The military is optimizing religious diversity for military priorities and are making chaplaincies an integral part of its efforts to maintain “full-spectrum dominance,” writes Ed Waggoner (Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, TX) in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (September).
While military chaplaincies have a long history and are seen as being of benefit both to individuals and to unit effectiveness, the argument for supporting chaplaincies is no longer an explicit Christian concern, as it often used to be, but more about pressing for the First Amendment right to exercise one’s religion freely. This has led to more diversity (first Muslim chaplain in the Navy in 1996, first Buddhist chaplain in 2004, first Unitarian Universalist in 2005), but it does not yet reflect the respective shares of different religious traditions within the military.
Waggoner adds that the military’s chaplaincy staffing choices are closely linked to wider debates about what counts as religion. Since 2003, the operative definitions for “religion” are no longer implicit. Following congressional pressure to scrutinize Muslim chaplains, a group recognized by the IRS, as a “church,” must endorse every chaplaincy candidate. A group’s license to field candidates can be revoked if the group is deemed dangerous to the state. “The IRS and civilian endorsers provide crucial pieces for chaplaincy bricolage, but the military retains complete control of its hiring decisions.”
While the Pentagon moves toward more pluralistic chaplaincies with the benefits they bring—credibility of the military claim to religious diversity and showing a respect for constitutional rights—there are barriers to increased diversity, too. There remains strong political opposition to the inclusion of groups such as Wicca in the chaplaincies. Due to the increase in the share of conservative, evangelical chaplains, there is little inclination from many chaplains, and their endorsing communities, to encourage greater diversity. The hiring process would require a thorough overhaul: educational requirements remain based on Christian and Jewish seminary models.
For the military, Waggoner argues, chaplains are meant to promote what is conducive to the projection of national power. The purpose is thus not to maximize, but to optimize diversity for military success. Donning military uniforms, chaplains are “force multipliers,” who contribute to forge a tightly bonded fighting force. They have to work toward the success of any given mission. They also fulfill a role of “moral calibrators,” expected to prevent excesses against enemies, but at the same time to counter moral objections to missions. Chaplains can also be assigned as “religious leader liaisons” in areas of operations.
In some areas, the military sees the advantage of putting a Muslim chaplain before certain audiences, for instance. Sometimes, they are called to help to (re)build military chaplaincies in allied countries. “By deploying chaplaincies in these outward-facing roles, the U.S. military arguably becomes a global religious actor,” even if there is little critical analyses of that role and its impact, Waggoner concludes.
(Journal of the American Academy of Religion, http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org)