Chaplains: Military

2012-02-09 10:04:23

Military chaplains originated in biblical times and have long been recognized as an important component of many armed forces. They have served in Western armies since at least the fourth century. From the earliest days of British settlement in the New World, chaplains were employed in American colonial militias. When the Continental Army was formed, chaplains attached to the militia of the thirteen colonies became part of the nation’s first army. Military chaplaincy has continued ever since, with its size growing larger in proportion to the increase in the size of the armed forces.

The federal government has viewed chaplains as necessary to the well-being of the military. George Washington, as the first commander-in-chief, felt strongly that they were needed to bolster the morale of his troops. Moreover, before the invasion of predominantly Roman Catholic Canada in September 1775, he ordered his generals ‘‘to protect and support the free Exercise of Religion of the Country and the undisturbed Enjoyment of the rights of Conscience in religious Matters.’’

The military chaplaincy was formally established in July 1775 and is the second oldest branch of the Army, preceded only by the infantry. The Continental Congress passed regulations governing the appointment and salaries of chaplains. The first Articles of War called on soldiers to attend religious services, which were performed twice daily.

Although their noncombatant status was recognized as early as the Council of Regensburg in 742 C. E., in colonial America chaplains fought alongside their comrades—as they did some during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Others played a more professional role by serving as intelligence gatherers and camp aides. In 1864, an international convention brought about the first treaty that recognized chaplains as noncombatant persons on the battlefield. From that point on, U. S. military chaplains did not fight in armed conflicts.

At first, American chaplains were mostly Protestant ministers, but by the Civil War Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis had also been admitted into the armed forces. Today military chaplains represent more than 200 denominations.

In modern times, the Department of Defense has continued to commission chaplains to accompany United States soldiers at every location they may be serving. Eleven chaplains were killed in World War I. Seventy-seven lost their lives in World War II—during which four became famous when a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and two Protestant ministers offered their life vests to young soldiers as their transport ship was sinking off the North Atlantic coast. The four died as a result of their sacrifice. Eleven chaplains lost their lives in Korea, and thirteen in Vietnam. More than 3,000 Army chaplains were decorated during the twentieth century. More recently, more than 500 chaplains were deployed in Iraq, many of them coming from reserve units.

Today, there are currently some 25,000 American military chaplains, serving primarily in the Army, Navy, and Air Force—on military bases, at front lines, and in medical units. The Chief of Chaplains determines their number and denominations on the basis of current needs of the military population. The Department of Defense recognizes a wide range of religious groups, from traditional faiths such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to nontraditional religions such as Wicca.

Chaplains must possess both bachelors and divinity degrees. Like regular military personnel, they are required to meet age and fitness requirements and to engage in military training (although they are exempt from weapons training). They are also subject to military discipline. Although all chaplains have been ordained by their denominational group, because they must be available any place soldiers are deployed, they must also be able to provide religious guidance to persons of other faiths. They are specifically prohibited from converting members of others faiths.

The most difficult responsibility of military chaplains is spiritually and morally to prepare troops to take life and to die, but they also serve as personal counselors. Many are trained in addressing the special concerns of young adults, such as family affairs and substance-abuse issues.

Military chaplains’ commissions have come under fire from a Constitutional perspective. Although Congress has been required to provide troopswith chaplains in distant parts of the world, their funding has been challenged as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Similarly, limitations placed on specific religious observances while in the military have been challenged under the free-exercise clause.

The U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit addressed the first argument in Katcoff v. Marsh, holding that Congress does have the authority to commission chaplains. The court declared that the government’s power is derived from Art. I, } 8 of the Constitution, which allows Congress to establish an army for the purpose of ‘‘preserving the peace and security, and providing for the defense, of the United States.’’ It viewed the government’s goal as one that does not include establishing a religion, but rather ‘‘maintain[ing] the efficiency of the Army by improving the morale of our military personnel.’’

The Establishment Clause and the statutes creating the military chaplaincy, said the court in Katcoff, must be viewed in light of their historical background. Congressional authorization of a military chaplaincy— both before and contemporaneous with the adoption of the First Amendment, and for two centuries thereafter—is ‘‘weighty evidence’’ that the Establishment Clause was not intended to restrict religious freedom in the military. The purpose of the Constitutional and legislative provisions ‘‘is to insure that no religion be sponsored or favored, none commanded, and none inhibited.’’

Moreover, said the court, the free exercise clause obligates Congress to accommodate the religious practices of military personnel who have been moved to areas outside the United States.

In fact, although free exercise has long been viewed as subordinate to military necessity, chaplains have nevertheless been successful in overcoming various restrictions placed on them by their superiors. For example, the Persian Gulf War presented special dilemmas for Jewish and Christian troops, many of whom found it difficult to practice their religion for fear of offending the predominantly Moslem host countries. Chaplains themselves were ordered to remove religious insignia from their uniforms. Christmas and Passover observances had to be muted or celebrated on ships offshore. By the end of the war, however, chaplains were allowed to wear their insignia and were able to hold both Christian and Jewish services in their encampments and beyond.


References and Further Reading

  • 10 U.S.C. §§ 3293, 3581 (2000)
  • Annan, Kent. Chaplains Who Serve the US Armed Forces, 6 For God & Country 3 (2002),
  • Brown, Michael. ‘‘Military Chaplains Role in War, History.’’ Air Combat Command News Service, April 25, 2003,
  • Department of Defense, Directive 1304.19 §§ 3,5 (Sept. 18, 1993)
  • Diamond, Mark. Deployed Chaplains: Faith on the Front Lines, U.S. Military Art Prints, April 21, 2003,
  • Drazin, Israel, and Cecil B. Currey. For God and Country: The History of a Constitutional Challenge to the Army Chaplaincy, 1995
  • Jewish U.S. Marine,
  • Lasson, Kenneth, Religious Liberty in the Military: The First Amendment Under ‘Friendly Fire,’ Journal of Law & Religion 471 (1992): 9:493
  • Malin, Don. Military Chaplains and Religious Pluralism, (April 2003)
  • Odom, Jonathan G., Beyond Arm Bands and Arms Banned: Chaplains, Armed Conflict, and the Law, Naval Law Review 1 (2002): 49:5
  • Separation: Military Chaplains—Government Chaplains and the Separation of Church and State,
  • Sweet, Michael. ‘‘Rabbi Brings Torah to Marines in Babylon.’’ Marine Corps News June 28, 2003,
  • War Over, Some Clergy Still Away on Duty. Christian Century, June 28, 2003, Forty percent of the chaplains in the army were from reserves and sixty percent were from active duty

Case and Statutes Cited

  • Katcoff v. Marsh, 755 F.2d 223, 225 (2nd Cir. 1985) 
  • See also Religious Freedom in the Military