British Association for American Studies


Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and States in Modern America

Ronit Y. Stahl’s new book, Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America, brings an important new perspective to the study of religious progress and acceptance in the United States. Focusing on the American military chaplaincy and its role in legitimating different faith groups domestically and internationally, Stahl highlights the influence of the military complex in shaping society and social norms. Stahl tracks the influence of different religious committees and philosophical and moral arguments on the military chaplaincy’s actions across the twentieth century. While the military is often regarded as a uniform and conservative institution, Stahl effectively explores the ways that bringing together men, and later women, from all walks of life into the largest military in the world forced moments of progress that outpaced those of civilian society.

Enlisting Faith explores the entanglement and disentanglement of faith, citizenship and the state, and the role of the military as a representative of that state domestically and internationally. Focusing on the army due to a concentration of available material, Stahl nevertheless takes into account the varied experiences within each strand of the armed forces. The military chaplaincy was organised during the First World War in response to the massive influx of young men from a variety of religious backgrounds and was instrumental in legitimising the tri-faith construction of official American religious life as Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. Stahl brings together the government organisations and the non-governmental religious organisations that were vital to the recruitment and training of suitable candidates for chaplaincy: religious representatives who were educated, open-minded with regard to dogma, and capable of keeping their charges on the moral path.

Under the military chaplaincy, faith and patriotism were brought together in a ‘moral monotheism’ based around ‘an imprecise yet productive religious worldview that stressed belief in one God, respectable conduct, and belonging to the American nation’ [17]. As the twentieth century continued, and America’s increasingly diverse citizenship became embroiled in wars in non-Christian societies, there was a need to reconsider this tri-faith understanding of religion in order to continue providing religious and moral guidance to their charges. Stahl balances the political disputes over the integration of Latter Day Saints, Churches of Christ, Buddhist, Muslim, and atheist representatives into the military chaplaincy with the concerns of soldiers, chaplains, and parents, allowing for the consideration of how a ‘moral monotheism’ approach to the chaplaincy worked in theory and reality.

Though chaplains were expected to move beyond specific dogma and provide advice and succour based on shared visions of humanity, being accepted as a candidate to the chaplaincy was a key step for religious sects to be accepted as legitimate religious institutions in American society. Similarly, the role of African-American chaplains in a military complex influenced by segregationist policies is a definite highlight of this book. The changing ways that African-American soldiers were organised within the army was reflected in the organisation of religious representation, moving from the operation of what Stahl calls the ‘Protestant-Catholic-Jew-Negro lens’ [87] to a more integrated context with Alice M. Henderson (African Methodist Episcopalian) the first woman promoted to the chaplaincy in 1974 [241].

The tension between activism and religious ministry was enhanced for African-American chaplains who were expected to raise morale in their troops while facing personal discrimination in addition to watching African-American troops be humiliated by their officers. If chaplaincy representation aided societal legitimacy and acceptance, it was crucial that African-American chaplains were recruited. However, throughout the Second World War and into the height of the civil rights movement, the best of the African-American ministry was torn over their responsibilities in civilian life and propping up a system of discrimination. In the words of African Methodist Episcopalian Zion Chaplain Luther Fuller, “it was impossible to build morale when the men were being beaten over the head by their superior officers and were half-starved.” [91]

The meaning of morality is another theme that emerges throughout the book. In a fascinating, if damning, chapter, Stahl explores how the role of chaplain, as a representative of both religion and the state, became blurred from the 1960s with American involvement in Vietnam. Were, as rabbinical students asked in 1965, the military chaplains providing moral cover for an immoral military? [215] In another chapter, Stahl considers how chaplains responded to questions of social morality, particularly in relation to the sexual conduct of their congregants. Using the experiences of military chaplains, Stahl is able to use the diverse make-up of the American military as a microcosm of American society and the concerns and priorities of America’s young people at different moments in the twentieth century.

Exploring such a multitude of experiences over a century that was rife with international engagements and changing social structures is a mammoth task. This brings me to my main criticism of a fantastic book. With so much information, and so many important elements, this book needed a much stronger structure, or at least a stronger identity for each chapter, to do justice to its contents. With chapter titles such as ‘Chaplain Jim Wants You!’ (chapter 4) and “Maybe God Is an America” (chapter 6), and no subtitles, the reader is left with little knowledge of what to expect or what unites the anecdotes. This can lead to odd hierarchies of information. For example, in chapter 4, an exploration of chaplaincy messaging through radio shows jumps without warning to the sexual politics of the military, including consideration of homosexuality and the chaplaincy, and then to inter-racial and inter-religious marriages. A stronger explanation of each chapter’s structure would help to locate these discussions within their proper chronological and social context.

Ronit Stahl has provided scholars of religion, war, politics and American society with an incredibly useful book which has prompted a raft of new questions on a range of subjects. It builds on work such as Jacqueline E. Whitt’s 2014 Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War and continues the important work of uniting religious history with wider social history. It is evocatively written, bringing in the voices of chaplains, soldiers, politicians, and parents to great effect. The importance of religion providing the language of hope and solidarity is the key message that Stahl has left with me. The role of Jewish chaplains in providing religious and practical support to Europe’s Jewish communities in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Catholic chaplains in Vietnam who could communicate to local preachers through Latin while helping refugees, and the American prisoners of war who returned to the United States to find that Vatican II had changed what they had been comforted by are examples that will stay with me. I highly recommend this book to all those researching modern American society and belonging.


About the Author

Sophie Cooper is a second year PhD student and William McFarlane Scholar at the University of Edinburgh. She is studying Irish communities in Melbourne and Chicago between 1850 and 1890, specifically in relation to situational influences on identity formation and nationalist thought. Sophie tweets using the handle @SophcoCooper and more information can be found on her academia page.