Congressman Advocates for Chaplains’ Prayer

Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC, 3rd District) has introduced a bill that would

ensure that every military chaplain has the prerogative to close a prayer outside of a religious service according to the dictates of the chaplain’s own conscience.

Similar legislation failed previously, though it caused negotiations that ultimately resulted in the rescinsion of military “guidelines” that had restricted the content of Chaplains’ prayers.

Mitch Lewis, an Army Methodist Chaplain, wrote an interesting commentary in November 2007 (and recently revisited) on this very subject, presenting a reasoned view that prayers at military ceremonies may be best done “at the intersection” of the circles of faith, officership, and ceremony.  He notes

When the [military] asks a chaplain to pray at the intersection of the circles of interest, it isn’t asking to the chaplain to say anything inconsistent with his faith. It’s simply asking the chaplain to select that within his faith tradition that is also consistent with his military role and with the purpose of the event.

It is worth noting that there are no known religions represented in the military that have doctrinal dictates on prayer phraseology (save those that have “prayer books” or their equivalents for certain liturgical moments, which are not germane to military occasions).  Thus, it would appear that within their faith systems, Chaplains are free to choose the content of their prayers.

In an ideal world, the military would avoid instituting rules which governed the content of prayer.  Some who aren’t even convinced of the need to use Deity names in prayer have found the military’s decision to restrict the content of prayer inappropriate, particularly when there was, at the time, no indication of complaints.  Also in an ideal world, Chaplains would choose to phrase their public prayers in such a manner as to fit the occasion, which would probably minimize the desire of the military to institute such rules.

It is a slippery slope, however.  If the military can dictate that Chaplains not use the names of deities in their prayers, they can also dictate that they not mention deities at all.  Such demands for non-sectarian “inclusive” prayers could neutralize the content of prayer to the point that it would be little more than a moment of shared feel-good or comforting thoughts.  (Notably, the current lawsuit against the Defense Department complains not that Chaplains said “in Jesus’ Name,” but that there were prayers at all.)

In many military ceremonies (that is, not religious services), a Chaplain is ministering to the greater organization, and it may be entirely appropriate that the Chaplain meet those in the formation or ceremony where they are.  “Ceremonial” prayer has a long tradition in the US military, and even some who oppose sectarian content do not oppose the tradition itself (though the ongoing lawsuit appears to indicate otherwise).

Some have accused Chaplains of taking the “ceremony” out of “ceremonial prayer,” and making it a purely religious endeavor.  It is important to note, though, that taking the “prayer” out of “ceremonial prayer” can be just as significant.