Muslim Chaplain to Oversee 14,000 Troops in US Army Division

US Army Chaplain (LtCol) Khallid Shabazz has been all over the news the past few days in response to the recent revelation he — a Muslim chaplain — was being installed as the chaplain for the 7th Infantry Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington.

Given the social reaction to Islam in America, to an outsider it may sound a bit dramatic for a Muslim to become the “spiritual leader for more than 14,000 mostly Christian soldiers,” as he has been portrayed in the press, but it’s not quite the fuss it’s being made out to be.

For one thing, Shabazz is no more a “spiritual leader” (a term the media is using, not Shabazz or the military) to Christian troops than he is a “spiritual leader” to Jewish, Buddhist, or atheist troops. The position of Division chaplain isn’t some kind of equivalent to “senior pastor” or archbishop.

Second, while much is being made of the prestige of his new position, non-Christian chaplains have actually served in higher positions than Divisions — though those positions tend to be viewed more as “staff” functions largely separated from the day-to-day lives of Soldiers. In that same vein, however, even as a Division chaplain, Shabazz will be largely responsible for dealing with the command and his subordinate chaplains, not being a “spiritual leader” for the Division’s troops.

Shabazz has a fascinating story. He grew up in Louisiana as a Lutheran and entered the US Army as an enlisted Soldier named Michael Barnes — an artilleryman who earned two Article 15s for disrespect before converting and becoming an officer and chaplain.

To be fair, becoming a Division chaplain is a significant event for Army chaplains. It is a position to which they aspire. For him to be selected would seem to indicate his superiors and the Army believed him to be a strong representative of religious liberty and advocate for the troops. It is possible his Islamic faith played into the decision as well, if leaders believed having Islamic expertise in that position might bode well for Division operations.

That said, the specific theology of a command chaplain or division chaplain is generally irrelevant, because it has nothing to do with their ability to function in that position — which is why the general public has absolutely no idea what the religious beliefs are of any of the other Division chaplains in the US Army.

At the same time, Chaplain Shabazz’s appointment puts some critics of Christians in an awkward position. It would have been easy, for example, for some to complain if Shabazz was a Christian chaplain who held mainstream Christian beliefs about traditional marriage, sexuality, etc. Some critics would attack such a chaplain for not being representative of the majority of his troops.

But as a minority faith leader, Chaplain Shabazz is no different: His theology is a very small minority within the US military — yet that fact does not disqualify him from his new position. In the same vein, a Christian chaplain who adheres to theology with which others may disagree does not disqualify himself from the military by virtue of his beliefs.

In another interesting twist, Shabazz’s long term ministry focus appears to be “manhood”, primarily in the African American community, about which he has written a book and sponsored a fraternity while deployed in Iraq. Fascinating coincidence, given the timing of the news cycle and this week’s focus on gender and sexism. (Shabazz also wrote a book on Tradition and Faith.)

So Chaplain Shabazz becoming a Division chaplain is a significant personal achievement, and for that he can be congratulated.  It might also make a good headline, but it is not really a sensational event. It is, if nothing else, but a highlight of the fact the US military values religious freedom — despite a few paranoid conspiracy theories to the contrary.

Most articles are referencing McClatchy as the origin for this story, which originated in January.


One comment

  • Yet another example that religious freedom for one advances religious freedom for all, or at least it should. If the MRFF achieves what it says it wants–genuine military religious freedom–it will itself go out of business, however. Which is why the MRFF is forced to look the other way in the face of evidence like this that can be found in every corner of the US military every day. Because their principal interest is not in true military religious freedom but in stoking fires of dissension that make for regular–albeit irrational–fundraising schemes.