As I have told people that I am an Air Force chaplain, and even during my time as a candidate, people would ask me all sorts of questions about my decision to serve in this capacity. Although I don’t have a lot of experience under my belt quite yet, I have read a lot of regs and can answer some of the general questions! Here are a couple of the more common ones:
Are Chaplains’ rights being restricted?
Usually when people ask this, they’re assuming that a chaplain can’t preach the tenets of his or her religion with freedom and/or has to conduct the religious services for other religions. This is not the case. I can preach the Bible in my service with no problems. I can lead a Bible study to teach what is consistent with my faith group. I can pray in Jesus’ name in any of these settings plus any settings where people are attending voluntarily. I just have to be tactful when I am speaking in front of an audience at mandatory-attendance events. Really, I personally just adhere to rules of good public speaking: do not betray the trust of the person that invited you to speak by speaking about something unexpected, consider your audience, and keep the Chaplain Corps mission of protecting EVERY Airman’s right to free practice of religion.
“Every Airman is free to practice the religion of their choice or subscribe to no religious belief at all. You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own. Every Airman also has the right to individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs, to include conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs, unless those expressions would have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety, or mission accomplishment.”
– Air Force Instruction 1-1, 2.11
Do you have to do things you don’t believe in to be a chaplain?
As an Air Force chaplain, I exist in the military for one reason: to protect EVERY Airman’s constitutional right to freely exercise his or her religious beliefs. Chaplains are commissioned officers primarily to have the power and authority necessary to protect the rights of Airmen and their families. A little known fact is that the Chapel program is actually the Commander’s responsibility. Chaplains are simply the subject matter experts that run the commander’s program. This ensures that the program gets done and is prioritized high enough to be done well. Chaplain care meets the needs of ALL Airmen on one of three levels:
I serve all Airmen in some capacity even if they are not from my faith group; I just serve them differently. I am a Protestant Charismatic/Pentecostal Christian. This means that I “provide” what the Protestant community needs. I can preach in chapel, teach a small group on Christian theology, provide confidential pastoral counseling, run a retreat, baptize new believers or anything pertaining to the Protestant Christian community.
2) Provide for
The second level is for those airmen with religious beliefs that differ from mine and may need some help from another kind of clergy. I will never be forced to do something I do not believe in or that conflict with my faith or endorsing body’s standards, but if someone in the community needs someone to do one of these things, it’s up to me to find someone (another chaplain or a civilian) who can do these things for them. I do not personally do anything for the Airman, but I find someone who can to support that person’s right to free practice.
“The Air Force Chaplain Corps provides spiritual care and ensures all Airmen and their families have opportunities to exercise their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.”
-Air Force Policy Directive 52-1, 3.1
The third level is “facilitating.” Facilitating occurs when another clergy member is not necessary so I provide space and material. I would not personally participate in the service or ceremony, but I would make sure the Airmen have everything they need. One Christian chaplain I met gave me a good example of this when he was at a training base: he got a request from an Airman that practiced Wicca. The Airman was in field training during the summer solstice, which is a major Wiccan holiday. The Airman told the chaplain what they needed and what kind of space they needed for their ceremony, and the chaplain procured space and made sure they had the supplies they needed to practice their faith.
I can already hear the objection many of you have as I type: “You’re in the military! If a superior gave you an order to do something that would cause you to violate your faith, you would have to do it, right?!”
WRONG! Here is why: Every chaplain is an officer that is sworn to protect and defend the constitution of the United States, but that commission is contingent on our good standing with our endorser. Endorsers are essentially representatives of different faith traditions that are recognized by the Department of Defense. They tell the Chaplain Corps that a chaplain teaches what they believe and they approve of them. This means that if I start doing things that they don’t approve of, they can pull my endorsement and, suddenly, I am no longer a chaplain nor an officer. Because endorsers have that power, I can tell a superior officer that my endorser will not allow me to do that thing that would violate my faith, and then they can request a letter to verify that my endorser in fact does not approve.
“When you’re coming into your worship services, I need you to be authentic to who you came from. You need to preach and teach the word as you were raised to do, as your endorsers want you to do, as the community needs you to do. And do it in such a way that is loving and respectful… If you’re a Lutheran, be a Lutheran. If you’re Baptist, be Baptist. If you’re Roman Catholic–if the Pope walked in, he better say, ‘That’s exactly who I wanted.’ …We need to be authentic for our folks so they can practice their faith and grow and be strong on this military journey.”
– Chaplain (Brigadier General) Ronald M. Harvell, Air Force Deputy Chief of Chaplains, Basic Chaplain Course Graduation, 25 June 2019
I hope this clears some things up. If you have any further questions don’t hesitate to comment on this post, or message us on Twitter and Instagram!
Recruiting sites: Air Force | Army | Navy
Air Force Policy Directive 52-1 – Chaplain Corps
Air Force Instruction 1-1, 2.11 – Free Exercise of Religion and Religious Accommodation, 2.12 – Balance of Free Exercise of Religion and Establishment Clause
Air Force Instruction 36-2706 – Equal Opportunity Program, Military and Civilian
The Chaplain Kit – military chaplaincy history