012
  2. Department of Defense, Personnel and Readiness: "Armed Forces Chaplains Board Mission, accessed March 5, 2012
  3. Defense Technical Information Center: "DOD Instruction 5120.08," August 20, 2007, accessed March 5, 2012
  4. Army Chaplain Corps: Requirements webpage. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  5. Air Force Chaplain Corps official website. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  6. If a chaplain notifies his or her endorsing agent in writing of intent to seek endorsement in a different faith group, the code of ethics of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF)—the principal organization of endorsing agents—requires the chaplain's current endorser to continue endorsement until the chaplain is able to meet requirements for endorsement by the second faith group unless there is a moral charge against the chaplain that would otherwise have resulted in revocation of endorsement. See [1] NCMAF Code of Ethics. Retrieved 2011-09-06.
  7. [2] NCMAF Procedures for Change of Religious Body (Denomination) Endorsement. Retrieved 2011-09-06.
  8. Kenneth Lasson, "Religious Liberty in the Military: The First Amendment under 'Friendly Fire'", Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 9, no. 2 (1992), 471–99, 493
  9. United States Navy,
  10. Greenberg, Eric J. (July 23, 1999). "Vatican Rep Accuses Israel Of 'Blood Libel,' Harsh Exchange Seen As Major Interfaith Setback". Retrieved March 10, 2013. 
  13. Per Navy customs, traditions and etiquette, Worship Pennants may be flown above the Ensign "Naval Customs, Traditions, & Etiquette – Church Pennant". US Fleet Forces. United States Navy. 
  14. Katcoff v. Marsh, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Retrieved 2010-09-09. See also Israel Drazin and Cecil B. Currey, For God and Country: The History of a Constitutional Challenge to the Army Chaplaincy (Hoboken, New Jersey: KTAV Publishing, 1995)
  15. University of Toledo Law Review: Richard D. Rosen, "Katcoff v. Marsh at Twenty-One: The Military Chaplaincy and the Separation of Church and State", 1144-45, retrieved 2010-09-09
  16. Rosen, 1178
  17. Julie B. Kaplan, "Military Mirrors on the Wall: Nonestablishment and the Military Chaplaincy," Yale Law Journal, vol. 95, no. 6 (May 1986), 1210-36, esp. 1212–19, 1227–32
  18. Kaplan, "Military Mirrors," 1222-3
  19. Google Video: Debate between Christopher Hitchens and Rev. Al Sharpton
  20. Washington Post: Alan Cooperman, "Navy Chaplain Guilty Of Disobeying an Order," September 15, 2006, accessed March 2, 2012. Military policies allow participation in such events by military personnel, so long as they did not wear uniforms or appear to be in attendance in a way that gives the appearance of endorsement by the military.
  21. New York Times: "Evangelical Chaplains' Class-Action Suit Accuses Navy of Bias," August 22, 2002, accessed March 3, 2012
  22. Stars and Stripes
  23. 23.0 23.1 MAAF (2009). Military Atheists Agnostics and Freethinkers. Retrieved November 28, 2010
  24. LaGrone, S. (2008). "Soldier alleges religious bias at Lakenheath". Retrieved November 28, 2010
  25. Military Religious Freedom Foundation (n.d.) Retrieved January 4, 2011
  26. Jones, W. (2010). "Air Force Academy Cites Progress In Tackling Religious Intolerance", Huffington Post, Retrieved November 28, 2010]
  27. Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (n.d.) Report on chaplains. Retrieved November 28, 2010
  28. Military Religious Freedom Foundation (n.d.) Retrieved January 4, 2011
  29. James Dao (2011-04-26). "Atheists Seek Chaplain Role in the Military". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011–04-08. 
  30. The New York Times: Eric Schmitt, "Marine Corps Chaplain Says Homosexuals Threaten Military," August 26, 1992, accessed February 27, 2012
  31. "Baptists, Catholics Threaten to Withdraw Chaplains Over DADT," November 1, 2010, accessed February 16, 2012
  32. Banks, Adelle M. (June 19, 2010). "Southern Baptists Convention fighting 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal". The Washington Post. 
  33. Post Store (June 19, 2010). "Southern Baptists Convention fighting 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 13, 2010. 
  34. Washington Times: "Retired chaplains back 'don't ask'," October 31, 2010, accessed February 16, 2012
  35. "Religious Organizations Support 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' Repeal". HRC Back Story. April 28, 2010. Retrieved October 13, 2010. 
  36. "Servicemembers Legal Defense Network". August 4, 2010. Retrieved October 13, 2010. 
  37. Resnicoff, Arnold E. (July 14, 2010). "If gays serve openly, will chaplains suffer? No, the mission is to serve all troops.". USA Today. Retrieved October 13, 2010. 
  38. ABC News: Devin Dwyer, "'Don't Ask, Don't Tell': Navy OKs Bases, Chaplains for Same-Sex Marriages After Repeal," May 10, 2011, accessed February 21, 2012
  39. CNN: Charley Keyes, "Navy plan to allow same-sex marriage on bases draws opposition," May 9, 2011, accessed February 21, 2012
  40. ABC News: Devin Dwyer, "Navy Scraps Rules on Gay Marriages After GOP Protest, " May 11, 2011, accessed February 21, 2011
  41. CNN: Charley Keyes, "Military chaplains allowed to perform same-sex weddings," September 30, 2011, accessed February 21, 2012
  42. Christian Post: Paul Stanley, "Evangelical Chaplains Refuse to Marry Gay Couples on Military Bases, October 6, 2011, accessed March 3, 2012
  43. Army Times: Andrew Tilghman, "Church leader opposes DoD on same-sex weddings," September 30, 2011, accessed March 5, 2012
  44. New York Times: Eric Schmitt, "Military Chaplain Fights A Battle Over Loyalties' December 21, 1993, accessed March 2, 2012
  45. Robertson v. USA, May 1, 1998, accessed March 2, 2012
  46. Phillips, Michael M. (2010-09-04). "A Chaplain and an Atheist Go to War". The Wall Street Journal. 
  47. This count does not include Chaplain (Father) Tim Vakoc who died in September 2009, five years after he was critically wounded in Iraq.

