MIA: Those Chaplain Corps wars

From time to time, GetReligion, The Revealer and other sites that dissect religion coverage are criticized for being too negative and not pointing out the good as well as the bad. This past week was a very busy one, so I never got around to blogging what I thought was one of the best stories of the week. So let me do that now, as I get ready to turn off the computer and head out the door to Baltimore-Washington. I am referring to Laurie Goodstein's New York Times feature, "Evangelicals Are a Growing Force in the Military Chaplain Corps."

The dateline on the story is Colorado Springs, but this is not -- believe me, it is not -- another tired follow story on religious liberty issues at the Air Force Academy. GetReligion has been watching that story carefully, of course, since we're big on the whole issue of offensive free speech. However, there is a larger issue lurking in the background of that emotional story.

Goodstein has the story. It's the story of a legal war that has been raging among military chaplains as the rising tide of American evangelicalism crashes into the fortress of the oldline Protestant and Catholic establishment in the armed forces. This has been covered, blow by blow, in some of the denominational news services and in mainstream Christian publications.

While the Air Force story hinges on claims that evangelicals are smothering, well, virtually everyone, the legal battle centers on claims by evangelicals that they face discrimination from the oldline world -- clergy in collars, in other words.

This is a story packed with land mines, for an oldline newspaper like the Times. It's clear that one factor in all of this is the negative attitude that the old-line churches have toward the modern military, in the age of Iraq and "don't ask, don't tell." The progressive churches are also in a statistical freefall in the pews. The Catholics are growing, but the priesthood is shrinking. All of that affects the chaplains issue.

There are doctrinal issues, too. Evangelicals believe in evangelism and hell. They take both seriously. The modern oldline and Catholic worlds are, in effect, universalist when it comes to salvation. It is easier for clergy on the left to exist and speak their minds in a pluralistic, interfaith military than it is for traditional Christians. Yet the government is not supposed to practice "viewpoint discrimination" on religious speech issues. This is a tough row to hoe on both sides.

Goodstein's article features articulate, compelling voices from both sides of this debate. There are many sections I could quote. Here are two key passages:

Part of the struggle, chaplains and officials say, is the result of growing diversity. But part is from evangelicals following their church's teachings to make converts while serving in a military job where they are supposed to serve the spiritual needs of soldiers, fliers and sailors of every faith. Evangelical chaplains say they walk a fine line.

Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, the Air Force deputy chief of chaplains, said in an interview, "We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched." The distinction, he said, is that proselytizing is trying to convert someone in an aggressive way, while evangelizing is more gently sharing the gospel.

And, of course, there is the Vietnam factor:

The churches that once supplied most of the chaplains say they are now having trouble recruiting for a variety of reasons. Many members of their clergy are now women, who are less likely to seek positions as military chaplains or who entered the ministry as a second career and are too old to qualify. The Catholic Church often does not have enough priests to serve its parishes, let alone send them to the military.

There are also political reasons. Anne C. Loveland, a retired professor of American history at Louisiana State University and the author of "American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993," said the foundation for the change in the chaplaincy was laid during the Vietnam War.

"Evangelical denominations were very supportive of the war, and mainline liberal denominations were very much against it," Ms. Loveland said. "That cemented this growing relationship between the military and the evangelicals."

I could go on and on. There are sections of this feature to disturb and provoke readers on both sides. This is what journalism does. I hope this important free-speech story is out in the main pages and will stay there. Goodstein got the story.

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