The Rev. Bill Devine, 7th Marine Regiment chaplain, speaks to U.S. Marines assigned to the 5th Marine Regiment during a Catholic Mass at one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Tikrit, Iraq, on April 19, 2003. Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Andrew P. Roufs

In recognizing multiple faiths, the US military moves beyond its shameful past

(RNS) As a freshly minted rabbi, I was an Air Force chaplain at Itazuke Air Base in Japan. Two days after my arrival at the base, I was officially introduced to Itazuke’s commander. He was a gruff fighter pilot who in physical appearance and style of speaking could have been John Wayne’s clone.

The colonel did not ask me to sit down. He never looked up from his desk, made no eye contact with me, and muttered: “Chaplain, you Air Force ‘holy Joes’ need to dispense religion like toothpaste. Just squeeze out your religions for the troops. Frankly, I have no preference for a specific toothpaste or a particular religion; for me they are all the same. Welcome to Itazuke, Chaplain; do your duty and good luck.”

The meeting was over.

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In a way, the base commander was correct. For many years, there were only three kinds of religious “toothpaste” in the military: Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism. And for decades all chaplains wore one of two special insignias on their uniforms, a cross or two tablets with 10 Roman numerals symbolizing the Ten Commandments with a six-pointed Star of David above the tablets.

The Roman numerals were historically inappropriate, even insulting, since it was the despised Roman Empire that destroyed Judaism’s Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. So I was pleased when in 1981, the insignia’s Roman numbers were replaced with the first 10 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The Jewish chaplain insignia used in the U.S. military. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force/Lance Cheung

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

And the days are over when the U.S. military acknowledged only three major religious groups within its ranks. As of April, the Department of Defense officially recognized at least 221 religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Unitarianism, paganism, atheism, humanism and agnosticism, as well as Wicca, druidism and many more.

The extensive Pentagon list also differentiated among the various streams of Judaism and the diverse Protestant communities.

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A total of 22 percent of the men and women in today’s military list “none” when queried about their religious identification. As a result, all military personnel, whatever their religion or lack of one, must be afforded equal rights, privileges and protections.

This belated recognition of the rich religious diversity that exists today is an extraordinary change and is light-years away from one of the most shameful chapters in the long history of the American military chaplaincy.

The Pentagon, headquarters of the Department of Defense, in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/DoD/Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

On March 26, 1945, a now historic controversy erupted when Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, a U.S. Navy chaplain who served with the Marines during the bitter and bloody battle of Iwo Jima, was invited to deliver the main memorial address at an interreligious dedication of the military cemetery on the tiny island. When several Christian chaplains objected to a Jew officiating over Christian graves, his invitation was withdrawn.

The interreligious dedication was scrapped and Gittelsohn instead dedicated a cemetery where only dead Jewish Marines were freshly buried. However, in a show of solidarity, three Christian chaplains attended the service. They were so deeply moved  by the rabbi’s eloquent words they distributed his remarks to other military chaplains throughout the world.

Ironically, the powerful eulogy Gittelsohn had originally written for the aborted interreligious service, excerpted here, became the best-known and still widely read sermon of World War II:

“Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. … Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy. ... Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. … ”

After the war, Gittelsohn became the senior rabbi of Temple Israel in Boston, the author of many significant theological books and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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Shortly before his death in 1995, Gittelsohn offered the closing prayer at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Va., commemorating the 50th anniversary of that horrific battle.

Gittelsohn reflected, “I have often wondered whether anyone would ever have heard of my Iwo Jima sermon had it not been for the bigoted attempt to ban it.”

I think even my base commander would recognize that Roland Gittelsohn and many other military chaplains “dispense” much more than spiritual “toothpaste.”

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. His latest book is “Pillar of Fire: The Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. He can be reached at


  1. I have known several military chaplains. All were excellent. I was aware however of conflicts within the chaplaincy especially by senior chaplains who were male from denominations which don’t ordain women against more junior female chaplains. However, I must say I have known chaplains of very conservative denominations who were also very supportive of Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Wiccan colleagues.
    James Madison famously believed the military should have chaplains, but that they should be supplied by the denominations at no cost to the government and that they should not hold military rank. This of course is not what happened.

  2. There has been much said/written about the mismatch of the claimed faith of military personnel and religious affiliation of chaplains. With 22 religions now recognized there is lots of room for conflict about beliefs without a better balance but also guidelines..

  3. Was once encouraged by top brass in the Chaplain’s office to nominate one of my chaplains, a rabbi, for a particular AFIT, highly competitive educational opportunity for chaplains. They wanted to make sure all the rabbis were promotable given there are not too many, or so the argument went. He was a fairly decent chaplain, but not my best. I nominated the chaplain whose performance was beyond her peers. Of all the chaplains I’ve served with and who worked for me, four were problematic, a rather small percentage One was riffed out due to weak paperwork reflecting a poor work ethic. Another was promoted even though I doubt the evaluations substantiated that promotion, but the individual represented a small minority faith group. Another jumped to the Army before being riffed out, likely a wise decision. And the other responded to counseling that even though he didn’t believe in Jesus being the Messiah, the military was not the place for him to go around proselytizing his ideas to every airman he met trying to turn people from their faith traditions. The rest of the chaplains really stand out in memory as men and women I and my airmen could depend upon. They were there all hours of the night for my folks no matter what the need. Sometimes they were there even before I knew they were needed. I can’t count the number of times they came to me with matters that needed intercession before become a problem. And the chaplains that work for me now, I wouldn’t trade for anything.