Further reading

  • Stephen L. Harris, Duffy's War: Fr. Francis Duffy, Wild Bill Donovan, and the Irish Fighting 69th in World War I (Potomac Books, 2006)
  • Israel A. S. Yost, Rebecca Salter, Monica Elizabeth Yost, Michael Markrich, Combat Chaplain: The Personal Story of the World War II Chaplain of the Japanese American 100th Battalion (University of Hawaii Press, 2006)
  • Warren B. Armstrong, For Courageous Fighting and Confident Dying: Union Chaplains in the Civil War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998)
  • Doris. L. Bergen, ed., The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004)
  • Richard M. Budd, Serving Two Masters: The Development of American Military Chaplaincy, 1860–1920 (University of Nebraska Press, 2002)
  • Dom Aidan Henry Germain, Catholic Military and Naval Chaplains 1776–1917 (Washington, D.C., 1929)
  • Hansen, Kim Philip (2012). Military Chaplains and Religious Diversity. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-137-02515-9. 
  • J. William Jones, Christ in the Camp: Religion in Lee's Army (Diggory Press)
  • Anne C. Loveland, American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942–1993 (Louisiana State University Press, 1996)
  • Robert Nay, "The Operational, Social, Religious Influences Upon The Army Chaplain Field Manual, 1926–1952" (Master's theses, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2008)
  • Herman Norton, Rebel Religion: The Story of Confederate Chaplains (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1961)
  • Albert Isaac Slomovitz, The Fighting Rabbis: Jewish Military Chaplains and American History (New York University Press, 1999)
  • Willard L. Sperry, ed., Religion of Soldier and Sailor (Harvard University Press, 1945)
  • Sybil Thornton, "Buddhist Chaplains in the Field of Battle" in Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995)

External links

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