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01 September 2008


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Your invitation will surely invite a range of comments. As someone who never "felt" the call of faith (with the usual nod to "spirituality"), I have no problem with chaplains serving our men and women in uniform. I'm hesitant to generalize too much, but as someone who teaches history at university, I'm much more concerned with and appalled by the lack of basic knowledge of students who profess Christianity. Their ignorance of their faith astonishes, whether we're talking about a general outline of theology, doctrines or histories, let alone the various nuances of interpretation among different branches of the faith. Perhaps I'm hoping that chaplains educate those whom they offer spiritual comfort, etc.


Col. Lang:

Of course the military should have chaplains. I'm not sure that part of the military is broke and needs fixing. Where else are you going to find the spiritual guidance and comfort you need when the challenges of the job begin to erode your faith?

At a more secular level I truly believe that the military sector should mirror the civilian as much as is possible in the areas of values, ethics, morality and law. The removal of the chaplain from that mix would take the leaven out of the bread.


Should there be military chaplains?

in one word -- YES. chaplains have a definite place in military life. civilian religious figures no matter how hard they may try, do not fully understand the 'military nature' of things, whereas a military chaplain does. whatever religious affiliation their background, military chaplains all have one thing in common -- they are members of the military family.

Leila Abu-Saba

I don't have an opinion on Army chaplains. The military is just not my area of expertise or opinion.

Prayers in public depend upon context. Colonel Lang put up a prayer here on this blog, a personal space viewed by the public. He is our host, it's his "living room", he pays for the server space. He can put up whatever he wants. If his expressions about God bother you so much that you are offended, then maybe you need to read somebody else's blog, or skip the next post he puts up that has God in it.

Now Col. Lang and I may not agree about doctrine on many points - we're from different traditions in Christianity and anyway I'm a syncretist hippie Californian. However I appreciate his spiritual expressions for themselves. Much prefer his prayers to his comments about Barack Obama! But if I don't like what he says about Obama, I can ignore it or leave.

In our public and governmental spaces, it's a different story.

I am concerned about the amount of praying and preachifying I heard on the floor of the Senate in a Youtube clip intended to prove that Barack Obama does so say the pledge of allegiance. In the longer version of the clip, a Protestant minister opened the day's Senate proceedings with a very long prayer full of Jesus and bible verses. Is this what they do all the time now? What about separation of church and state?

I thought that our government and its activities were supposed to be secular and not sponsor any particular faith. What if I, as a believer with my own views, don't like the doctrine and interpretation of the person delivering the opening prayer at the Senate? What about the non-Christians listening or forced to participate?

This is why we don't have open religious prayers in public schools - not everybody believes the same thing, prays the same way, or believes at all. If you say that everybody's religious beliefs will get represented in turn, "to be fair," are you going to let Starhawk, a pagan priestess of the Wicca religion, up onto the floor of the Senate to invoke the four directions and the gods of the Celtic Pantheon? How well is that going to go over with strict Christians, Muslims and Jews?

But why do we open the Senate in the name of our Lord and Savior? I'm sorry, God belongs in church, not in the Senate. If you believe in God then you know God is there anyway - but go ahead and pray in private. Why impose your particular prayers on the legislative body conducting the material business of the nation? God will hear your silent prayers as well as your big public invocations and sermons and preachifying.

In this country we have a right not to believe in God at all. Our founding fathers put that in the Constitution. All that preachifying not only offends those who might believe in a different way, but also those who have the Constitutional right NOT TO BELIEVE AT ALL. Keep God out of the Senate's business. (House, too). God won't be offended. S/He's not a jealous, petty, vain God who needs public applause.

That bit of Gospel about going into a closet when you pray makes a lot of sense. But on the other hand at a time of public stress, it is a comfort to pray with many others. Hence the Gustav prayer, which I liked.

Those of you who don't care for praying might consider respecting somebody else's spiritual tradition when practiced in their own space. Col. Lang didn't go to YOUR blog and post a prayer in comments.

How long will you last in Rome or Cairo if you can't stand to hear other people expressing their faith and belief? Be a little more respectful and tolerant, just out of common manners. It won't kill you, and you won't be "infected" with spirituality. Well, if you are, it won't kill you.


Colonel Lang:

I believe that this particular question (in both senses that you have posed here) was answered once and for all by some truly visionary Americans, who wrote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

In that spirit, I found your public suggestion of prayers for those in the path of the hurricane both morally generous and fully supported by the laws of our land.

