What the focus of the military chaplains ministry? Are the beliefs and practices of the chaplains the main thing? Or ought the focus be on the spiritual and emotional needs of the soldier, sailor or marine? A new documentary focuses on the tensions, challenges and important work of US military chaplains.
Chris Rodda, of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, writes in the Huffington Post about a documentary about the challenges facing military chaplaincy in the US Armed Forces.
By the end of this 20 minutes of watching chaplains behaving in an exemplary manner, I was anticipating another hour of fluff about the devoted chaplains who serve our troops, but the rest of the film was anything but. Through interviews with people on both sides of the separation-of-church-and-state debate, Nickelson and Lee do a superb job of accurately and objectively presenting the divide between the two camps.
A number of commentators appear throughout the film, offering their perspectives on various points. On one side are people like Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF); Lori Lipman Brown of the Secular Coalition for America; and Dr. Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center. Those on the other side include Bob Dees, executive director of Campus Crusade for Christ's Military Ministry; Billy Baugham, a retired chaplain and executive director of International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers (ICECE); Arthur Schulcz, an attorney who represents evangelical chaplain endorsers; and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC).
(The term "chaplain endorser," which appears throughout this piece, refers to the endorsement of a chaplain by a Department of Defense-approved religious body. An ecclesiastical endorsement from an approved religious body is a requirement for a chaplain to serve in the military.)
Like the scenes at the beginning of the film showing chaplain after chaplain doing exactly the right thing in their interactions with the troops, all of the scenes of chaplains praying with wounded service members show absolutely appropriate behavior, with the chaplain first asking the service members if they would like him to pray. In all of these scenes, the service members happen to say yes, so none of these scenes shows how these chaplains would handle themselves with a non-religious service member who doesn't want them to pray. This issue, however, is not overlooked by the filmmakers.
According to the film's website, many mainline denominations drew back from military chaplaincy in the wake of the Viet Nam War, so that many more conservative Protestant and non-denominational chaplains have entered the service. These chaplains see their main mission as making converts rather than providing spiritual care in a specialized setting.
Military chaplaincy is experiencing the same tensions that healthcare and prison chaplaincies experience where two schools of thought exist: are chaplaincies meant to make converts or are they patient- or client-centered? The two approaches show up in the training, theological orientation and professional ethics of the competing camps.
Generally, chaplains from mainline Protestant (including the Episcopal Church) and Catholic churches as well as Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist chaplains take the client-centered approach. On the other hand, those from evangelical churches often take a firm confessional approach.
Chaplains who take a confessional approach to their ministry, will say that when command requires chaplains to pray "generically" for the sake a wider inter-faith (and no-faith) audience, that the chaplain's First Amendment rights are violated. They will focus on their own right to pray in public "in Jesus' name." Some in Congress, if they had their way, would require military chaplains to pray according to the chaplain's faith tradition. These proposals, if nothing else, focuses the question: who exactly is the chaplain for?
Is the chaplain's own personal religious expression the main thing? Or is the chaplain primarily there for the benefit of the service-member (or the patient or inmate) regardless of that person's beliefs or faith tradition?