July 11, 2005
The Decline of Military Chaplaincy
-- Martin E. Marty
Sighting military chaplains these days demands strong binoculars -- chaplains are distant and few -- as well as measures of attention that most citizens lack. But to focus in on a sample: Forward offers a cover story called "Military Services Hit Hard by Chaplain Shortage." It features a very rare rabbi-to-be, Andrew Goodman, who may be heading for Navy chaplaincy. A published table shows how desperate is the Jewish case: While 2.3 percent of Americans are Jewish, and while Jews are slightly better represented in the military than many other groups, says Nathaniel Popper in the story, only 1 percent -- 29 of 2,850 chaplains in all the services -- are Jewish. And the prospects for increasing the percentage are poor.
Popper lists several reasons for this low number. First, there is a general clerical shortage, so there are few clerics or rabbis to spare. Second, salaries are low. A cute line from the article: "Higher salaries [are] available to rabbis outside the military -- an incentive that doesn't exist for many Protestant clergymen [sic], who generally start in lower paying positions outside the service." Moving right along, Popper also lists "fears of war" and, even more to the fore, "ideological issues." The kind of young Jews who would be heading to the rabbinate are the kind of candidates who joined non-Jewish leaders massively opposed to the Iraq invasion and war. (They seem to have been less opposed to the pursuit of terrorists in Afghanistan.)
Popper takes note of Daniella Kolodny, an active-duty rabbi chaplain in the National Naval Medical Center near Washington, D.C. She rues the fact that Christian cultures in the military tend to freeze out Jews, but she's far from Baghdad and is not sure she'll sign up herself for a second stint.
The plaints of Jewish service people, Jewish leaders, non-Jewish friends of Judaism, and people who care for all souls in the military are well reported on in Popper's article. They inspire reflection. When writing on the period of World War II in my book The Noise of Conflict, I had occasion to keep up on chaplaincy, and I've tried to do so ever since. The contrasts between that time and the present are awesome; World War II was a believed-in war in which the whole populace was engaged, including many conscientious objectors who took their turns at civilian relief work.
This year my wife and I have been playing a spying game we invite others to play. If you are not members of a military family, participants in military culture, or living near a military base: Aside from airport security line inconveniences, what signs -- anywhere, among anyone -- do you find that we are at war? Decals to "Support Our Troops" are cheap and meaningless. What are we doing without? The cynics (or realists) might say that our grandchildren will be inconvenienced by the debt we are amassing, but most of the action is as distant as the rationale is fading. Given that outlook, why do I write mournfully about chaplain shortages?
For half a century, from back when I was doing artwork for a denominational chaplaincy service, to the present, I have had empathy for chaplains. They carry dual allegiance, and minister to a passing parade of those who deserve care. They suffer great risk, and are bearers of solace in the worst of circumstances.
Popper reports on a caste designated as "critical shortage chaplain recruiters." Chaplains, he comments, are aging. Are they disappearing?
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.