Religious pluralism in the United States Armed Forces

Religious pluralism in the United States Armed Forces is an essential element to Constitutional Religious Freedom. “Pluralism” is a thorny, fully-loaded, jam-packed word. In its most basic form, pluralism is, “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.[1]” Specific to “religious pluralism,” what it boils down to is the mutual respect, understanding and freedom to express any religious view freely within the community of people. I say “community of people” because the United States Armed Forces believes in and enforces religious pluralism beyond the bounds of a geographic region. Since members of the US Armed Forces are not always in the USA, I changed the terminology from “within a region” to “a community of people,” wherever they might be, in America or fighting a war in the Middle East the policy applies. No matter where the Armed Forces go, the policy of religious pluralism goes with them.

The topic of religious pluralism is tricky for a number of reasons, yet it is also necessary for a number of reasons. Religious pluralism can be over defined and over examined. One of the overkill definitions for the term is “living among others with different religious views and adapting their practices.” Basically a blending of beliefs or “syncretism.” Syncretism is, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice.[2]

Christian thinkers, as well as thinkers of other faiths, challenge this kind of pluralism. It is one thing to “co-exist” peacefully by respecting and allowing participation from all religions but it is quite another thing to adapt, blend and participate in all religions. It is honestly contradictory and actually disrespects all religions when the definition of tolerance equates to syncretism. This is because not all religions are true and equal. Not every tenant, fact and belief of all of the major religions (and minor cults) can possibly be true because there would be so many contradictions. They are not all flexible enough to co-operate even theologically. One religion says one thing about God, while another says something entirely in opposition. It is not fair to put all religions into one basket and agree with all of them equally. Something has to give. Not all roads lead to Heaven.

This idea of syncretism for all religions has been spurred on by liberalism in the past century, especially in Europe and in America. The post-modernism movement has changed the definition of respect and tolerance to mean co-operation and participation. Here is an example of the post-modern liberalism. This is the mission statement of the “Universal Life Church”: “Universal Life Church is the only interfaith ministry worldwide that opens its doors to all who seek to become an ordained minister or wedding officiate. We enable all faiths; Christians, Jew, Mormon, Pagan, Baptists and Atheist to join our church. We are a non-denominational congregation of children from the same universe. We need you.[3]” (Simply Disturbing!!).

Fortunately this is not the line the Armed Forces are holding. They believe in religious pluralism but only at the basic level, not the extreme view of syncretism, as described above. The US Armed Forces offers religious pluralism so that they can offer all soldiers serving in the military the same Constitutional liberty of religious freedom civilians enjoy. This is to say that all soldiers in the military are free to participate in any religion they choose, but they do not have to participate in all and/or any. The line of thought comes from the US Constitution and the history of our nation. We moved to found this country because we wanted political and religious reform and liberties. We wanted freedom from the forced (and corrupt) Roman Catholic faith and British monarchy.

This is where the chaplain comes into play. In order to offer all military men fair and equal religious freedoms, the Armed Forces have two options (all or nothing): eliminate all chaplains from serving all together and make soldiers fend for themselves spiritually or bring in chaplains who represent all faith groups and also require all chaplains, despite their own faith group, to serve all soldiers of all faith groups. Pentagon policy acknowledges that these days Americans practice a wider variety of religions than ever before. Prior to becoming an Army chaplain, a candidate must certify that he or she is “sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members, and civilians who work for the Army.”[4]

While the Army is vague on its exact definition of ‘pluralism’, it does provide some conceptual guidance. A requirement of entry to the Army Chaplain Corps is a signed Memorandum for Record (MFR) that reads in part,

While remaining faithful to my denominational beliefs and practices, I understand that, as a chaplain [or chaplain candidate], I must be sensitive to religious pluralism and will provide for the free exercise of religion by military personnel, their families, and other authorized personnel served by the Army. I further understand that, while the Army places a high value on the rights of its members to observe the tenets of their respective religions, accommodation is based on military need and cannot be guaranteed at all times and in all places.

