The Air Force Chaplain Corps provides spiritual care and the opportunity . . . [for Air Force members] to exercise their Constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.
—From the U.S. Air Force Chaplain Corps History and Mission (airforce.com)
I have always questioned the presence of, say, a dharma wheel or Jewish tablets adorning a chaplain’s military uniform. How can these displays notbe seen as government endorsement of religion? In addition, chaplains have the explicit mission to serve the “religious” and “spiritual” needs of service members. Yet at the same time, they have broad responsibilities to advise the command and to give marital and emotional counseling to service members—while also authentically representing a specific religious denomination. A chaplain’s religious qualifications and obligations may give rise to conflicts of interest, especially in secular situations or when attempting to support a service member who is nontheistic.
In my opinion, the current chaplaincy structure, in which chaplains serve as commissioned officers, should be replaced by a system in which chaplains are civilian contractors. The arguments for a civilian-contractor chaplaincy are both principled and pragmatic. On the one hand, I note the apparent conflict between the establishment clause and a commissioned-officer clergy. On the other hand, I point out the fiscal, logistical, and practical benefits of a contracted civilian chaplaincy.*
In my position as the faculty advisor for the U.S. Air Force Academy cadet freethinkers, I have seen how chaplaincy issues play out. The Academy’s chaplains, under direction from higher-level Air Force chaplains, denied funding to the freethinkers group and quickly excluded it from chaplain programming. This was done because the freethinkers did not self-identify as “spiritual” or “religious.” At the same time, no definitions of these terms were provided, denying us the tools to explore other ways our group might fit into the existing structure. While every service member has access to clubs, among what might be called “life-stance orientations,” only nontheists are excluded from chaplain support.
Military chaplaincy faced legal challenge in the early 1980s, narrowly escaping abolition in Katcoff v. Marsh (decided 1986). Chaplaincy was determined to be constitutional because it assisted in providing for the free exercise of religion by service members within the restrictive context of military service and combat. This justification is well known, but it is less clear that the traditional commissioned-officer chaplaincy satisfies it optimally. Under the current system, chaplains are government-paid, senior military officers assigned to command staff, and they have unrestricted access to essentially all military personnel.
In practice, modern chaplains deliver a wide array of secular services, including coordination of religious services, informal (uncredentialed) coaching and counseling, providing ethical advice to the command, and various types of mental-health and family training. However, Katcoff v. Marsh upheld chaplaincy for one and only one need: meeting the free exercise of religion needs of service members. All those secular services can be handled separately, but only free exercise distinguishes chaplains specifically, and so the constitutional free exercise of religion shall be the focus of this article.
Faith-based religious services, according to current policy, can be provided only within the bounds set by the endorsing agency of the chaplain, that is,the chaplain’s church or denomination. Any request falling outside the chaplain’s endorsement must be referred to another chaplain or to civilian clergy. For example, Methodist chaplains should not provide any faith-based services to Lutherans, Mormons, Catholics, Jews, religious humanists, or the nontheistic. In these cases chaplains should provide only a referral to a specialist (and secular services). These referrals sometimes go to other chaplains but may also go to civilian clergy.
By this logic, an obvious alternative to commissioned officer chaplaincy presents itself: a corps of contracted civilian chaplains. By transitioning active-duty senior officers to a contracted civilian chaplain corps, many of the issues of command biasing, government endorsement of religion, special privileges, and “ministry of presence” proselytizing would disappear. Currently, contractors perform garrison security, combat security, secret weapon maintenance, strategic advice, and other presumably sensitive roles. Certainly civilian contracting has proven itself to be a combat-ready business practice.
The restructured chaplain corps would also be more flexible. Some more pacifist religions or denominations that currently do not provide commissioned officers may be willing to provide contractors. Presumably a reduced-responsibility contract position would also be more accessible (in terms of qualifications) than the current full-time/officer role, helping to mitigate some of the shortages the chaplaincy currently suffers. The position should also be a less daunting career choice, making possible more rotation among a larger pool of civilian pastors.
There is a concern that civilian pastors may not be prepared to serve in a pluralistic environment, either in terms of training or personal theology. This should be no great obstacle because they will not serve on command staff, do command briefings, or operate without restriction. They would be available in an installation/area support role, serving personnel in the area but not engaging in command planning or advice. The command would be responsible for morale and referrals, but the contractors would be available to provide the proper faith-based (or equivalent nonreligious) support for those who request such assistance.** Finding alternative ways to deliver the secular services previously provided by commissioned chaplains will pose an obstacle for the military command, but responsibilities might be reassigned to personnel officers, commanders, or mental-health professionals. Proper credentialing and training in secular ethics, mental health, counseling, program management, and world religions, as appropriate, would greatly improve the quality of services received. In this connection, it is worth noting that many of today’s commissioned chaplains are not credentialed in these areas.
There are obvious and daunting objections to my proposal. The most daunting objection is simply tradition: chaplains always have been and always will be, so the objection goes. The second-most-daunting objection is that all of the secular services that chaplains provide cannot be easily replaced. While I have suggested new ways to provide these services, the practical implementation of such a realignment of job responsibilities would fundamentally change military operations. Chaplains are simply too well-entrenched and well-integrated into the fabric of military life. In addition, the Lemon test and other legal tests of church-state entanglement have been diluted over the years; the current chaplaincy is probably significantly less vulnerable to constitutional challenge than was the case with Katcoff in 1986.
But a reckoning is coming. The present chaplaincy continues to ignore the rise of those with nontheistic beliefs and nonreligious life-stances and persists in carrying out its duties within an exclusive focus upon theistic, supernatural religious beliefs. Meanwhile, the military continues to heap upon today’s chaplains counseling, mental-health and relationship counseling, and administrative duties outside their areas of expertise. At the same time, the lack of diversity among chaplains is crashing violently into the expanding diversity of military culture and indeed American culture generally. For example, some chaplains fight same-sex relationships, and that losing battle will come into stark relief as same-sex couples appear at marriage retreats and counseling activities.
On its current course, the chaplaincy will work itself into obsolescence. Contracted clergy might offer a practical alternative to provide for the free exercise of religion while doing away with what has always been a constitutionally problematic chaplaincy institution.
* This argument is intended for expansion in a more formal journal article. To maintain the brevity of this article, I have opted not to elaborate on the constitutional precedent or various comparative examples of commissioned versus contracted chaplaincy situations.
** In this section, I will not have room to expand on professional certifications for chaplaincy and chaplaincy supervision. These sorts of qualifications are not currently required for military chaplains but may provide another avenue for chaplaincy reform and for ensuring the professionalism of civilian chaplains and clergy. But the full discussion must be addressed outside this essay.