Pity Uncle Sam, who struggles with an unanswerable question: What is a ‘religion’?

Pity poor Uncle Sam.

The need to provide chaplains and otherwise serve  military personnel requires the government to define the indefinable -- What is a “religion”? –- and to deal with  the increasing variety of American faiths. An April 21 Kimberly Winston report for Religion News Service revealed that a Department of Defense memo to manpower directors (.pdf here), issued back on March 27, doubles recognized religious preferences, to 221.

Religion-beat writers might well pursue Winston’s scoop with local angles or see how it’s playing among military-watchers and leaders in conventional religions.

Atheists and humanists campaigned for the military’s broadened list so that chaplains will help soldiers of those persuasions to get resources and contact like-minded groups and individuals, and so that followers of new and small faiths or non-faith can be granted leave for their festival observances, travel to group   events, and such.

Among the religions that made the revised list (which, alas, is not alphabetized by DOD!): Asatru, Deism, Druid, Eckankar, Gard Wi, Magick, Sacred Well, Spiral Tree, Troth and generic “Heathen,” “New Age” and “Shaman.” But not Scientology, which long fought the IRS for recognition as a religion to gain tax exemption.

Soldiers can now be listed as “no preference, “no religion,” “none provided” or “unknown,” but no longer will be given the choice of designation as “Protestant, no denominational preference” or “Protestant, other churches.” How come?

DOD or its Armed Forces Chaplains Board flubbed the effort a bit. It would have been helpful to peruse last October’s 9th edition of the standard “Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions” (Gale, $500), or e-mail a draft list to J. Gordon Melton at Baylor University and pay him to spend a couple hours reviewing it. For instance, the new directive misses a few notable denominations and lists groups that haven’t existed since the 1980s due to mergers, e.g. three Lutheran denominations , the Lutheran Council, United Presbyterian Church and Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod.

On the other hand, DOD is up to the minute listing the young Korean Evangelical Church of America and the Anglican Church in North America. And it carefully specifies the separate Presbyterian denominations but also offers a generic “Presbyterian.” There are duplications, e.g. both “Christian Reformed Church” and its fuller monicker “Christian Reformed Church in North America.”

Some existing denominations have renamed themselves so it’s out of date to list the American Baptist Convention, Conservative Baptist Association and Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Utah LDS folks will be displeased to be called “Church of Jesus Christ-Latter Day Saint” (which contains several errors according to church and the Associated Press Stylebook). Soldiers can now specify their particular branch of Judaism, one of which should be “Reform,” not “Reformed.” On the Jewish left, the small Reconstructionist movement has been omitted.  

Come 2019, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers plans to use fresh DOD data  to update its listing of religious preferences in the military, which will provide an intriguing index of American religiosity. The current report shows atheists and agnostics combined are only 1.16 percent of those in uniform.

However, 22.36 percent have no preference and 6 percent are “unknown.” The MAAF’s categorization, based onraw DOD data, has odd quirks, listing “Evangelistic” rather than “Evangelical” Christians, putting Mormons under that banner, and listing “MethEpisc,” which presumably lumps together African Methodists, United Methodists, Episcopalians and Anglicans.

On a related and ongoing story theme, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is concerned over “infringements on religious freedom in the military.” For example, a constellation of conservative groups is hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will review the case of Sterling v. United States, involving the court-martial and bad-conduct discharge of a devout Marine who posted Isaiah 54:17 at her desk. Look it up.

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