I also recognize the importance of a diverse Army Chaplaincy representing all faiths, genders, and ethnic backgrounds. I fully support the diversity of the Corps that enables the branch to minister to the plurality of America’s Soldier [5]

In addition to the MFR for entry, Army Regulation 165-1, 3-3a states, “The Army recognizes that religion is constitutionally protected and does not favor one form of religious expression over another. Accordingly, all religious denominations are viewed as distinctive faith groups and all soldiers are entitled to chaplain services and support.[6]” And the chaplain is required under 4-4b of the same regulation to, “...minister to the personnel of the unit and facilitate the ‘free-exercise’ rights of all personnel, regardless of religious affiliation of either the chaplain or the unit member.[7] And the The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution AKA the Bill of Rights. reads:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances[8]."

The question on pluralism comes down to “how far do we take it?” This question comes into play for all angles of the debate….how far should a chaplain go out of his way to serve soldiers of other faith groups? Will/should he be forced to deny the values of his own religion and his own religious freedom?....how far should a chaplain go in serving the nation? Should he sacrifice the Lordship of Christ by valuing the nation and the soldiers over Jesus Christ? …How far should the commanding officers go in enforcing and allowing the chaplains to also have religious liberties? ….should a chaplain be able to evangelize? Should a chaplain be forced to be marginalized to merely be an administrative officer instead of a spiritual health advocate? How far does the military take pluralism? How are all religions treated? Equally and separate? As one spiritual mess? Or how?

The Armed Forces in America play it safe and smart. They treat all religions equally. They allow chaplains to specialize and branch out to people of their faith, but they must be willing to work with people of other faith groups and serve them equally when opportunity rises. The armed forced do not require a Baptist to lead a worship serve with Muslims to Allah, but the armed forces also do not allow proselytizing either. The Armed Forces on a whole cannot show favor to any one religion or denomination. All must be equal for their system to work. These are controls that would not work in civilian life, but this is not civilian life, this is a government-run job paid with tax-payer money! For example, Rabbi Max Wall recalls learning from Roman Catholic chaplains at Chaplain School the Roman Catholic final prayer in case he needed to minster to a dying Roman Catholic during WWII.[9]

Chaplain Joseph F. O’Donnell, C.S.C writes, “As a chaplain, I must realize that no matter how firm I feel about my own approach to God, I cannot have the last word for anyone else.” There is some rich meat here. No matter how zealous we are for our faith and for evangelism, still the other person must make his own decision on matters of faith. Let the soldiers come to you. Let the Holy Spirit work. Keep them in prayer!

What about the “serving two masters: God and the state” argument that we should not have taxpayer-funded chaplains in the military or anywhere else.” He objects, “As a Protestant,” to “tax dollars being paid to a Roman Catholic priest to conduct mass in an army barracks, a naval vessel, or a military chapel.” He adds, “Jews, Muslims, Mormons, agnostics, and atheists – if they are really serious about their religion or non-religion – should be in opposition also.”

From a biblical standpoint, are Christians prohibited from military service? No. John the Baptist told soldiers “not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). In Matthew 8:5-13 when a soldier approached him for healing, the Lord did not rebuke his military service. The Apostle Paul notes the “governing authorities” exist “from God” and “have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). St. Paul adds, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad…. for he is God’s servant for your good…. for he does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:3-4). The sword includes not only the power to carry out capital punishment, but also the authority to carry out war. [10]

My final word of thought on this topic comes from 1 Cor. 9:19-23 where Paul writes out his strategy of becoming all things to all people. We live in a culture of war. As Americans fighting against terror, our nation needs chaplains. The soldiers need Jesus too!

