Aiming to counter trend, UCC seminary will train military chaplains

A military chaplain serves as both a religious leader and a
listener—ideally one who can assist military personnel of all faiths. A
frequent refrain among chaplains is that one is a "chaplain to all,
pastor to some." But government statistics show that the nation's corps
of chaplains leans heavily toward evangelical Christianity, failing to
mirror the military it serves.

Even though just 3 percent of the
military's enlisted personnel and officers call themselves Southern
Baptist, Pentecostal or some form of evangelical, 33 percent of military
chaplains are members of one of those groups, according to the

The disparity could soon widen: data from the air force
indicate that 87 percent of those seeking to become chaplains are
enrolled at evangelical divinity schools. Liberty Baptist Theological
Seminary, part of the Jerry Falwell–founded Liberty University, started
its chaplaincy degree program in 2007 with two students and has more
than 1,000 today—all but about 30 students taking the M.Div. courses

The paucity of nonevangelical chaplains results from a
number of variables, but a major factor is commonly thought to be a
post-Vietnam aversion by mainline Protestant and Catholic seminary
leaders to participating in military culture.

Liberal theologians
and educators say the imbalance could compromise efforts to meet the
spiritual needs of many Protestant and Catholic soldiers facing combat
or the stresses of military life. And some critics go further, arguing
that the armed forces are becoming a mission field for evangelical

In response, Eden Theological Seminary is launching
its own program to train chaplains. The school in St. Louis is
affiliated with the United Church of Christ, one of the more liberal
mainline denominations. Its decision to train chaplains comes despite
reservations about military involvement and objections to war. "There's a
vacuum," said Eden's president, David Greenhaw. "And there's a general
sense here that it's important to fill that vacuum."

The roots of
the new program go back to a visit that Eden professor Kristen Leslie
and her graduate students made in 2004 to the Air Force Academy in
Colorado Springs to train chaplains there to deal with sexualized
violence on campus.

Leslie, then a professor at Yale Divinity
School, later filed a report saying she and her students observed cadets
who "were encouraged to pray for the salvation of fellow [cadets] who
chose not to attend worship" and were told that those not "born again
will burn in the fires of hell."

Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force
Academy graduate and president of the Military Religious Freedom
Foundation, has spent recent years fighting aggressive proselytizing at
the academy and across the military. "These are government-backed
missionaries for Jesus Christ who see the military as a mission field,
fecund and fertile for proselytizing," Weinstein said. "I commend [Eden]
for trying to fight back."

Military officials say they are
sensitive to issues of diversity and interfaith understanding. "We look,
in particular, for a pluralistic understanding or attitude," said Col.
Steven Keith, a chaplain and commandant of the Air Force Chaplain Corps
College in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. "We want you to keep your
theology, and be able to work with people of different theologies."

Critics say much of the imbalance stems from the fact that the faiths of chaplains do not reflect the military rank and file.

For example, while Catholics make up the largest share of active-duty
members of the military (20 percent), just 8 percent of military
chaplains are Catholic. Southern Baptists, who make up just 1 percent of
the military, account for 16 percent of active-duty chaplains.

to the Pentagon, there are 33 Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha'i or Hindu
chaplains across all branches of the military to serve the less than 1
percent of military members who belong to those faiths.

Air force
data show that the vast majority of prospective chaplains are choosing
divinity schools with an evangelical Christian focus. Military officials
say they can't change that. "We mirror . . . what's going on in the
civilian sector, so a decline in mainliners naturally means a decline
in mainline Protestant chaplains," Keith said.

As Eden launches
its chaplain program, its leaders say the school is placed in the
difficult position of choosing between a theological aversion to war and
a desire to right a theological imbalance they see in the chaplain

"There's a feeling that you don't want to affiliate with
the military for fear that such an affiliation could be seen as an
endorsement, an encouragement and support for warfare," said Greenhaw.
He said the chaplains that Eden hopes to produce would be "distinctively
Chris­tian, actively ecumenical and actively interfaith." And despite
some theological reservations about working with the military, the Eden
faculty is on board.

"Schools like ours have tended to not want to
be involved," Greenhaw said. "You have the full weight of ambiguity
about even having a military, but ambiguity doesn't mean people in the
military shouldn't have the ministry of the church."  —RNS

Tim Townsend

Tim Townsend writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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