May 4, 2009

Religion In The Military: Why Are So Many Chaplains Evangelical Christians?

In the course of researching my presentation last weekend, I came across a number of places offering insight onto the relationship of the military and evangelical Christianity. I've been able to identify, from a number of sources, five reasonable-sounding theories for why the chaplaincy, and the military population in general, has become so influenced by strains of Protestant Christianity that fall into the general label of "evangelical."

A bit of history: during World War II, the bulk of the chaplaincy in the military was populated by Catholics and what were then called "mainline" Protestants -- Northern Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. Evangelical Christians pursuing the chaplaincy found themselves in the distinct minority and felt it. Now, one thing the evangelicals have pretty much always had, has been communication networks. For instance, they were some of the first Christians to take to the airwaves, buying up broadcast rights at the very top and very bottom of the radio dials. If you were traveling around the country in the 1950's and 1960's, and you wanted a taste of that old-time religion, you knew you could get it by turning the radio dial as far as it would go, one way or the other, pretty much anywhere. So when the word got out that there weren't very many evangelical Christians in the military chaplaincy, that got to evangelical seminaries pretty quickly and a lot of the teachers encouraged newly-minted preachers to pursue careers there -- with a focus that was lacking in the mainline Protestant and Catholic quarters.

That's the first thing that evangelicals did: they recruited, from within their own numbers, to get into the military chaplaincy. By the time of the Korean and Vietnam wars, chaplains were disproportionately evangelical, as compared with their numbers in both the ranks of professional clergy and among the American people as a whole. And as it turns out, when you have a captive audience to minister to, and you're the only one selling the stuff available, it's your brand of religion that tends to get sold.

Second, soldiers stationed overseas get lonely. They have been taken away from their homes and many of them do not make a lot of friends very quickly. Evangelical Christianity places great emphasis on the personal, emotional experience of communion with God and with the fellowship and community of the Christian community. It fills a significant human need, one often felt with greater intensity by the serviceman taken away from his support network and forced to move away from groups of friends with some frequency. Mainline religiosity is, apparently, less good at this sort of thing.

Third, during the 1960's and 1970's, a great many mainline churches wound up taking political positions that were opposed to the Vietnam War. This did not sit well with the soldiers who were doing the actual fighting, as might easily be imagined -- they most certainly did not want to be told that they were fighting for an immoral cause, and the nuances of the messages delivered by the mainline churches were easy to get lost in transit over six thousand miles of Pacific Ocean. Evangelical churches, however, did not take anti-Vietnam positions, and therefore offered greater safe harbor and a politically more welcoming environment for the soldiers. As important, the anti-Vietnam stance of many churches led to a dropoff in enlistment for mainline chaplains; evangelicals, however, continued to offer their services in the numbers they had been for fifteen years already. Proportionally, then, they became an even larger bloc within the chaplaincy.

Fourth, during the 1970's and 1980's, political conservatism sought to marry three large camps: anti-communist, pro-military advocates; fiscal conservatives and libertarians; and religiously-motivated, socially conservative voters. (Or, as Michael Reynolds succinctly put it, the Republican Party acquired three wings: Bombs! Money! and Jesus!) Well, it's no coincidence that the pro-military types welcomed the support from the social conservatives, who came to the coalition courtesy of the Moral Majority movement and therefore were in large part evangelicals. The bleedover from one group to another was a natural consequence of the political alliance.

Fifth, the military recruits disproportionately heavily from the Southeast. If something like one-fifth of all Americans are Southerners (defined as coming from those states that were members of the Confederacy, plus West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma) then something like one-third of all people in the military are Southerners. Why is this? Well, there's a lot of socioeconomic reasons for it that are not germane to this post. But there is a significant correlation between having one's geographic roots in the South and being evangelical.

So there you have it -- five reasons that converge to have made the military socially dominated by evangelical Christianity. That is not to say that soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines of other faiths are unwelcome; I see no evidence that they are. I'm not close enough to the situation to know personally whether the stories of intolerance towards atheists are substantial or not; my skepticism comes from the fact that nearly all of the military people I know personally would easily and quickly set aside whatever personal distaste of atheism they might have when it came time to do actual soldiering.

Certainly people in the military are allowed to have whatever religion they want, and the chaplaincy exists to accommodate their desire to worship while deployed or otherwise without access to churches in the civilian world. And in one sense, I have to admire the evangelicals for finding a growth opportunity and pursuing it so effectively -- that's just plain good organization and from a game theory perspective at least, they deserve to reap the benefits of a successful strategy. The issues come only when the culture becomes monolithic enough to instill favoritism for their own members. It's good that there is debate about whether that point has been reached; it's bothersome to consider the implications if it has.

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