Enlisting Faith

How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America

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Ronit Y. Stahl
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , November
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The relationship between religion and the state in the United States is excellently examined in Ronit Stahl’s Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America.Focusing on institutional challenges and changes within the US Military chaplaincy during the 20th century, Stahl hopes to demonstrate how “the military chaplaincy functioned in—and shaped—modern America” (3-4). While it does not feel accurate from her work to claim such a powerful influence for the place of the US chaplaincy in shaping the religious personality of the nation, the book does offer a marvelously detailed account of the formation of the concept of equal opportunity, as it pertains to religion and the state. From exclusive Protestantism to a tri-faith understanding of religion, eventually culminating in moral monotheism and its rebranding as equal opportunity, Stahl reveals the complex ways in which the state encouraged religious institutions to operate within the boundaries that the state believed to be most beneficial in supporting its political, social, and spiritual endeavors. Stahl concludes that “the story of the modern American military chaplaincy unmasks the bidirectional influence of religion and state” (6). The focus of this book, however, more accurately addresses the influence of the state on religion and leaves other works to flesh out religion’s influence on the state.

As an institution within the federal government which hires clergy, holds worship services, and delineates the meaning of spiritual wellbeing, Stahl perfectly casts the chaplaincy as a bridge between religion and the state. As society and culture changed over the 20thcentury, this bridge needed occasional remodeling. During the first World War (chapters 1 and 2), the chaplaincy functioned as a method for the state to “streamline its diverse and ethnically fragmented citizenry into more manageable groups” (17). This meant opening the chaplaincy to Catholics and Jews, in addition to the already represented Protestants. Other groups that received the opportunity to become chaplains predominantly found themselves labeled as Protestants, whether thist made sense or not. The chaplaincy endorsed a tri-faith model of spirituality which required many Americans to work together with members of other faiths. The ecumenism, increasingly popular among liberal Protestants of the time, took on a life of its own which Stahl calls “moral monotheism.” Described as “religious identity and moral behavior unfettered by doctrinal specificity,” moral monotheism enabled the military to unify soldiers under a single religious ideology and justify rejecting diverse and unique religious requests. They did not manage to eliminate all religious distinction (which can be most readily observed in the controversies over the insignia chaplains had to wear), but by the end of the World Wars, the chaplaincy assisted the state in promoting soldiers and Americans who worshiped indiscriminately. “What prayers they said were irrelevant,” observed Stahl; “what mattered was they prayed” (113).

By the end of World War II (chapters 3-5), religious diversity in the United States had outgrown the tri-faith model used to identify soldiers. The needs of the state transitioned from moral soldiers to the moral mission of global democracy (chapters 5 and 6). As Stahl aptly writes, “the best national defense included a robust spiritual offense, and the chaplaincy armored American democracy with a religious mantle” (137). The state needed religion to support its attempts to fight the spread of communism. As a bridge between the state and religion, the chaplaincy devised methods of including more religions into its vision of moral monotheism by embracing Dwight D. Eisenhower’s attitude: “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith and I don’t care what it is” (163).

As the 20th century wound down, the state required a bridge that could make sense of its transgressions and control a rapidly diversifying future (chapters 7 and 8). The Vietnam War ushered in questions and challenges to the constitutionality of the relationship between church and state embodied in the military chaplaincy. As liberal Protestants struggled to participate in what they viewed as an immoral war, evangelicals and other outsiders found opportunities to pursue power within the institution of the chaplaincy. By the end of the century, Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christian minorities also managed to gain representation within the chaplaincy. This occurred as the chaplaincy reframed its view of moral monotheism into the concept of equal opportunity of religious representation. “To the maximum extent permissible, a member should be permitted the freedom to adhere to his religious persuasion,” declared the US Navy chaplaincy. But it maintained the same stipulation, “as long as it does not hinder or restrict the effective fulfillment of the command’s and the Navy’s mission” (234). Equal opportunity meant that any religious person willing to put the mission of the state first and accept the limitations of the monotheistic demands of the state, could become a chaplain in the United States military. 

Throughout the book, Stahl draws out the tensions which plagued the mission of the military chaplaincy: namely, to “figure out how to handle this [religious] heterogeneity and unify the armed forces despite difference” (260). Religious pluralism, conscientious objectors, differing worship needs, race, and gender receive wonderful analysis by Stahl. Very little is said about non-religious soldiers and their struggles to feel included and cared for in a state actively promoting religion, albeit a vague kind of religion by the end of the twentieth century. But those concerns come to a head more in the 21st century than the 20th, and her analysis is limited only by the timeframe she has chosen to examine.

Enlisting Faithcontributes a marvelous exploration of how the American government attempted to manipulate religious institutions into supporting its political missions. It reaches in its claim that the chaplaincy influenced all of American culture, because it is unclear how many soldiers truly interacted with chaplains over the 20th century and appropriated their religious views. Yet even if the philosophy of moral monotheism and equal opportunity extended no further than the chaplains themselves, Stahl deftly reveals what kind of religiosity the American state encourages and discourages in its citizens, and to what lengths the state will go to realize its vision of acceptable American spirituality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alan J. Clark is a doctoral candidate in American Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
April 10, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ronit Y. Stahl is a fellow in the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.


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