And as long as chaplains are not in the business of establishment of a particular religion, no problems should be found there, either (though good evidence exists that some in the military are not honoring this Constitutional principle, and they should be held to account, given their oaths to defend and bear allegiance to the constitution)

Finally, as I sit on my front porch here this evening, I can see the clouds from Gustav sliding into view above my home. Given that I'm a long way from the Gulf Coast, those directly in the path of that behemoth can likely use all the help they can get. And while we cannot be certain that prayers help, we can be fully confident that they do not hurt.

Mike S.

As an atheist, I prefer to hear expressions of compassion for and solidarity with others, such as your earlier post, expressed in non-religious terms. However, I would much rather live in a world where such sentiments are expressed in terms I don't necessarily agree with than a world where they aren't expressed at all.

Tolerance of others' religious belief can be a difficult exercise even in the relatively ideal conditions for non-believers which exist in the US. When political leaders of all sorts routinely imply that atheists and non-christians are of lesser political importance and moral worth, the fact that many public acts are suffused with religious language can seem exclusionary or confrontational.

I judge specific practices based on whether the potential affront to people like me (keeping in mind that I am not overly sensitive about such issues) is whether the benefit to the religious folks is great enough that it makes my annoyance look petty in comparison. As long as they don't actively prostyletize or cultivate an environment where non-practitioners are seen as outsiders, Military chaplains seem like a case where the benefits would outweigh the costs.


Although I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state I do believe there is a significant role for religious belief and faith in peoples personal lives. However, its a very personal choice what faith and the practice of that faith. IMO, even an atheist deserves respect for their personal choice.

In addition I think its important that the state not promote or align itself with any particular religious sect and its practices but remain secular in order to respect the diversity of the personal choices of its citizens with respect to religious belief.

Having said the above I believe there is a role for military chaplains who provide spiritual comfort to those who may be faced with their mortality as result of their duty to the collective good. I would hope that such chaplains reflect the religious diversity of our serving men and women and are not restricted to the religious beliefs of the majority.

A secular society IMO does not mean each individual who holds public office cannot call on the divine for advice, support and/or comfort. I realize in contemporary discourse secularism is considered a form of religious belief by some that believe their religious faith should be inextricably tied to their role as a public official.

Charles Cameron (hipbone)

You are a Catholic, Col. Lang, and should pray as you please.

And besides, your prayer was simple, direct, heartfelt and beautiful.



oming from a country built on compromise and as a compromise, where until recently in my province there were Catholic and Protestant schools and a crucifix still hangs in the legislature and in most town halls, offering a public prayer when confronted with a natural catastrophe is a normal part of life.

Not only that but I feel that, given the stress of combat, military chaplains are a necessary part of military life.


While being the rare "atheist in foxhole" during my 7 years in the Army, I have no problem with chaplains in the military...so long as their services are available to those who want them and are not given with pressure to attend by those who don't want them. In 'Nam, there were many areas where such pressure, spoken and unspoken, was the norm. Like the PX, religion should be available to all but forced on none.

Jon T.

Without question, my belief and experience is that formally trained Clerics are valuable in any situation of extreme duress.

As well, words of surcease, uplift and solace have power of transformation and belong in the public square as much as pornography, professional sports, greed masquerading as opportunity or a never ending culture of entertainment.

This is not about dogma or law, not about one cult, camp, sect or religion owning access to truth. This is about honoring and turning to The Light of Truth.

We need counsel, relief and reconciliation. In my view, only those who have never 'been down to the end of the road' in one way or another would deny that privilege to anyone. There are those that may try and suppress truth, and it may come to pass, briefly. It cannot, by nature, last.

Nancy K

My husband who was in the Israeli army states that there was a rabbi who helped him through difficult times especially after he was wounded. Even though my husband is not a religious man he says he found it a great source of comfort.

frank durkee

As a retired liberal episcopal priest I would support tombyrd's comments whole heartedly. the critical element in pratice is the skill, gifts and abilities of the individual performing the role. there is no doubt that someone who is part of the institution and understands it is normally in a better position to respond pastorally to thos around them.
However ant and all attempts at direct and/or indirect coercion shold be prohibited.

Warren Street

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I was led to believe that the only reason why we know about the My Lai massacre was because of an Army chaplain...

A LTC Francis Lewis, if I'm not mistaken...

I asked our BDE chaplain to re-enlist me in 1998. I did not care for my commander, so I thought it was a pretty good choice.


