98% Christian military chaplaincy reinforces barriers to diversity

98% and holding fast

The military chaplaincy has a diversity problem and it just got worse. The chaplaincy is currently 98% Christian, 90% Protestant, and 66% “evangelistic” Christian (the denominations that may engage in a more political expression of their religion). The same denominations in the general military population are 70%, 50%, and 19% respectively. This mismatch in the diversity in the chaplaincy is a problem on its face that the military should address with aggressive training and recruitment initiatives.

Contrary to that approach, the Armed Forces Chaplains Board with the input of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, which accepts only current military chaplain endorsers, have updated regulations to include a new barrier to potential chaplain endorsers. Department of Defense Instruction 1304.28, the regulation governing chaplain accessions, was revised in January 2012 to include a new provision prohibiting new endorsers from using a currently serving chaplain as their first chaplain candidate. Candidates for Wiccan, pagan, Hindu, and humanist chaplains who have approached MAAF, and possibly others, have been currently-serving and fully-qualified chaplains and would have been ineligible if this new barrier had been in place.

A representative from the Armed Forces Chaplains Board indicated to MAAF that the change was intended to increase the authenticity of new endorsers and their candidates. If a chaplain were to convert, then they should focus on that conversion experience. The regulations now implement a veto authority for the military over endorser decisions and who can represent what religious community. This creates Establishment clause questions especially since the barrier is applied exclusively to new endorsers and not the “in-crowd” of current endorsers.

A lawyer working on chaplaincy and endorsement suggested the change was intended to increase the quality of endorsers. However, the change focuses exclusively on new endorsers, doing resolve the challenges of endorsers and endorsements (this link is not related to the lawyer referenced). Recommendations 3 and 4 below would go much further to improve the quality of current chaplains and their endorsers by providing for more consistent application of chaplaincy standards.

Given the history and potential future of new endorsers and current chaplains, it makes more sense that this “no-current-chaplains” barrier was put in place with the intention of blocking non-Christian candidates (or new Christian denominations). This new barrier has been added to other regulatory obstacles that are already applied to first-time chaplain endorsers: First time endorsers must have an active duty candidate (not reserve or national guard) and cannot use the Chaplain Candidate program for development (which is a guard or reserve position), and there can be no waivers for the first-time candidate (such as for age or education). These existing barriers make the recruitment of new chaplains difficult enough for new endorsers. The new barrier against currently-serving chaplains goes even further. The collective effect is to limit diversity and in certain cases would cause a chaplain to lose their career not due to job performance but simply as a result of changing their beliefs. When Hindu chaplain Pratima Dharm converted from Christianity, she would have lost her chaplain career because of her changed beliefs.

MAAF recommends the Department of Defense consider the following reforms with respect to chaplain accessions in furtherance of diversity within the chaplaincy and the overall quality of support provided by the chaplaincy to a diverse and pluralistic military community:

  1. Delete the new current chaplain restriction (“not currently endorsed by another religious organization”) which was added to the new version of DoD Instruction 1304.28 Section E 3.1.2. This will allow new endorsers to use currently-serving chaplains and will allow for chaplains to freely adopt new beliefs without fear of losing their career.
  2. Rescind all barriers to new chaplain endorsers that do not apply to existing endorsers, which would include removing “without requirement for waivers of the standards” in Section E 3.1.2 and adding an option for National Guard and Reserve applications to the existing Active Duty application called for E. This would allow the Armed Forces Chaplains Board to consider waivers for candidates of new endorsers just as they do for existing endorsers and would allow candidates to enter into National Guard or Reserve service and to benefit from chaplain candidacy programs during their schooling.
  3. Rescind all special waivers for unaccredited education provided for in Sections 6.2.1 and 6.2.2. Religious education is valid for chaplains entering into schooling, but without accreditation, the Department of Defense can have no assurances. These accreditation exceptions are also most beneficial to smaller Bible Colleges such as Liberty University. These special concessions to Evangelistic denominations may explain the strong over-representation of evangelistic chaplains in the military.
  4. Rescind all special grandfathering of endorsing agencies that do not hold Section 170b1Ai “church/synagogue/congregation” tax-exempt statuses as required by Section E Some of the largest endorsers, including the National Association of Evangelicals and Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches are nonprofit organizations but don’t meet the higher “church” standard currently required within the regulation.

The current obstacles to new endorsing agencies apply barriers on the basis of church of belief systems rather than on the quality of the candidates. The military is privileging incumbent religious traditions while showing prejudice against the growing diversity of belief within the military.

Rescinding the grandfathering of non-church (Section 170b1Ai) endorsing agencies would require special care to allow chaplains ample opportunity to find other endorsers without immediately losing their position. Some current endorsing agencies maintain statements of belief but have no direct congregations or churches with beliefs to whom that chaplain would minister. As a result, the intention of chaplain endorsement, to provide authentic clergy to adherents spread around the world by the military, is lost. During this process, chaplains would present their credentials to a community of belief that they could represent.

One of the grandfathered agencies that would be affected, The Coalition of Spirit-Filled Churches, is a non-church/non-denominational endorsing body but takes seriously its role as intermediary between specific congregations (and associations of congregations) and chaplaincy as well as the solemn duty of endorsement. They also provide an extra service in reporting annually to the DoD, providing a listing of the specific church congregations to which their endorsed clergy are ultimately accountable. This is an example of a current method being used to address the issue of non-church endorsers and their lack of providing a means to corroborate their DoD reports or hold their chaplains accountable in a meaningful manner. Their endorsed chaplains by virtue of a responsible endorsing body would be able to easily gain a church endorsement.

It is true the endorsing agencies would lose significant funding as some of them charge chaplains fees sometimes 5% of total chaplain income for the privilege of providing the endorsement (and some do so for free) but the private business concerns are not within the purview of the military. In addition, those administrative agencies would have every opportunity to process paperwork and advise churches on the process of military endorsement, but the church would have the final say on endorsement, not the current nonprofit non-church endorser. Overall, these changes would put on an equal par those communities of belief that are already represented in the chaplaincy with those diversity communities that are represented within the ranks but not within the chaplaincy.

These new barriers may draw legal challenges by those who have no chaplain or who wish to be chaplains, as well as those who simply support a diverse and inclusive chaplaincy. The strong concessions given to grandfathered chaplain endorsers and the strong barriers to entry of new chaplain agencies puts some beliefs above others in military regulations. Not all current chaplain endorsing agencies (which is to say not all current kinds of belief) had to overcome the current barriers that exist. This means that certain beliefs hold sway and if individuals hold different beliefs, then they will not receive equal support, at least not unless they overcome unequal barriers. In addition, if chaplains personally adopt different beliefs, then they may suffer loss of their chaplain career due to no factor other than that their beliefs came into conflict with military regulations.

The reforms listed here relate primarily to the accession of chaplains. The training and activities of chaplains, the treatment of different beliefs, and expression and establishment of religion in the military context, chaplaincy professional ethics, and the issues facing nontheists in the military in particular are other issues that need increased dialogue. However, these chaplain accessions reforms are broad in scope as they will benefit minority Christian religions, Muslims, Jews, and other belief systems who seek better representation in the chaplaincy and who have candidates that wish to serve in a chaplain capacity. More importantly, these reforms will affect military personnel on the ground level who seek a more diverse and effective chaplaincy.