Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America, by Ronit Y. Stahl. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017, 384 pages, $39.95.

Conservative Christians in the United States often lament the indifference of federal and state governments to religion. Whether the complaint takes the form of objecting to secularization or the loss more generally of shared moral standards based on Christian convictions, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike since the 1960s have faulted American government officials and institutions for excluding religion from public life. Rarely do these criticisms mention the US military’s chaplaincy program as one way that American government actually recognizes and encourages religion. One reason for overlooking the work of chaplains in all branches of the military may be that such religious service only compounds the problems that arise from religious freedom and the diversity it encourages.

Even when the government recognizes the importance of religion for those serving in the armed forces, the state winds up encouraging the sort of diversity and tolerance to which many conservative Christians object. Indeed, if anyone ever wanted to contemplate what an established religion might look like in the United States, and how government agencies might try to regulate the nation’s religious diversity, the military’s chaplaincy program should be the first item to consider. Here the government establishes criteria for which faiths to include, what kind of training chaplains must have, and what sort of spiritual work they should perform. The chaplaincy is, no matter what the First Amendment says, an establishment of religion. Yet, the military’s supervision of ministry hardly shows theological or spiritual discernment. It is, what religious establishments usually become, a pragmatic arrangement to use religion for national ends.

This is the implicit argument of Ronit Y. Stahl’s Enlisting Faith, a fascinating account of the ways that US military officials tried to harness religion for national aims while also striving to serve the spiritual needs of soldiers. For the most part, the clergy who functioned as chaplains were glad to minister among the soldiers and generally supported the United States’ twentieth-century war efforts as extensions of a generic faith and global brotherhood. During World War I, for instance, one manual instructed chaplains that though they might be constrained by the communions that had ordained them, a chaplain “should preach such sermons as would be spiritually helpful to everyone, without discussing dogmatic or controversial doctrines” (23). During World War II, the nationalistic dimension of the chaplaincy became even more pronounced, for example, when another report claimed that military chaplains “give our democratic faith a very large measure of its strength” and implicitly demonstrated the weakness of totalitarian regimes that, because of their unbelief or ideology, spurned the Judeo-Christian tradition’s “moral law and individual dignity” (144). Only with the Vietnam War did the chaplaincy begin to question the nation’s military and foreign policy aims. When brutalities from that war surfaced, chaplains found it easier to recognize that “Jesus Christ knows no national boundaries” and to criticize America’s civil religion (212).

If military chaplains echoed the American public’s understanding of the nation’s wars, they also, as Stahl shows, reflected the religious diversity of the United States. During World War I, the Protestant mainline churches dominated the chaplaincy even as the military included Roman Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis to honor the “tri-faith” character of the American people. During World War II, the chaplaincy started to include in a deliberate way African-American clergy. Another spurt of inclusiveness came during the Vietnam War when the military approved policies to allow Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even atheists to occupy positions among the chaplaincy. The intent was to serve as many soldiers as possible, which meant recognizing clergy from as many religions as possible.

That effort to adapt the chaplaincy to the religious backgrounds of soldiers and officers was a challenge and not always successful. Stahl opens her narrative with the case of a Leonard Shapiro who died during World War II. Military officials had him buried as a Roman Catholic with appropriate services and a cross on his grave. Shapiro sounded like an Italian-American name and so the chaplain responsible for overseeing the burial ceremonies called for a Roman Catholic observance. But in point of fact, Shapiro was Jewish and Leonard’s mother was shocked to learn that her son had received last rites. Eventually, the military caught up to the diversity of American faiths and Stahl closes her account with the case of Captain Humayun Khan who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and received a Muslim burial, complete with the star and crescent on his grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

Stahl resists the predictable judgments—either that chaplains violate the separation of church and state or give up religious integrity to gain the military’s favor—that might give reasons for abolishing the chaplaincy. Her primary purpose is to examine military chaplains as one of those rare occasions where the American government interacted directly with and cultivated the services of religious institutions. He acknowledges that this was both a religious and political “project.” In the end, the chaplaincy also gave legitimacy to the religious diversity of the United States and was an unwitting agent in the decline of Protestant hegemony in national life. That story has many lessons to consider about the inherent dangers to faith that come with the state’s sponsorship and oversight.

Darryl G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, May 2018.

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Ordained Servant: May 2018

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