What is a military chaplain but a minister who becomes a soldier that he might win soldiers? To understand and minister to soldiers, the chaplain must become one of them. Isn’t that what Christ did in the incarnation, become one of us? As John 1:14 declares, “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” Therefore, Christ and Paul are our great examples for a Christian in the ministry of the military chaplain. We might be displaying and living out the only characteristics of Jesus that some of the soldiers have ever seen. [11]

In this sense, the U.S. military is both a congregation and a mission field that requires many well-trained workers to meet the needs it presents. The First Amendment allows Christians to minister in the military. However, we also have to accept that this same amendment also allows other religions and cults to enter. We must recognize that if we are there, others will be there too. How should we respond to this reality? Here are some suggestions for assisting Christian chaplains and military personnel to deal with the pluralistic environment in which they work.

The U.S. Military Chaplaincy has been around as long as our country, and it has grown to reflect the religious makeup of our country. The First Amendment, the foundation of the chaplaincy, cuts both ways: while the Christian faith is well represented in the military, other religions and cults are as well. The answer to this problem isn’t withdrawal from the military or complaining about the military and chaplains, but embracing the fact that the military needs good ministers of the gospel. Only if we as a Church educate our people in doctrine and discernment, send qualified ministers into the military, and train our young people who enlist in the military to be spiritually mature will we effectively counter the non-Christian influences present in the military.

My P.S. note is this: (I am not sure if it is sort of a prophecy or Satan trying to get to me or a lucid imagination or what…)

I have been having dreams or visions of me becoming a chaplain and then getting kicked out for being more faithful to Jesus then to Army. I imagine then to “live is Christ and to die is gain.” I think that me being kicked out for evangelizing my faith over-zealously is “for the glory of Christ” and that it is a witness for Christ. If a situation came up where my religious values where at odds with what the commanding officer asks, I honestly would choose the former. I am not saying that now I plan on or desire to get kicked out of the Army for the glory of God but I am honestly dealing with the issues of this paper in my own mind and in real life I have not even decided to join! Any thoughts/advise?


Bergen, Doris L, E, The Sword of The Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty

First Century. Notre Dame, In: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.

Malin, Don. “Military Chaplains and Religious Pluralism” http://www.wfial.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=artGeneral.article_6

Galyon, James. “military chaplaincy.”(2010). http://drjamesgalyon.wordpress.com/2010/02/15/military-chaplaincy/#comment-4074

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. s.v. “pluralism,” http://www.merriam-
webster.com/dictionary/pluralism accessed April 15, 2010.

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. s.v. “syncretism,” http://www.merriam-
webster.com/dictionary/syncretism accessed April 15, 2010.

Navy Chaplain Discharged After Prayer Fight. Church & State; Apr2007, Vol. 60 Issue 4, p3-3, 1/5p

Blackwell, Steve CH (CPT). 2008 Sample MFR.

Headquarters of the Department of the Army. 2004. Army Regulation 165-1: Chaplain Activities
in the United States Army (March, 25). By Order of the Secretary of the Army, Peter J. Schoomaker.

The Constitution of the United States," Amendment 1

[1] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. s.v. “pluralism,” http://www.merriam-
webster.com/dictionary/pluralism (accessed April 15, 2010.)

[2] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. s.v. “syncretism,” http://www.merriam-
webster.com/dictionary/syncretism (accessed April 15, 2010.)

[4] Navy Chaplain Discharged After Prayer Fight.(Church & State; Apr2007, Vol. 60 Issue 4), p3-3, 1/5p

[5] Steve Blackwell, CH (CPT). 2008 Sample MFR.

[6] Headquarters of the Department of the Army. 2004. Army Regulation 165-1: Chaplain Activities
in the United States Army (March, 25). By Order of the Secretary of the Army, Peter J.

[7] Ibid

[8] The Constitution of the United States," Amendment 1

[9] Bergen, Doris L. The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplain from the First to the Twenty-First
Century. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2004.), 190.

[11]Don Malin. “Military Chaplains and Religious Pluralism” http://www.wfial.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=artGeneral.article_6