July 15, 1999
Pluralism in the Military
-- Martin E. Marty
"Well, if you're not Catholic, or Protestant, or Hebrew, what in blazes are you?" an army sergeant barked to "some theologically precise recruit (probably a high-church Episcopalian) who insisted he was neither Catholic or Protestant or Jewish." So reported Will Herberg in his classic PROTESTANT, CATHOLIC, JEW in 1955. Herberg footnoted an American of Russian Orthodox descent and faith who lamented the idea of Three Great Faiths. "We know it should be Four," said that citizen, who would have liked an "O" for Orthodox on military dog tags.
We'll come back to the military in a moment, after lingering to hear astute sociologist Will Herberg's reporting on midcentury days: "Being a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew is understood as the specific way, and increasingly perhaps the only way, of being an American and locating oneself in American society." "A convinced atheist, or an eccentric American who adopts Buddhism or Yoga" might define himself in such terms, but would be regarded "as a 'Protestant,' albeit admittedly a queer one. But such people...are not even remotely significant in determining the American's understanding of himself."
Try out that notion on today's military, which might wish it had to deal with only three or four or thirty or forty religious designations and commitments. Debates over religious practices by people in the armed forces and governmental responsibility for providing chaplaincies, services, or "space" for all sorts of them troubles military and political leaders today. It would trouble them more were these times of conscription, of compulsory service, and not of voluntary forces. What occasions current discussion is the Pentagon's updating of guidelines on accommodating religious practices in a military "confronted by an increasing diversity of religious beliefs,...challenges caused by a sharp rise in those listing no religious preference, and a drop in the number of chaplains," to quote Glen Elsasser in a fine roundup of "Religious Pluralism [as] Newest Theater for Military Action" in the July 6 CHICAGO TRIBUNE.
America has changed drastically since Herberg wrote. Not that statistics of religious preferences are all that different. About 85 percent of American people could still be listed as part of a "Judeo-Christian" cohort. But since the 1965 change in immigration laws, great numbers of Asians who bring their own faiths have become citizens. The Muslim population grows rapidly. So does the Mormon population: do they want to be "Protestant," "Catholic," "Jewish," or "Orthodox"? New Age and New Religious Movements further complicate the scene.
Pity the military leaders who have to try to make their way through this religious jungle before civilian society has even begun to work it through. Along with showing pity and sympathy, however, many citizens will celebrate the fact that differences over such subjects are still, in the United States, subjects of debate and not objects of warfare itself.
Pluralism remains a challenge--and a gift for those who love freedom.