July 29th marks the 239th birthday of the Army Chaplain Corps. For many military and their families, the day will pass unnoticed or with very little fanfare. For others, the day marks yet another year that the chaplain corps continues to siphon money from the DoD coffers in a wildly unconstitutional manner. Is it time to 86 military chaplains? Can the services chaplains provide be outsourced to other counselors or therapists with little or nothing lost in the process? Have we arrived at that point in our military’s belt-tightening campaign that those Chaplain Corps officers should be lined up on our budgetary chopping block?
The site Pick Your Battles advances the argument that the chaplain corps across all branches should be heavily downsized or eliminated entirely. The argument is made in 4 parts:
- Article VI of our Constitution clearly states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”
- “very few people in the service use the services of a chaplain”
- “the religious services of chaplains are easily replicated at no cost to the taxpayer. One has only to drive out the front gate (to) have their (religious) needs met anywhere in the United States off base.”
- Chaplains are officers and officers are expensive.
Variations of the “constitutionality argument” have been around for years. But Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1983 wrote what was essentially the majority opinion that military (and other government agency) chaplains are constitutional by virtue of their longstanding presence amidst government functionaries. Moreover, military chaplains are thought to get a “constitutional pass” because moving service members around the country and the world might limit their access to denomination-specific worship and therefore be an infringement on their freedom of religion.
I think heavily downsizing or eliminating the Chaplain Corps would be a mistake, and in all likelihood, a catastrophic mistake.
I don’t doubt that the Chaplain Corps is a significant cost center. Many chaplains have families. Many are career military. But some of the figures I’ve seen about their total cost to the DoD seem inflated, wildly exaggerated or downright fabricated. But this is about more than money.
I also don’t doubt that many military and their families never use the services or counsel of a military chaplain. But I am skeptical (if not incredulous) about the claim that “very few” military ever take advantage of the chaplaincy. And it is true that many military families have their religious needs served off-post at a local house of worship. But simply because some chaplains are underutilized doesn’t mean they are expendable. The military is filled with skilled personnel who never ever have to use their training and expertise. And thank goodness for that. I’m rather pleased that nuclear launch personnel have been sitting on their hands for decades. Who isn’t grateful for that? But I’m equally pleased that those personnel are ready and willing to spring into action should circumstances demand.
There’s also an idea floating around that the Chaplain Corps might be replaced by contracted counselors or therapists. But this is a false choice. There are already multiple channels a service member or family member can pursue to seek out counseling or mental health therapy. There is no shortage of resources that aim at psychological fitness within the ranks of the military. However, improving mental wellness is only 1 function of the role chaplains assume. Celebrating religious services and administering sacraments are hardly the only “services” chaplains provide.
Their primary mission is spiritual alignment, not merely mental harmony.
I think it’s fair to say that if most people have a “why” (a purpose) they can endure all sorts of “whats” (individual challenges and toils). Religion is about meaning. It is about transcendent purpose. Though they are trained in counseling, chaplains are not primarily tasked with the healing of the mind. Chaplains afford our military the possibility of “atonement” …”at-one-ment”… the occasion of unity and reconciliation with divine purpose and universal significance. Their role is far broader than “feeling better about yourself and your life.”
They are physicians of the soul.
We live in an age when military suicide figures continue to rise. In spite of the DoD’s aggressive campaign to raise suicide awareness and prevention in the ranks, there were more military suicides in 2012 than there were military killed in combat. It turns out that the greatest threat to our service members is not jihad, but rather the service members themselves.
The Chaplain Corps provides an invaluable resource to at-risk service members and their families. They don’t trade in psychological balance; they mediate the relationship our service members and their families have with divine being. Many military join the service to be a part of something greater than themselves. If “military service” isn’t quite enough to keep a service member moving forward, would it be wise to eliminate that much broader spiritual safety net? To cut the ties our military has with an even bigger “picture” and purpose? To be able to offer our military a reason to go on living, to go on loving, when everything about their situation and their lives suggests that they cash in their chips… what better use of funding would you want?
Have you or your service member met with your chaplain? Should the chaplain corps be eliminated?
Chris Field has been an Active Duty Army spouse for 8 years. He teaches university philosophy wherever his wife’s duty stations take him, and writes regularly for DC Military Family Life. Being an Army spouse doesn’t define him, it completes him. Don’t ask him about Fight Club or Nietzsche, for you will never hear the end of it.