Should a Christian Be a Military Chaplain?

If the question was whether a Christian should be a pimp, a prostitute, an abortionist, a drug dealer, a contract killer, a topless dancer, or a bouncer in a strip joint, then the answer would be quite obvious. Adherents of other religions and atheists would also generally select more wholesome occupations. Even Christian parents whose children selected more benign careers like blackjack dealer, swimsuit model, bartender, tobacco farmer, x-rated video store clerk, or Hooters waitress would generally want their children to aspire to something better. But should a Christian be a military chaplain? When I say a military chaplain I mean a chaplain paid by, and answerable to, the state. The United States has had military chaplains since the Revolutionary War. As a Christian, I am not opposed to the general idea of a chaplaincy. I would not be against any man who aspired to be a chaplain or any organization that wanted to have a chaplain. But should a Christian be a military chaplain? Although it is not my intent in this article, the case could be made that we should not have taxpayer-funded chaplains in the military or anywhere else. As a Protestant, I object to my tax dollars being paid to a Roman Catholic priest to conduct mass in an army barracks, a naval vessel, or a military chapel. Roman Catholics should likewise be against a Protestant minister being paid by the government to hold an evangelistic service on Sunday and teach Protestant doctrine the rest of the week. Jews, Muslims, Mormons, agnostics, and atheists — if they are really serious about their religion or non-religion — should be opposed to either scenario. Taxpayer-supported chaplains have to serve two masters: God and the state. Compromise is inevitable. He that pays the piper calls the tune. The Southern Baptists actually recognized this back in 1918, and stated in a resolution that because

  • Religious liberty cannot be absolute where any of its appointments or appropriations are by authority of the state;
  • The army Chaplain appointed by state authority as the religious teacher of the country’s soldiers is dependent on the state for support and is amenable to the state for regulation of duties and conduct;
  • The different Christian denominations of this republic can and would send voluntarily through their agencies, religious teachers to all departments of the army and navy;

It is resolved that

the Congress of the United States be memorialized to consider the propriety and rightfulness of abolishing the Army Chaplaincies leaving the religious services to the discretion and election of the different Christian denominations, which services shall in nowise hinder in any military movement of the army or any part of it, these services seeking only for an open door and protection as American citizens in performance of said religious duties.

To become a chaplain in the U.S. military, one must obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement from an organization approved by the Pentagon as an Endorsing Ecclesiastical Organization. According to the chaplain requirements on the Army Chaplain Corps website, the endorsement should certify that one is:

  • A clergy person in your denomination or faith group.
  • Qualified spiritually, morally, intellectually and emotionally to serve as a Chaplain in the Army.
  • 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.

Any conservative, evangelical, or fundamentalist Christian who thinks he can meet the third qualification without compromising his convictions is extremely naïve. Denominations, associations, fellowships, and other ecclesiastical groups who think that their chaplains can serve both God and country are deceived: “No man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Here are two similar statements, from two entirely different groups, about being a military chaplain:

U.S. Army Chaplains serve both God and country by bringing their unique gifts with which they are endowed by God, to the Soldiers of our nation in the broad, challenging, diverse, and ever changing environment of the Army. The United States Military is an exciting place to minister. The chaplain, while serving God as a minister of the Gospel, also serves his country.

The first statement is from the U.S. Army; the second is from the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International. Ecclesiastical groups of any stripe ought to be encouraging men to stay away from the military instead of encouraging them to become chaplains. Back in 2005 a Navy chaplain, Gordon Klingenschmitt, got into hot water with the Navy for preaching a message in a chapel service that was “not inclusive and might offend people.” He then fought an extended battle with the Navy over the right to pray in Jesus’ name. But it is not just over religion that some chaplains get into trouble. A Southern Baptist chaplain in the Air Force, Garland Robertson, suffered for daring to question a military action. After “serving” in Vietnam, Robertson attended seminary and was then reactivated as an Air Force chaplain. On the eve of the first attack on Iraq in 1991, he wrote that the vice president’s statement that the American people were behind the invasion “must be clarified to indicate that the American people are not united in their decision to support a military offensive against the aggression of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait.” For this he was visited by an officer from the Chief of Chaplains who “indicated that compromise was essential for becoming a successful military chaplain.” Said Robertson of this meeting: “I suggested that ‘cooperation’ was the more suitable word, but he quickly confirmed his intentional use of ‘compromise.’ ‘If Jesus had been an Air Force chaplain,’ he told me, ‘he would have been courtmartialed.’ But he said that compromise is necessary in order to maintain a presence.” But supposing it were possible to serve as a military chaplain without compromising one’s convictions, should a Christian be a military chaplain? Definitely not — and for two reasons. First, one would have to join the military. And second, one would have to support the activities of the military. I have already made the case that a Christian has no business in the military — including the National Guard. I have admonished Christians to think before they decide to join the military, regardless of family tradition, patriotism, signing bonuses, or money for college. I have made it clear that God never called any Christian to be a Christian killer. I have explained why a Christian cannot kill heartily in the name of the Lord. I have also shown the hypocrisy of the American Christian soldier. A Christian should not be a military chaplain for the simple reason that it is impossible to do so without joining the military. Because I have already written so much in these and other articles against Christians joining the military, I will only reiterate here that the military has a bad effect on one’s mind and morals. U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler (1881—1940) — a Congressional Medal of Honor winner who could never be accused of being a pacifist, an appeaser, or a traitor — not only eloquently stated that “war is a racket,” he also spoke about the effect on the mind of military “service”:

Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

The immoral environment of the military is no secret. Here is a note I received from M.A., an ex-Marine:

The Marine Corps is like a frat party in between the hard work. For the most part, they are irresponsible, alcoholic, sex addicts. The married Marines that I served with didn’t think twice about cheating on their spouses during deployments. And speaking of deployments, if the U.S. military ever gets disbanded, the worldwide brothel industry would shut down overnight. The behavior of my fellow Marines in Thailand I found to be utterly repulsive. What a shame it is to have de facto ambassadors of the United States — i.e., the people whom “represent” America to foreigners — behaving in such a way. Hedonists with guns. That’s the Marine Corps.

I have received scores of e-mails just like this. In fact, I would say that most veterans who write me do so in agreement with what I write about the military, the war in Iraq, and U.S. foreign policy. It is the Christian chickenhawks and armchair warriors who are my most vocal critics. One cannot “serve” in the military — and especially in an influential position like a chaplain — and not support the activities of the military. Just ask Eli Israel, the Army sniper turned war resister. Rather than guarding our borders, patrolling our coasts, and actually defending the country, the history of the U.S. military is the history of meddling, aggression, invasion, and occupation. The military is the enforcer of the reckless, imperialistic U.S. foreign policy. The purpose of the military has been perverted beyond repair by our interventionist foreign policy. To those who are currently serving as a military chaplain or are thinking about becoming a chaplain that support the U.S. global empire and the current use of the military, and to those who are currently serving as a military chaplain or are thinking about becoming a chaplain that object to both, I would ask the same thing: Is asking God to bless and protect the troops as they shoot, bomb, maim, mine, destroy, “interrogate,” and kill for a rogue state with an evil foreign policy consistent with the Christianity you find in the New Testament? If you don’t believe that the United States is a rogue state with an evil foreign policy, please read or reread my lecture titled “War, Foreign Policy, and the Church.” If you still don’t see a problem with U.S. foreign policy, then perhaps you overlooked a key statement I made in that lecture and elsewhere: blind obedience to the state is not a tenet of New Testament Christianity. If you do believe that the United States is a rogue state with an evil foreign policy, then why are you in (or thinking about joining) the U.S. military? How can you recognize the harmful and often deadly effects of American foreign policy carried out by the U.S. military and yet participate, by your silence or by your feigned consent, in perpetuating the myth that U.S. troops defend our freedoms when they bomb, invade, and occupy other countries? Do you (or will you) tell concerned soldiers not to be concerned about killing the “enemy” since it is “not murder” to kill someone in wartime? George Zabelka and William Downey found all this out the hard way. They were the Catholic and Protestant Army Air Force chaplains assigned to the 509th Composite Group in charge of delivering the atomic bombs to their Japanese targets. Both later renounced their actions. Here is the prayer Chaplain Downey offered before the Enola Gay took off from Tinian Island for Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 (you can listen here to an actual recording of the end of Downey’s prayer, introduced by Edward R. Murrow):

Almighty Father, who wilt hear the prayer of those that love thee, we pray thee to be with those who brave heights of thy heaven and who carry the battle to our enemies. Guard and protect them, we pray thee, as they fly the appointed rounds. May they, as well as we, know thy strength and power, and armed with thy might may they bring this war to a rapid end. We pray thee that the end of the war may come soon and once more we may know peace on earth. May the men who fly this night be kept safe in thy care, and may they be returned safely to us. We shall go forward trusting in thee knowing that we are in thy care now and for ever. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Contrast this prayer with what Chaplain Zabelka said later:

For the last 1700 years the Church has not only been making war respectable: it has been inducing people to believe it is an honorable profession, an honorable Christian profession. This is not true. We have been brainwashed. This is a lie. There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus. As an Air Force chaplain I painted a machine gun in the loving hands of the nonviolent Jesus, and then handed this perverse picture to the world as truth. I sang “Praise the Lord” and passed the ammunition. As Catholic chaplain for the 509th Composite Group, I was the final channel that communicated this fraudulent image of Christ to the crews of the Enola Gay and the Boxcar.

All of this may be true, say some Christians, but how can we reach servicemen and servicewomen with the Gospel? If it were possible to be a military chaplain as a civilian — paid for and answerable to a church or denomination — then it might be a good idea. But there are other ways without becoming a chaplain. See, for example, Armed Forces Baptist Missions. Should a Christian be a military chaplain? Not if he opposes compromise with the state, the state’s military, the state’s wars, and the state’s foreign policy. Where are the chaplains today who will renounce the Iraq war, U.S. foreign policy, the U.S. military, and their commander in chief and be willing to suffer the consequences? There have been some regular soldiers who have done so. Why are the chaplains so quiet? Is it because they are not the ones having to fight, and bleed, and die for a lie? Because of a severe shortage in its Chaplain Corps, the Army is looking for a few good chaplains. Let’s hope that the Army doesn’t find any.