As an agnostic who currently serves in the military, I believe that military chaplains are a critical part of military readiness - IOW they are essential for a well disciplined and effective military force.

Last year Christian Science Monitor published a series of articles about Chaplains, which are all excellent. There are some links there that will give readers a kind of "chaplain 101" education.

Additionally, one episode in the recent PBS series "Carrier" was all about faith and showed the diversity of spiritualism that exists in the military and how important that is for individual servicemembers.

Mad Dogs

While I'm a lapsed Catholic agnostic (and veteran) myself, I have no problem with the military having chaplains.

In fact, I can't for the life of me, understand why this would be a problem for folks.

If it were mandatory to attend services, participate in other religious activities such as group prayer, singing of religious songs, or have ones promotion prospects be as a result of religious participation or not, then I would have a very big problem!

A society by definition demands tolerance.

And Pat, with regard to your Gustav prayer post, while I am an agnostic, I had no problem joining in and sharing the sentiment you posted.

That you apparently endured some comments of criticism, I cannot begin to fathom why.


Complete aside here as IMHO military chaplains are fine, along with military cooks, police and even the occasional Military Intel type. Thought I'd lighten the discussion with one of the greatest military movie lines of all time - when Hotlips tries to complain (with obvious anger and indignation) to MASH chaplain Father James Mulcahy about Hawkeye:

Houlihan: I wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps!

Mulcahy: He was drafted.


Col. Lang,

First, thank you for the insightful analysis you offer here on a variety of matters.

As a minister, I have various thoughts about your question. First, as to chaplains: I see them primarily to comfort and support troops in what for many may be trying spiritual conflicts. I have no problem with that. Indeed, they are probably one of the strongest bulwarks we have for maintaining their humanity and keeping their return to civilian life as successful as it normally is.

As to separation of state, I am sure the military tries to be even-handed and simply provide what most soldiers would want. Yet if one were to preach in uniform against killing and war itself - thus raising doubts among the rank and file, I'm sure they would censure that. Thus do they actually represent the state in what they preach?

As to your praying - expressions of compassion should be welcome by all. We do not have to protect public discourse from this.

The public preaching from all kinds of clergy (officially so or not) has its roots in a rich ancient tradition of prophets. Often it has taken the form of intense condemnation from a framework of deep love.

As long as the state does not promote one or a few while excluding or silencing others, we should, in my view, welcome it even when it makes us uncomfortable.

Thanks for what you do!




I'm a long-time reader, tho' not a contributor, who has appreciated being able to access the type of expertise you so generously offer here. I offer the following opinion because you seem to genuinely be asking.

Your prayer for the gulf area was an ispiring, poetic piece that made this agnostic slightly uncomfortable. Specifically, it seemed like you were praying for one particular group to be spared the wrath of nature through divine intervention. If this were a prayer to be offered by an elected official, I would be more comfortable with one that prayed for rescuers to have strength, for agency heads to be wise, for meterologists to be extra sharp, and for residents to have the sense and wherewithal to evacuate. I'm not comfortable with public officials encouraging people to hope for a miracle as it may prevent some people (especially those already frozen with fear) from taking more concrete action.

Regarding the military, obviously having a chaplain is a valuable tool to help soldiers process the horror they face during war. I'm thinking a chaplain's job during WW2 must have been a bit clearer than it is now for a chaplain stationed in Iraq. WMDs? Mushroom Clouds? Violations of UN agreements? The issue at the Air Force Academy mentioned above is disturbing to me because this lapsed Irish Roman Catholic doesn't quite understand the ideology of some of the evangelical groups. For example, I want a chaplain in Iraq to be able to say unequivocally, "Even if you do say you accept Jesus as your savior, if you continue to put Iraqi prisoners in naked human pyramids you are going straight to hell."


Who complained about a prayer on your own freaking blog? I'm as atheist as they come, and that rankles as much as state-promulgated religion.

Though (we make the best atheists) as an ex-Catholic, I can see why our host asks the question about military clerics. There may be a billion Catholics in the world, but in the US, things look a little different.


Col. Lang,

I always wondered about this question in general and had always been curious in particular about your position, as a man of faith, on this. I don't know if you would post this question public on your blog, but I would be most grateful if you would send me a reply (to my email address above.)

Some years ago, I had a discussion with someone on a blog--of increasingly pacifist leanings--who was particularly irate about the decision by Archbishop O'Brien, the archbishop for military services, to downplay the Pope's opposition to the war in Iraq. He felt, in particular, that the US Catholic bishops, including military chaplains, had the duty to point out that the Vatican was publicly opposed to the invasion and ask the soldiers to think about their mission in their light.

