O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
American Book of Common Prayer (1928, Military Edition) “Prayer for all in the service of our country”
Tuesday’s celebration of Veterans’ Day has gotten me thinking about military chaplains. I have a family member serving on active duty in the Armed Forces in Iraq and he has told stories of the comfort and guidance provided by his unit’s chaplain. I am also uplifted by stories of brave military chaplains, like Fr. Vincent Capodanno, who have given their lives to minister to men and women serving in harm’s way.
Not everyone, however, is impressed by the service of these military chaplains. Christopher Hitchens, a writer, intellectual, and fellow Washingtonian, whom I admire greatly is perhaps the most vocal critic of our nation’s military chaplaincies. In a 2006 article in Slate he writes, “why are there official chaplains in the armed forces at all? Is not their very presence, paid for out of the public treasury, an affront to the establishment clause of the all-important First Amendment? The author of that amendment, James Madison, certainly thought so.”
As a Catholic, I like the fact that my coreligionists are able to worship as they serve our country around the world, often away from their families. However, I admit to being uncomfortable at the prospect of spending tax dollars to fund Muslim chaplains to conduct sexually segregated services – an example raised by Hitchens.
In fact, a 1986 court case (Katcoff v. Marsh) challenged the constitutionality of military chaplains, but the court found that it was within the armed forces mission to employ religious leaders. Indeed, the provision of military chaplains is critical in allowing men and women serving in the armed forces the ability to freely practice their religion.
Writing in the University of Toledo Law Review Richard Rosen summarizes the court’s finding: “Recognizing the inherent tension between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses, the Second Circuit found that if Congress did not establish an Army chaplaincy, it would deny soldiers the right to exercise their religion freely, particularly given the mobile and deployable nature of the nation’s armed forces.”
So, as we remember the brave men and women who have fought for our country, let us also remember the men who have served them as chaplains, following them around the world, through artillery fire and machine gun volleys and roadside bombs. I hope we are always willing to ensure that those who fight for our freedoms are able to exercise theirs.