A military chaplains serves as both a religious leader and a listener — ideally one who can assist military personnel of all faiths. A frequent refrain among chaplains is “chaplain to all, pastor to some.”
But according to Department of Defense data, the nation’s corps of chaplains leans heavily toward evangelical Christianity, failing to mirror the military it serves.
Even though just 3 percent of the military’s enlisted personnel and officers call themselves Southern Baptist, Pentecostal or some form of evangelical, 33 percent of military chaplains are members of one of those groups, according to Pentagon statistics.
And the disparity could soon widen: Data from the Air Force indicate that 87 percent of those seeking to become chaplains are enrolled at evangelical divinity schools.
The discrepancy is the result of a number of variables, including a post-Vietnam aversion by mainline Protestant and Catholic seminary leaders to participate in military culture, and the popularity of online chaplaincy courses at evangelical seminaries.
Military officials say chaplains are trained to support troops of all faiths, regardless of their own religious affiliation.
“In these various roles, chaplains respect the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs,” said Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
But liberal theologians and educators say the imbalance could compromise efforts to meet the spiritual needs of soldiers facing combat or the stresses of military life. And some critics go further, arguing that the military risks becoming a mission field for evangelical Christianity.
In response, Eden Theological Seminary here is launching its own program to train chaplains. The school is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, which is among the more liberal mainline Christian denominations. Its decision to train chaplains comes despite reservations about military involvement and objections to war.
“There’s a vacuum,” said Eden’s president, the Rev. David Greenhaw. “And there’s a general sense here that it’s important to fill that vacuum.”
The roots of the new program go back to a visit that Eden professor Kristen Leslie and her graduate students made in 2004 to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., to train chaplains there to deal with sexualized violence on campus.
Leslie, then a professor at Yale Divinity School, later filed a report saying she and her students observed cadets who “were encouraged to pray for the salvation of fellow (cadets) who chose not to attend worship” and were told that those not “born again will burn in the fires of hell.”
Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has spent recent years fighting aggressive proselytizing at the academy and across the military.
“These are government-backed missionaries for Jesus Christ who see the military as a mission field, fecund and fertile for proselytizing,” Weinstein said. “I commend (Eden) for trying to fight back.”
Military officials say they are sensitive to issues of diversity and interfaith understanding.
“We look, in particular, for a pluralistic understanding or attitude,” said Col. Steven Keith, a chaplain and commandant of the Air Force Chaplain Corps College in Fort Jackson, S.C. “We want you to keep your theology, and be able to work with people of different theologies.”
Critics say much of the imbalance stems from the fact that the faiths of chaplains are not reflective of military rank and file.
For example, while Catholics make up the largest share of active-duty members of the military (20 percent), just 8 percent of military chaplains are Catholic. Southern Baptists, who make up just 1 percent of the military, account for 16 percent of active-duty chaplains.
There are 33 Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i or Hindu chaplains across all branches of the military, according to the Pentagon, to serve the less than 1 percent of military members who belong to those faiths.
Critics say the reason chaplains don’t more often share the faith of military members begins at divinity school, and as the Air Force data show, the vast majority of prospective chaplains are choosing divinity schools with an evangelical Christian focus.
Military officials say they can’t change that.
“We mirror the chaplain corps on what’s going on in the civilian sector, so a decline in mainliners naturally means a decline in mainline Protestant chaplains,” Keith said.
As Eden launches the chaplain program, its leaders say the school is placed in the difficult position of choosing between a theological aversion to war, and a desire to right a theological imbalance they see in the chaplain corps.
“There’s a feeling that you don’t want to affiliate with the military for fear that such an affiliation could be seen as an endorsement, an encouragement and support for warfare,” said Greenhaw, the school’s president.
He said the chaplains Eden hoped to produce would be “distinctively Christian, actively ecumenical and actively interfaith.”
And despite some theological reservations about working with the military, the Eden faculty is on board.
“Schools like ours have tended to not want to be involved,” Greenhaw said. “You have the full weight of ambiguity about even having a military, but ambiguity doesn’t mean people in the military shouldn’t have the ministry of the church.”
Tim Townsend writes for “The St. Louis Post-Dispatch” in St. Louis.