Progressive People of Faith Have Abandoned the Military Chaplaincy
By Tom Carpenter, attorney and former Marine Captain
During this Holy Week I have spent much time thinking about the meaning of Easter and Passover, two of the most important celebrations in the life of Christians and Jews. As, co-chair of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, I have reflected on what has happened in the Military Chaplaincy in the past several decades, and have reached the conclusion that those of us of faith have abandoned the field.
This opinion is based in part upon a recent visit to the United States Military Academy at West Point. West Point is the heart and soul of the Army Officer Corps. “Duty, Honor and Country” are not just words but a code of honor that has produced some of America’s greatest military leaders. What happens at West Point today will mold and guide Cadets throughout their careers, and through them the future of the US Army.
I was raised as an Army brat and still remember the first time I visited West Point at the age of twelve. What stood out at the time, besides the discipline of the Corps of Cadets on formal parade on the Plain, was the architecture of the place. Most significant was the magnificent gothic Cadet Chapel atop the Plain. During that visit I attended Sunday service, which was rich with symbolism both military and theological.
Even though the service was ecumenical, it was clearly Episcopalian, using the Book of Common Prayer and a high church liturgy with all the pomp that makes the Church so unique.
Our family attended services regularly on the Posts were my dad was stationed. In the late 1950′s and throughout the 1960′s, most of the services were led by mainline Protestant chaplains who seemed to craft the services to meet the Army’s requirement to be pluralistic, but at the same time brought with them their own faith traditions. My dad was brought up as a Southern Baptist and my mother was a Northern Baptist, so I had been exposed to the more conservative mainline Protestant faiths at that time.
One of my dad’s last assignments before I went off to college was at Ft. Jay on Governor’s Island, New York. The Post Chapel was a gothic structure and the services we very much Episcopalian. I served as an altar boy and sang in the choir. During our second year at Ft. Jay, I was invited to audition for the Boys Choir at St. John the Divine (aka the Unfinished).
This would mean I would be attending the Episcopal School and living in New York City. My parents declined and told me they didn’t want me to be away from home during these formative years. I think they were fearful I would become an Episcopalian!
You can imagine their shock when I announced I would attend the U. S. Naval Academy instead of West Point. In
reality they were happy I was attending a service academy, but I am sure they never quite got over my shouting “Go Navy, Beat Army,’ when they visited me during Plebe summer in 1966.
The Naval Academy Chapel is as important to the Navy as West Point’s is to the Army. It too is steeped in tradition and history. The body of John Paul Jones is in a crypt below the Chapel, once guarded 24/7 by Marines in their dress blues. Plebes do not become full-fledged Midshipmen until they sight the Chapel dome upon return from their Youngster (sophomore) cruise. Before the Supreme Court struck down mandatory church attendance at the service academies, there would be a Sunday morning formation and the entire Protestant Brigade of Midshipmen would march to Chapel. The service was far more pluralistic than West Point, but still steeped with pomp and tradition.
In 1968, during my Second Class (Junior) year, I participated in an exchange program where a Cadet from West Point would switch with a Midshipman for several weeks. During the exchange I attended class, participated in military activities such as marching to chow, and attended Sunday services. The Chapel at West Point remained as I remembered it as a child; still Episcopalian and very high church.
I went on to graduate from the Naval Academy in 1970 and become a Marine pilot, leaving the service at the end of my obligation, primary because of the then long-standing ban on GLB service. It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life but I could no longer continue to live a lie. As they say, there are no ex-Marines, so I continued to be involved with the services and remain a supporter of these great institutions.
Over the past decades, I heard from many sources that fundamentalist Christians had a plan to evangelize the entire military. This became major news a few years ago when the Air Force Academy was the center of a controversy about Cadets proselytizing and harassing Cadets who were not fundamentalist Christians. There have also been stories about Chaplains refusing to minister to the troops unless they can end non-denominational prayers “in Jesus’ name.” I have seen photos of Army recruits with a weapon in one hand and the Holy Bible in the other.
In our current wars in two Moslem countries, some of our troops, at the prompting of fundamentalists, have been reported distributing Bibles written in Arabic to the local citizens.
The reality of this move to the right did not hit me until a visit to West Point late last year. My good friend, Army Lt. Dan Choi, who was a recent West Point graduate and had sung in the choir, asked me if I wanted to attend Sunday service with him. I jumped at the opportunity.
Upon arriving at West Point, it seemed like the clock had stood still. The Academy looked much as it had when I visited in 1960 and 1969. When we entered the Chapel it also looked the same. The battle flags were more aged but the chairs were the same small wicker ones that were typical of the Post Chapels I remember from my youth. What I did notice right away is that the Book of Common Prayer was no longer in the chair rack and the kneelers had been removed. As the Chapel began to fill up, I noticed most of the congregation was made up of civilians I assumed were military dependents. There was a sprinkling of cadets.
As the service began it, brought back memories of my childhood when we would occasionally attend a Southern Baptist service off Post. The music was what is commonly called “praise,” complete with a praise choir and members of the congregation raising their arms to the heavens during song and prayer. The communion was conducted using the “silver” cup holder with the small plastic cups filled with grape juice passed around. In fairness, they did offer a chalice at the altar, but out of a congregation of over 400 only about 10 people took communion in this fashion. The sermon was not about the overwhelming love that God has for us, but was filled with salvation theology. The transformation of the West Point Chapel was dramatic and the service was completely evangelical. The only thing missing was the call for members of the congregation to come forward to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.
After the service, I asked the Chaplain what denomination he was endorsed by and he confirmed he was a Southern Baptist. I asked my friend what had happened to worship, as I had known it so many decades earlier, and he said that this was the way it had been at West Point for years. The Lutherans are relegated to a smaller Cadet Chapel and the Episcopalians were now worshiping off-Post! The Protestant fundamentalists were in charge.
The implications of this transformation cannot be underestimated. Mainline denominations have been relegated to second-class citizenship in the military. Why is that? I decided to investigate.
In the later part of the 20th Century, seminarians from mainline, progressive Protestant denominations were discouraged from becoming military chaplains; this includes The Episcopal Church. This vacuum has been filled by fundamentalists who find the military appealing and a means to proselytize young people. They have ready-made congregations filled with troops who are facing constant stress caused by being in harm’s way. As the saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” And quite frankly it is an honor to be an officer and the pay is probably much better than what is available at a small church in the civilian world.
In the past decades the all volunteer military has moved to the right. This is clear from polling and the public statements made by some military leaders.
The Christian fundamentalists have extended their grip on the services. The West Point Chapel is one example of how the mainline denominations have abandoned the field and the opportunity to teach and mold the future leaders of the armed services. Today we moderate and progressive people of faith are reaping what we have sown.
With Easter comes a celebration of a new beginning. It is time that those of us who believe in a God of love, stand up and fight the good fight. This should be our new beginning to regain the high ground we have surrendered to the forces of fundamentalism.