I'll be honest and admit that I didn't really know how to think about it: I had never served in armed forces before. I don't think I put quite so much weight on statements from the Vatican on current affairs, in fact. At the same time, for all manner of reasons, it would be impossible for the Pope to even attempt making his positions on current affairs a religious doctrine of the Church. In other words, I suppose, the Pope's positions are, in the end, his opinions and that's that.

Given that the Pope's opposition is merely his opinion, should military chaplains try to put any emphasis on this, at the risk of undermining soldiers' trust in their leaders and their mission? That didn't seem particularly right: in the end, I guess, the duty of military chaplains is to help soldiers of religious faith in course of fulfilling their missions, not actively undermine it on the basis of their own views, whether religiously inspired or not.

Getting to this point bothered me to no end. Does this mean that military chaplains are to function merely as auxiliaries to the military, always helping, in a way, justify their mission? Surely, there will be some missions where there are indeed morally questionable components incompatible with Christian faith. Under such circumstances, might chaplains actively promote insubordination and otherwise undermine the men's missions?

One should hope that soldiers are never subject to conditions where such missions are thinkable--but many such instances have already surfaced in course of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To some degree, the objections might filter to the purpose of the war itself: whether the war itself fits just war doctrine (which has been obviously an important issue with regards to Iraq). Should chaplains ignore these issues in their jobs? If their jobs are incompatible with their sense of morality, what should they do?

Thank you.

Juan Moment

A prayer on a weblog for the souls caught in the Gulf South is more than welcome, a sign of a heartfelt connection between its author and people in need. Seeing myself fitting more in the agnostic pigeonhole than any other theism, I'd still have to agree with Cieran above, while we cannot be certain that prayers help, we can be fully confident that they do not hurt.

Regarding the issue of chaplains in the military. Whilst I don't really have an opinion on the issue, I do wonder how men of Christian faith can sign up with a troop of people who train to become the best professional killers on planet earth. Is this what Jesus would have done? Is that the message they get from the gospel, to go out and give moral support to soldiers invading foreign countries with shock and awe, causing tens of thousands of innocent deaths? I have my doubts, but then again, you never know.


personal prayer is good. it shouldn't be pushed on people. and it is more seemly the more private it is, that is my taste, anyway.

at the same time, there are the limitations that God made. Once he made the world, as Thales first taught, he surely created a system of natural physical laws for such natural occurrences as weather, & earthquakes.

But that is the greatness of mind, holding contradictions at the same time.


In my personal view there should be army chaplains. Soldiers have a need for spiritual support and counsel, especially in light the harrowing experiences they go through in war. It would be unfair to leave them alone in this. But this spiritual support has to be an option and must never mandatory or quasi mandatory.

So what definitely must not be there is proselytising and what Mikey Weinstein calls 'weaponising the gospel'. I find the reports of incidents like that happening in the US armed forces (at the US Air Force academy for instance) disturbing to say the least.

Command authority and proselytising don't go well with each other at all, and it is all the more disturbing that apparently senior Air Force officers didn't have qualms about that. Considering evangelical fervour I would be surprised if this phenomenon is limited to only that branch of the armed services.

In my view that's a potentially very dangerous development as it has the potential to subvert the armed forces. And then, the mental image of a missile control officer looking forward to Armageddon is not something that I find reassuring. Not my country, but radioactive fallout transcends borders.


McGee wrote:

"Complete aside here as IMHO military chaplains are fine, along with military cooks, police and even the occasional Military Intel type".

I draw the line with military cooks. Certainly necessary, but not "fine".

Sure, chaplains should be part of the team if they comfort the troops. OTOH....if there is any 'fire' behind the 'smoke' coming from the 'Air Force story and the evangelic influence', and I don't know, or not know, there is, that is another matter and should be explored.

While it has always confounded this lapsed Catholic why one would pray to a god to avert a storm he/she/it conjured up, or, at a minimum, passively 'allowed' is beside me. But I visited my 89 y.o mother in a nursing home Sunday ...and she wanted to hold my hand, and wanted me to remain silent (she often does)as she prayed for the people of area potentially effected. I said 'sure'. And silently, to myself, 'why the hell not'. I feel the same way about the Col's posted prayer. If it brings comfort (it brings none to me)to anyone, why the hell not?

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