How the US military has embraced growing religious diversity

Religion News Service | 11/12/2019 | Staff
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(The Conversation) — In 1919, Lee Levinger buried four soldiers in France. The responsibility to preside over a funeral was not unusual for military chaplains. But during World War I, most Americans would have been surprised to learn that a rabbi led a service for four Christian soldiers.

In 1917, when the United States entered the war, chaplaincy was a majority white and fully Christian organization.

Law - Backgrounds - Chaplains - Protestant - Ministers

No law specifically stated the acceptable religious backgrounds of military chaplains, but only mainline Protestant ministers and Catholic priests wore the insignia of the military’s religious officers.

By Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, Jews, Mormons and Christian Scientists had joined the ranks of the chaplain corps. As I write in my book, “Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America,” this significant change inaugurated a century-long project to redefine what counted as American religion.

Chaplains - Founding - Republic - Continental - Congress

American military chaplains predate the founding of the republic. The Continental Congress, which served as the government for 13 American colonies, authorized military chaplains to minister to soldiers in 1775. The armed forces have employed clergy ever since.

It was not until the early 20th century, however, that the chaplain corps professionalized and became fully integrated into the military’s organizational structure. At the same time, the variety of religions represented in the corps increased significantly.

Government - Chaplaincy - Draft - Millions - Men

The government did not spontaneously decide to make the chaplaincy more religiously diverse. Rather, the draft conscripted millions of young men from varied religious backgrounds to fight for the United States in World War I. Chaplains posted to stations with large clusters of religious minorities, such as Jews at Camp Upton and Mormons at Fort Lewis, began requesting assistance in providing appropriate religious services.

During the summer of 1917, at the behest of the Jewish Welfare Board, Representative Isaac Siegel (R-NY) was also lobbying the military to...
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