It's Time for Secular Chaplains in the Army

It's Time for Secular Chaplains in the Army
Illustration by Claire Doyle Ragin
It's Time for Secular Chaplains in the Army
Illustration by Claire Doyle Ragin
Story Stream
recent articles


“The mission of the U.S. Army Chaplains Corps is to provide religious support to America's Army. Chaplains advise commanders to ensure the 'free exercise' rights for all Soldiers are upheld - including those who hold no faith.  - Mr. Jonathan C Miele (U.S. Army Chaplain Corps)

The “free exercise” of religion, including that of many atheist, agnostic, and non-religiously affiliated soldiers, not only upholds the secular nature of the country’s founding, but also ensures the care and welfare of all soldiers.  However, in some cases, religion is often advocated at the expense of those not affiliated with the same religion or any religion.

About five years ago, an acquaintance tried to convert me to Christianity. Even after I politely declined her offer, several months later, she attempted to give me a copy of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, presumably as a Hanukkah gift, which I also turned down (although I did compliment her persistence).

I recognize that this incident was probably an anomaly. I am not under the impression that soldiers are regularly evangelizing their battle buddies. However, this experience and various observations that followed made me profoundly aware that there are forces in the Army, likely from both above and below, injecting religion where it does not belong.

Without even broaching soldier demographics, it is clear that the military’s structure alone is highly receptive to religion. The Chaplain Corps is comprised of noncombatants in uniform charged with providing religious support to soldiers, civilians, and their families. Chaplains are also trained to counsel soldiers. Consequently, commanders often send struggling soldiers to their unit’s chaplain, who have the authority to refer them to the Behavioral Health Department.

For those from a more secular background, the ubiquity of the chaplain in the Army is striking. The chaplain is present at virtually every unit function and training event. Formal events almost always include invocations and benedictions, effectively prescribing the chaplain a role in all of these occasions. According to AR 165-1: Army Chaplain Corps Activities, chaplains, have “direct access to the commander,” so their presence is predictable.

There is a reasonable justification behind the Chaplain Corps. The above regulation mentions the “religious, moral, and spiritual health” of the Army. Soldiers should have access to this kind of support, particularly on deployment. After all, over 75 percent of soldiers report having a religious preference.

I am not arguing against the Chaplain Corps’ existence. However, the Chaplain Corps cannot support all soldiers comprehensively with its current structure. Moreover, too many chaplains invoke religion, and often their own, at inappropriate times. This not only erodes the separation of church and state and potentially the First Amendment’s establishment clause, but also fails the soldiers, whom the Chaplain Corps is designed to support. The Chaplain Corps and commanders, who are accountable for the Army’s religious program, need to better internalize this delicate balance – between providing soldiers religious support and protecting the Constitution and the separation of church and state.

Let’s begin with the Chaplain Corps’ structure. Assuming religious demographics have not deviated since 2014 (which they likely haven’t, according to the chaplains who assisted me with this project), there are about 1,465 Protestant chaplains in the Army, comprising 92 percent of the Chaplain Corps. Next in descending order are Catholic chaplains at 100, followed by 12 Jewish chaplains, nine Orthodox chaplains, four Muslim chaplains, two Buddhist chaplains, and one Hindu chaplain. Those who defend this demographic breakdown are under the false impression that this more or less reflects soldier religious preferences.

However, it does not. The Chaplain Corps does not represent the soldiers it is intended to support. The Army’s secular population currently have no chaplain support whatsoever. In the military at large, the number of atheists exceeds each non-Christian group, yet they are unrepresented in the Chaplain Corps. (As an aside, the evidence indicating that the Protestant presence in the Chaplain Corps far exceeds that of the general soldier population warrants a discussion as well. I deemed such a discussion outside the scope of this piece.)

Functionally, unit chaplains do more than provide religious support to soldiers. The chaplain is the only individual organic to an Army unit who serves as a counselor. This means that regardless of a soldier’s religious preference or lack thereof if he or she needs counseling, the only uniformed option is the (most likely Protestant) chaplain. It should be noted that the Army also offers Military and Family Life Consultants (MFLCs), intended to provide non-medical counseling to soldiers and their families. But while these counselors are secular, they are also civilians. They may not be able to empathize with soldiers as well as counselors in uniform. Further, MFLCs do not accompany units on deployments – perhaps when counseling is needed most.

Despite the substantial population of atheist, agnostic, and non-religiously affiliated soldiers, the Chief of Chaplains opposes adding secular chaplains to his ranks.

Finally, we must acknowledge the transgressions within the Chaplain Corps – more specifically, the injection of religion at inappropriate times. The establishment clause effectively bars chaplains from using their own religious symbols and allusions at secular unit functions and training events. Yet, there are chaplains who spurn the Constitution by, for example, invoking Jesus in nondenominational settings. Soldiers continue to report receiving unsolicited religious advice or even evangelizing during counseling sessions with chaplains.

This behavior is not the norm in the Chaplain Corps. There are many incredible chaplains in the Army, some of whom I have had the privilege of working with. But even occasional lapses are unacceptable because they are not simply indiscretions. At the core of this discussion are the soldiers, whom the chaplains are charged to support, and the Constitution, which we are duty-bound to support and defend. Undoubtedly, adding secular chaplains to our ranks would help the Chaplain Corps reach more of our soldiers, and “[strike] a balance between the establishment and free exercise clauses,” as its regulation purports to do.

The health of our force is the essence of readiness. This means supporting soldiers of every religious faith – as well as the absence of faith. This is our responsibility. We can do better.


Lindsay Gabow is an active duty officer in the U.S. Army

The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Show comments Hide Comments