Jesus in Uniform

Can US military officers be required to sign a conservative evangelical statement of faith? That’s the question posed by the Wheaton College Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. And it unearths broader questions about the proper relationship between the military and fundamentalist religion. Can fundamentalists serve as military chaplains?

Christianity Today reports on the investigation into Wheaton’s ROTC program. At Wheaton, faculty members above the rank of assistant professor are required to sign on to Wheaton’s conservative statement of faith. Recently, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation complained that ROTC officers at Wheaton, who are paid and appointed by the US government, are required to be “of Christian faith.”

According to the CT article, legal experts had differing opinions. One thought that the Wheaton rule passed constitutional muster, since the ROTC program required all professors at all schools to meet their schools’ policies. Another argued, in contrast, that the current situation represented an unconstitutional attempt to “Christianize” the ROTC program.

For Christ, Kingdom...and the Rolling Thunder Battalion?

For Christ, Kingdom…and the Rolling Thunder Battalion?

This report made me wonder about other military questions. In my recent trip to the archives of Bob Jones University, I discovered to my surprise that BJU had pursued an aggressive policy of finding spots for its seminary graduates in military chaplaincies. The fundamentalist school had used its considerable influence in the US government to grease the pipeline from the BJU seminary into military positions.

Now, I admit my vast ignorance about the role of chaplains in the US military. Most of what I know about a chaplain’s job comes from watching MASH. I earnestly invite those who know more to weigh in here. But the notion that BJU was sending its graduates into chaplain positions made me wonder.

As I understand it—and once again I freely admit that I don’t know much about it—the role of a military chaplain in the US armed services is to provide two things: religious services for those who desire them, and religious counseling for all.

Throughout the 1960s, at least, when significant numbers of BJU-trained ministers entered the chaplaincy, the school taught a rigid separatism. That is, a key religious tenet of BJU’s fundamentalist faith was that believers must not support the work of heretics. In the world of American fundamentalism, those “heretics” represented not only Jews, Muslims, and Catholics, but even liberal Protestants.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this doctrine of separatism came with when the Bob Joneses denounced the headline-grabbing crusades of Billy Graham in the 1950s and 1960s. Graham agreed to co-sponsor those mass meetings with liberal Protestant groups. When enthusiastic attendees saw the light, they were sent to various churches to learn more about their new or renewed faith. And that was the problem for the leaders of Bob Jones University.

As they made clear time and time again, Bob Jones Sr. and Jr. never had a personal problem with Billy Graham. But in their opinion, sending new Christians to liberal Protestant churches meant sending them to hell. Real Christians, the Bob Joneses argued, could and should work with non-real Christians and other heretics on political issues. But they must not work together on religious issues, since endorsing heretics meant endorsing heresy.

With separatism such a guiding element of BJU theology, it seems to me that BJU-trained chaplains would be putting themselves in a very difficult position. If their jobs require that they respect the faiths of their military “flocks”—even if they don’t agree with those faiths—but their own faith requires that they DON’T respect those heretical faiths, what are chaplains to do?

I could see how some fundamentalist pastors would see their non-fundamentalist troops as a sort of “mission field.” That is, fundamentalist chaplains could see their goal as the ultimate conversion of non-fundamentalist soldiers. But that would put those chaplains at odds with the US military. As a governmental body, the military needs to respect all faiths (or no faith) equally.

On the other hand, I could see how some fundamentalist pastors might agree to respect the home faiths of their troops, whatever those faiths might be. But especially at the ferociously separatist Bob Jones University, that would put those chaplains in an equally untenable situation. They might be implicitly endorsing those faiths by working with non-fundamentalists on an equal basis.

Things are fuzzy enough in the world of religion and public schooling. These military questions raise an entirely new field of fuzz. Perhaps Wheaton College can make a case that its ROTC policy is constitutional. But how can fundamentalist pastors serve as military chaplains?