The Decline of Christianity in the U.S. Armed Forces

Right on Target
Right on Target

Let’s start off with the basic disclaimers: I speak for myself. I do not speak for the U.S military. I do not speak for the government. Heck, I don’t even speak for the Chaplain Corps – there is a lot of division among Chaplains as to this topic. So I only speak for myself and my perspective. Got it? Okay. Now, let’s move on.

As a former Chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserve and now a Chaplain in the Navy, one of the topics I am asked about most often pertains to the decline of Christianity in the military. “Are you allowed to pray in Jesus’ name?” “Will you really get punished if you share your faith with another Soldier?” Questions like these are normal from those not familiar with the Chaplain Corps. Every time there is an issue between Atheists and Christians in the military certain conservative news outlets really hype the story and only serve to make things worse.

Case in point: a story came out last week about a Chaplain who writes a regular article for his base’s website. It’s called the “Chaplain’s Corner.” It seems that a recent article he wrote was titled: “No Atheists in Foxholes.” It was an historic look at the origin of this famous expression and the role of faith in WWII. But it seems some Atheists were offended by the piece and demanded it be removed. So the Commander yielded and removed the Chaplain’s article. Now conservative news outlets are stirring the pot and hard-core Evangelicals are upset. How can the military censor religious expression?

Believe it or not, things are going great in the Chaplain Corps. There is not decline of Christianity in the Army. My Commanders are actually very supportive of the Unit Ministry Team and the Chaplain’s role. We’re not being censored, and we’re not being persecuted. Much of the problem lies in a misunderstanding of the role of military Chaplain.

My role is dual-natured. On one hand I am a military pastor. I preach. I pray in Jesus’ name. I serve communion. I perform weddings and funerals. Basically, everything I do as a civilian pastor I can do as an army Chaplain. On the other hand I am a staff officer. I serve and represent the Commander. There are some times and places where I will need to wear my staff officer hat and other times when I wear my pastor hat. The key is to discern which is which.

For my services or Bible studies I have free reign to be authentically me as a Christian pastor. For staff events where I represent the Commander I put my role as staff officer first and serve the Commander and the Soldiers without pushing my personal faith. The Commander was within norms to remove the Chaplain’s article from the base website. A senior Chaplain I know recently commented:

It is common in the military for the chaplain to have a regular spot in the commander’s newsletter or website. I have done this for the past 22 years. However, we have to keep in mind whose newsletter or whose website it is. It is not the chaplain’s. It is the commander’s. Therefore, it is the commander’s message that must be contained in all parts of it, even The Chaplain’s Corner. To take this particular message off the website is not religious censorship because this was not a religious forum. When I write a piece for the commander’s newsletter or website, I typically write about relationships, family support, or morale. I’ll talk about leadership or teamwork. Sometimes I’ll suggest that our Soldiers pursue spirituality and if they want they may come talk with the chaplain about that or any other topic they have in mind. But the commander’s newsletter or website should always be generic.

As a Chaplain, then, it really comes down to understanding where you are and the role you play. At one point in the bible, Jesus sends his disciples out into the world and tells them to be shrewd as snakes but innocent as doves. The Old Testament tells us that there is a time and season for everything.

We are not being shrewd when we push our religion on everyone. There is a time and a place to be forward with our faith. There is a time and a place to fill our other roles. Contrary to what gets hyped by conservative media, it is still okay to talk about faith in the military. But there is a time and place to do it well. We do disservice to our faith when we believe we have to use our faith combatively to confront people.

In the end, the better I do my job as a Chaplain to all Soldiers the better I can do my job as a Christian. What Soldier will even want to be around me if they feel I always use my faith to beat them up? They would dread seeing the Chaplain walk up. But if I love on and care for people no matter what their faith or no-faith background then I have an open door to care for them, to show concern, and to help meet their needs. In the end, I’ve found that people are more receptive to me and my discussion about faith when they know that I will care for them no matter what – without pushing a faith agenda on them.

If you have any questions about faith in the military or the role of a Chaplain, please don’t hesitate to ask.

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4 Replies to “The Decline of Christianity in the U.S. Armed Forces”

  1. pastorlinzey, I remember when I was a young chaplain assigned to my first battalion. I walked into the unit area on the first day, and a couple of sergeants hollered over to me, “Hey, Chappy. Do you have your Gotcha Cards?” I said, “Well, I don’t even know what a Gotcha Card is, so no, I don’t have them. What is a Gotcha Card?” “Our last chaplain went around visiting Soldiers, and any time he heard one of us cussing, he handed us a Gotcha Card, and even said “Gotcha!” “How’d you feel about that chaplain,” I asked. “”Oh, we all hated him. We didn’t ever want another chaplain in the battalion.” I was in that unit a little over four years. I never said “Gotcha” to any of them, I just befriended them and loved them. And I led many of them to the Lord.


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