Evangelical Chaplains Test Bounds of Faith in Military The percentage of Evangelical Christian chaplains in the military is higher than their faith's representation in the ranks. The military directs them not to proselytize, but many say that would force them to deny a basic tenet of their faith.

Evangelical Chaplains Test Bounds of Faith in Military

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

A battle over religion is under way inside the US military, and it's playing out in the Chaplain Corps of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Here's the conflict. Most chaplains are evangelical Christians. They're obligated to spread their faith. The military, however, has rules that limit proselytizing. So there's tension. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has been the scene of the most recent incidents. Evangelicals there have been accused of inappropriately pushing their religion on cadets and on staff. As NPR's Jeff Brady reports, the conflict reaches far beyond the academy.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

Most of us know very little about military chaplains. There was that one fellow from the 1970s.

(Soundbite of "M*A*S*H" theme song)

BRADY: Father Mulcahy counseled soldiers as MASH doctors sewed up the wounded. Everyone knew Mulcahy was a Catholic priest, but he also looked after non-Catholics. In one episode he actually performed a bris with help from a rabbi who sent instructions by Morse code from a faraway ship.

(Soundbite of "M*A*S*H")

Mr. GARY BURGHOFF: (As Radar O'Reilly) (Hebrew spoken)

Mr. WILLIAM CHRISTOPHER: (As Father Mulcahy) (Hebrew spoken)

Mr. BURGHOFF: (Hebrew spoken)

Mr. CHRISTOPHER: (Hebrew spoken)

BRADY: Back when "M*A*S*H" was new to the airwaves, John Gundlach with the United Church of Christ was just starting his career as a Navy chaplain. He says there were only a handful of religious groups with chaplains at the time.

Mr. JOHN GUNDLACH (Navy Chaplain): Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC, Lutheran, Jewish and a few other faith groups.

BRADY: And when you look around today what do you see the majority of denominations being?

Mr. GUNDLACH: We still have those same groups represented, but there are a lot more of the evangelical faith groups represented.

BRADY: In fact, military statistics show evangelicals now hold nearly 60 percent of all chaplain positions. H.B. London with the evangelical group Focus on the Family says that's not so surprising. Evangelical churches have grown rapidly. Now there are 20 million Southern Baptists in the country.

Mr. H.B. LONDON (Focus on the Family): Well, naturally there's going to be a greater proportion of Southern Baptists who are in military. And as a result of that, they will endorse more chaplains than, say, the Presbyterian Church, who may have five million members and fewer young men and women in the military.

BRADY: Air Force Chief of Chaplains Charles Baldwin is a Baptist. He says he tries to recruit Catholics and mainline Christians to the chaplaincy, but they're hard to find.

Mr. CHARLES BALDWIN (Air Force Chief of Chaplains): As the Air Force we're not saying let's go hire evangelicals today. We're looking at those who have presented their credentials and want to serve the men and women in the Air Force.

BRADY: The military fell out of favor with many mainline denominations during the Vietnam War, but among evangelicals, who tend to be politically conservative, the military is quite popular. While only half of Americans belong to a church, more than 80 percent of people in the military do and the majority of them are evangelicals, and evangelicals have never been shy about proclaiming their faith. Just turn your radio dial.

(Soundbite of religious programming)

Unidentified Man: I said the same power that it took to raise Jesus Christ from the dead is available in your life.

BRADY: This kind of hard-sell evangelism rubs people of other faiths the wrong way. Army Chief of Chaplains David Hicks is a Presbyterian. He prefers to teach by example.

Mr. DAVID HICKS (Army Chief of Chaplains): If I'm doing that effectively, it will cause people to see that and possibly want to have that same faith themselves. But the changing of people, I leave that up to God.

BRADY: His soft sell is an easier fit in the military because there are rules that say chaplains may only evangelize the so-called unchurched. In other words, it's not OK to go after another chaplain's flock. Those rules are still in place today, but John Gundlach with the United Church of Christ says not all evangelicals follow them.

Mr. GUNDLACH: I think the proselytizing is being done much more actively now than it had been in the past.

BRADY: Mainline chaplains complain that not only do evangelicals bend the proselytizing rules, many of them also refuse to be ecumenical while carrying out their duties. Some pray to Jesus instead of the more generic God, and a few refuse to tone down the talk of blood, Calvary and salvation. Gordon James Klingenschmitt is an evangelical Navy chaplain. He says he's about to lose his job because of the way he conducted a public memorial service.

Mr. GORDON JAMES KLINGENSCHMITT (Navy Chaplain): I quoted John 3:36, and this verse is very controversial, very non-pluralistic. And it says if you believe in the Son you have eternal life. If you don't believe in Jesus, you don't have eternal life for God's wrath remains upon you.

BRADY: Klingenschmitt says he was reprimanded even though federal law says chaplains have the right to practice their own faith.

Mr. KLINGENSCHMITT: I don't know why my commanding officer punished me for my sermon except that I think he wanted me to preach a different message. In other words, he wanted me to preach their faith instead of preaching my own faith.

BRADY: While most mainline chaplains feel they can lead a non-sectarian service without compromising their faith, Klingenschmitt says he cannot. What sets evangelical Christianity apart is its mandate to bring others to the faith. So asking Klingenschmitt to be ecumenical is an unacceptable compromise. He also says the military is establishing a pluralistic religion akin to what Unitarians practice. Army Chief of Chaplains David Hicks rejects that argument.

Mr. HICKS: In my capacity as a chaplain I'm always wanting to make sure that I'm reaching out to people and not pushing people away. So I don't think I'm setting up a new religion by expecting chaplains to take a look at who the audience is that they're praying before because their responsibility then is to lead people in prayer and not to dictate to them how they should pray.

BRADY: Evangelical chaplains are taking their case outside the military. One group filed a class-action lawsuit against the Navy alleging they were denied promotions because they're evangelical Christians, and they're getting support from people like H.B. London of Focus on the Family.

Mr. LONDON: I think the military now, from what I read, they're trying to downplay one's faith and one's commitment to a specific theology which, I think, is--well, I just think that's like saying for an American not to speak English because you're in a foreign country.

BRADY: North Carolina Republican Congressman Walter Jones is working on legislation that would allow chaplains to express their faith openly without fear of retribution. But critics of the military chaplaincies always come back to the numbers. There are just too many evangelical chaplains, says Barry Lynn with Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Mr. BARRY LYNN (Americans United for Separation of Church and State): It does raise the question of whether we are effectively as a country with tax dollars promoting a particular evangelical religious viewpoint, and that's very troubling.

BRADY: Lynn also says the military chaplaincies have grown too large. He says chaplains are really only needed when troops are deployed to far-off countries. Otherwise, he says, there are plenty of civilian churches near most military bases. The heads of the military chaplaincies say they're committed to providing spiritual assistance to soldiers in a pluralistic environment. The Air Force is working on guidelines to address proselytizing at its academy, and military leaders say those could become a model for religious expression throughout the armed forces. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can learn more about that story and read about what's called the Soldier's Bible at our Web site, npr.org.


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