Chaplains have long played a vital role in the armed forces of the United States – albeit one that has often gone underappreciated. On Thursday, November 4, 2010, a group of students, faculty, and staff at The Institute of World Politics enjoyed a rare opportunity to receive a detailed briefing on the nature and future of today’s military chaplaincy from the Joint Staff Chaplain, Navy Captain Mark Steiner, and his Deputy, Navy Captain Dan Deaton.
Chaplain Deaton described some of the history of the military chaplaincy in the U.S., which began in 1775 with the first chaplain of the Continental Navy. He explained that the chaplaincy allows all members of the military to exercise their first amendment rights – namely, the right to freely exercise their religion – wherever they are deployed. U.S. military chaplains are noncombatants.
He also noted that there is new Joint Publication which describes the role of chaplains have in today’s military. One major change is the change of title from “religious support in joint operations” to “religious affairs in joint operations.” “Religious support” involves attending to the spiritual needs of U.S. service members; “religious affairs” connotes both conventional religious ministry and religious advisement, which is the practice of informing the commander on the impact of religion on operations.
The chaplains noted that religion remains a major force throughout the world, particularly in Islamic countries. In Afghanistan alone, Captain Deaton observed, there are about 100,000 mosques and around 300,000 Imams. By engaging in religious advisement, chaplains will make themselves even more valuable to commanding officers even as they must be careful not to act as intelligence officers, diplomats, or combatants. Under the direction of commanders who assess the risks, chaplains acting in their roles of advisement can reach out to other religious leaders and provide advice to the commanders about the religious implications of various situations.
This innovative approach requires training U.S. military chaplains to carry out this work at all levels of warfare, in addition to their traditional religious ministry. The chaplains need to be able to articulate the limits of what they do to commanders; identify realistic objectives; and to evaluate whether outcomes are good or bad.
Chaplains Deaton and Steiner addressed many questions from the audience, including whether military chaplains could help public diplomacy efforts in non-combat areas, and the types of topics that chaplains may address in interfaith dialogues.
Above: IWP student Krystle and Captain Steiner discuss the military chaplaincy