Military Chaplains Split Over Jesus’ Name

Today’s WaPo reports a squabble between rival military chaplains’ associations, the Secretary of the Navy, and the United States Congress over Jesus’ name, or, specifically, whether and when chaplains can pray with reference to it.

In recent months, the Secretary of the Navy and the Air Force have issued guidelines requiring that prayer “should be nonsectarian” and “non-denominational, inclusive” when offered at an event service members are required to attend by their commands. In response to this, the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers (ICECE) called for an executive order authorizing chaplains to pray in Jesus’ name, quickly starting a political groundswell.

Prodded by complaints from ICECE, 74 members of Congress signed a letter to President Bush last fall saying that “it has come to our attention that in all branches of the military it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christian chaplains to use the name of Jesus when praying.” In December, Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) and three other congressmen unveiled a supporting petition that has since swelled to more than 200,000 signatures. Calls for congressional hearings and an executive order have become a staple on religious radio and television broadcasts, generating protests of White House inaction by conservative Christians, who are usually strong supporters of Bush.

This in turn has created a counter-reaction by the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF), “a private, 40-year-old association of more than 60 Christian, Jewish and Muslim denominations. It says it represents 5,430 of the 7,620 chaplains in the armed forces.” They note that Christian chaplains routinely pray in Jesus’ name in chapel services, a fact ignored by those politicizing this matter.

While the ICECE is right to note that “chaplains must represent the church that endorses them for military duty,” they are also military officers. The rationale for maintaining chaplains on active duty has more to do with troop morale and spiritual counseling than it does with religious worship, which could certainly be accomplished by private churches at least within CONUS. The command has every right to set parameters for what chaplains do in that capacity, as opposed to their separate capacity as clergymen.

Further, it seems obvious that non-evangelical, non-Christian, and non-religious soldiers should not be forced to endure religious indoctrination as a condition of their service to the nation.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. denise says:

    This, frankly, is why I don’t like public prayer. It gets watered down so much that it is meaningful to nobody.

    There should be another way to send the message “hey, folks, this is a serious occasion” if we can’t have a prayer that really resembles a prayer.

  2. legion says:

    Hear, hear, denise.
    Also, I would like to say that the ICECE has completely failed to grasp the concept of a military chaplain. Their duty, in the military, is to cater to the spiritual needs of _any_ service member. If there are a large number of Catholics at a base, a chaplain must be prepared to perform a mass, even if he or she Jewish. If there are enough Jews, they may need to perform a Shabbat service, even if they’re Moslem. And they must always be ready to provide spiritual counseling to any member, of any religion. That is the duty of a military chaplain.

    Any chaplain who cannot reconcile his duty to his religion with his duty to the military _cannot_ perform as a chaplain, and should leave the military post-haste. Period.

    Frankly, IMNSHO, people like the ICECE do more harm than good.

  3. LJD says:

    There should be another way to send the message â??hey, folks, this is a serious occasionâ?? if we canâ??t have a prayer that really resembles a prayer.

    Resembles a prayer to whom? Being part of the group means that you can accept generic words of goodwill from clergy as being positive. It would take hours to deliver faith specific messages, however I do believe there is a benefit to having a blessing. Avoiding it because of a few squeaky wheels would truly be a loss.

    Of course it all depends on the venue, and no matter what you do, it will probably piss of the atheists. I think they need to just take the message for being a few kind words in a difficult time, and leave it at that.

    Frankly, IMNSHO, people like the ICECE do more harm than good.

    I don’t disagree. Perhaps we should give the military more credit, as it seems their policy is more often than not leading-edge, and has instructional value for civilians. Many disagree with how they do things (don’t ask-don’t tell), but they do it because it works and gets them back on more important things- like the mission.

  4. NoZe says:

    >There should be another way to send the >message â??hey, folks, this is a serious >occasionâ?? if we canâ??t have a prayer that really >resembles a prayer.

    What’s wrong with a moment of silence?

  5. denise says:

    “Resemble a prayer to whom?”

    I don’t care. Somebody.

    “What’s wrong with a moment of silence?”

    Nothing. But if it’s not religious, we don’t have to have a member of the clergy initiate it.

  6. just me says:

    If there are a large number of Catholics at a base, a chaplain must be prepared to perform a mass, even if he or she Jewish.

    This isn’t exactly right.

    A Jewish Chaplain can not perform mass. WHen my husband was in the Navy, if a chaplain was of a different faith from others on board, they would appoint a representative to act as a sort of assistant to the chaplain. One of my husbands friends did this on his ship for Catholics who were on board ship. I remember he received some additional training. If the chaplain is Jewish, then Catholic and protestants would be assitants, if the Chaplain was Catholic there would be a protestant representative.

    I think a chaplain should be able to lead a worship service however he desires according to his faith, and I agree that if it is a command ceremony where service members are required to attend that the goal should be to avoid sectarianism, but I also don’t think it is the end of the world if a pastors offers a prayer in Jesus’ name, nor do I think malice should be ascribed to him, or even should he be punished. These are adults, they should be able to deal with it.

  7. slickdpdx says:

    I am an atheist but I don’t mind public prayer – assuming there is a rotation of faiths that reflects the population. I like hearing all the different expressions of faith. Its interesting and it doesn’t hurt me.