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Military chaplains' role evolving while under fire from critics
Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, doesn't approve of "dominionist" Christian pastors proselytizing. He said clerics should offer candy as a way of making their availability to military personnel known. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
Some 240 years after the Continental Congress authorized the presence of chaplains in the colonist's revolutionary forces, do clergy in the military still have a prayer?

Critics of chaplaincy decry any attempt to proselytize, saying those clergy who insist on fidelity to their own doctrines should resign. And as the makeup of the U.S. armed forces changes, the spiritual needs of service members is evolving as well.

All that's a lot to handle for a chaplain, even one wearing the same camouflage uniform as the soldiers they serve.

"The growing diversity of the military population has meant focusing on really listening and hearing, rather than coming at them from our own theological backgrounds," said U.S. Army Capt. Prathima Dharm, who is based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She said a soldier's spirituality is often "fluid," something Dharm herself experienced. Joining the Army in 2006 as a Christian chaplain, Dharm returned to her family's religious roots during her service, eventually becoming the Army's first Hindu chaplain.

"As an interfaith and Hindu chaplain, I saw a lot more commonality of needs between the soldiers of diverse population than differences," said Dharm, who left the military in the autumn of 2014.

When she was deployed to Afghanistan, Dharm recalled, one of the most meaningful encounters she had with a soldier was when, at 4 a.m., she cooked them some eggs. It wasn't a scripture study, but it was a means to connect on a human level.

"I remember coming in as a very young chaplain and listening to a very senior chaplain who said, 'If there is no relationship, everything else does not matter,'" Dharm recalled. "To be able to better serve and understand the soldiers and their families, one must build relationships with them first."

Although the U.S. military's composition is about 60 percent Christian, with Protestants and Roman Catholics comprising the largest segment of that cohort, there are growing numbers of non-believers and adherents of minority faiths, a 2012 survey by the independent Military Times newspaper reported. According to that poll, nearly 20 percent of service members identified themselves as having either no religious affiliation or as being atheistic or agnostic.

This change, along with the end of the armed forces' "don't ask/don't tell" policy concerning homosexuality, has created a new reality for chaplains, observers say, and may even raise the question of how religiously specific a chaplain can be, either in the pulpit or in counseling situations.

Candy distribution

A nonsectarian outreach by chaplains such as Capt. Dharm's suits Mikey Weinstein just fine. In fact, the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation would prefer that approach. A self-described "Jewish agnostic," Weinstein, a former Air Force officer, is noted for barraging military installations with complaints about what they consider overzealous clergy in uniform.

"One of our best chaplains, this is how they proselytize: They go around to their units and drop off a candy bar to let (the service members) know they are there," Weinstein said, as opposed to perhaps approaching with a religious tract in hand.

Weinstein cited the kindly but doctrinally muted "Father Mulcahy" character from the 1970s movie and television sitcom "M.A.S.H." as the role model.

But Father Mulcahys appear to be in short supply, Weinstein said. Instead, he and his group field complaints from those offended by or upset with clerics perceived to be overzealous in their application of doctrine.

"There are wonderful chaplains that are out there, but about a third or so believe their top allegiance is not to the Constitution but to their denomination," he said. "That one-third believe they have free-range proselytizing rights."

The most current antagonist to Weinstein's stance might be Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder, a Naval officer and Assemblies of God chaplain under attack for having told personnel who came to him for counseling that sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior were "sinful."

According to the National Catholic Register, Modder, a 19-year service member whose pension may be scrapped over the charges, was accused of "being 'intolerant' and 'unable to function in the diverse and pluralistic environment' of his assignment at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina." The chaplain's case is under review by naval authorities, and his attorneys may continue appeals.

Weinstein was emphatic in challenging the stance of clergy such as Modder.

"What we're calling for is that if you can't handle the fact that gay people are born that way, get out of the U.S. military," Weinstein said. "You can believe all your prejudices but not act on them."

One prominent former chaplain disagrees to a point. Gordon James Klingenschmitt, now a Colorado state representative, attracted national attention in 2006 for "praying in Jesus' name" outside the White House while wearing his Navy uniform.

According to Klingenschmitt, Weinstein "fundamentally misunderstands not only the role of the chaplain but also the Constitution which we all swore to defend." He said chaplains' rights to counsel individuals according to the faith that endorsed the clergy's military role are protected.

However, Klingenschmitt said, such conversations must be voluntary.

"When I was a chaplain in the Navy, I never talked about religion until they asked," he said.

Writing from his deployment in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Chaplain John McDougall, who emphasized he was not speaking for the U.S. military, said it was important for chaplains to recognize the audience they are approaching.

"It is critically important for every chaplain to use wisdom in each circumstance," McDougall said. "We must remember that, as ministers, we are guests in the military culture. Like a businessman working in a foreign country, we must be sensitive to and operate within the norms of that culture."

Moral injury

In recent years, chaplains have found themselves increasingly called upon to help service members deal with conflicts between their religious beliefs and the realities of war.

Unlike psychologists and other professional counselors, chaplains are not what the military calls "mandatory reporters." A service member can approach a chaplain in confidence, knowing that what is shared won't go any further.

U.S. Marine Corps Chaplain Lt. Cdr. Gary Thornton, regimental chaplain for the Wounded Warrior Regiment at Virginia's Marine Corps Base Quantico, said chaplains provide the proper atmosphere to help fighters handle such issues.

"When someone is conflicted like that, it allows them to ask those hard questions to someone who as a chaplain has given some thought and consideration to those questions, such as where was God, what was he doing, how do I handle or deal with these feelings and questions that I am wrestling with," Thornton said. "It allows people to ask those questions in that safe, confidential and caring environment and walk through that with a chaplain who should be versed and ready to engage in those things."

Army chaplain McDougall suggested that differences in the spiritual formation of today's young adults might play a role, that warfighters may not have as firm an understanding of "just war" theology, which teaches that there are times when defending one's country is honorable and justified. He also cited the Christian teaching that in sending Jesus to Earth, God gave his Son to battle against sin, and he said that belief can help those who've faced combat.

"I believe this understanding that God suffered greatly to face off against the evil in our world can give these men and women hope as they wrestle with their own wounds," McDougall said. "More than anything, I want them to know that they are not alone. Not only do they have fellow soldiers who are also struggling, but they have a God who has personally faced the horrors of combat and will stand with them in the battles they go through."

Future outlook

Retired U.S. Army Col. John Brinsfield, a 47-year veteran of the military who served 28 years of active duty, is a historian of the chaplaincy. He believes that regardless of complaints from some quarters, the role of military chaplains is bound to continue.

"When the Army chaplains first reported to George Washingtons Army in 1775, they didnt have any specific duties perform divine service, pray with wounded, bury the dead $20 a month and anything else from individual commanders," he said in a telephone interview.

While chaplains now have more specific duties, including advising unit commanders on the spiritual state of the forces, their formal role as religious advisers to service members of all faiths will continue, he said.

Brinsfield said chaplains will provide "not just worship, but (also) religious education, retreats and humanitarian service. They will still work on issues such as suicide prevention, post-traumatic stress disorder, family separation just tons of human issues chaplains will still be doing whether they can pray in public during a mandatory formation or not."
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