  4. I would not want a chaplain who was not a brother or sister in uniform and who was not a commissioned officer working for me.

  5. If you are active duty military, I imagine that is a common perception in the culture. Of course, consider, that has been the way it has been since before you were in the military. I suspect the practice dates from the mass mobilizations of the World Wars. I merely mentioned this was not Madison’s idea of how it should be. At this point, it is unlikely to change, for the near future. However, as a chaplain post is a good gig for clergy – outside the megachurch scamvangelists, pastors are mostly poorly paid. It’s nice work if you can get it. I don’t begrudge anyone for taking on that kind of service. However, consider this, as Madison did: As chaplains are both ordained or credentialed clergy of their respective denominations by becoming commissioned officers they therefore obtain a conflictual dual relationship in which their loyalties are necessarily compromised. They are bound to you as a parishioner and one to whom confidential counseling is entitled from them, but they are also bound to their superiors. When push comes to shove, you’re the one on shaky ground. That’s what Madison wrote, anyhow.

  6. An interesting commentary; I confess, though I served in the military, to being wholly oblivious to the question of Roman numerals vs the Hebraic Alphabet on the Jewish chaplain’s insignia, such distinctions are enlightening and telling. Despite being something of a Sadsack, I never had recourse to the base chaplain, I utilized the services of an Army psychologist when troubled, partly because my sense was that chaplains were entirely too generic for my taste, doubtless a function of the evenhandedness for which the military prides itself.

  7. Yes and no as to dual loyalties. I’ve only had a couple of issues with this. I had a rabbi who insisted on time off from exercises to keep his religious day and there were times his demands for the exercise of his religion impeded mission accomplishment. But usually there was a work around and when there wasn’t he completed the mission. I had a priest who didn’t want to do any military duties beyond his catholic responsibilities, but a bit of time in my office clarified that. But the other 95% of the time I have not yet had any problems with a conflict between a chaplain and his/her faith requirements. That said, I respect their constitutional rights to the free exercise of their religion and so I don’t ask or expect them to do things that violate the dictates of their particular religion in the same way that I would not require any of my personnel to perform a military duty that conflicted with the exercise of their religious faith, such as requiring personnel to attend a faith based event, requiring a Muslim or Jewish airman to attend a pork based meal and so forth. In the units in the Air Force that I have served in mutual respect has prevented any real conflicts based on religion. So I have to disagree with the “necessarily compromised”. None of my airmen are treated as robots. They are military members who honor their oaths and as far as our mission allows we honor them by honoring their constitutional rights to religion both for and freedom from.

  8. OK. I read somewhere that somebody opined that chaplains could have prevented the atrocities at Abu Ghrab. I don’t know how valid it was. I think it was in Joe Bageant’s “Deer Hunting With Jesus.” But say in the future there’s another Abu Ghrab in the making and a chaplain gets wind of it, but the top brass want to hush it up. See what I mean?

  9. I’m very sad that the US military has sold out Jesus. How are these people going to get blessed and end up in Heaven without Him? Very sad.

  10. Today I learned that a blessing from a Christian chaplain is needed for entry into heaven.

  11. Acts 4:12 There is no salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
    John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.

  12. You learn something new every day.
    Acts 4:12 There is no salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
    John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.

  13. Those verses say nothing about chaplains; or traditional Christian ministers, for that matter.

  14. You miss my point BWF. If false religions are being promoted as truth, how are people going to go to Heaven?

  15. What you consider to be “false religions”, their practitioners believe to be true. Some of them may even consider you to be one who is promoting a false religion.

    I’m not saying that they’re right, but people who are part of religions other than Christianity exist in this world, and you wishing otherwise doesn’t change that.

  16. Except the only way to Heaven, is Jesus, as was pointed out to you above.

  17. There are still no atheist chaplains, and it is christians who oppose them.

  18. What is more important is what chaplains say about those verses. That will tell you all you need to know about those chaplains.

  19. “And the days are over when the U.S. military acknowledged only three major religious groups within its ranks. As of April, the Department of Defense officially recognized at least 221 religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Unitarianism, paganism, atheism, humanism and agnosticism, as well as Wicca, druidism and many more.”

    There’s a really good reason why the US military didn’t recognize other chaplains besides Catholics, Jews and Protestants. Until about 25-30 years ago, few people served in our military who didn’t adhere to one of those three major religions. Now the US military has “at least 221 religions” to include in it’s effort to address the spiritual needs of those serving in the military.

    I wonder, does that number includes athiests? Recently they’ve begun clamoring for their own chaplains! At least that says they recognize having some spiritual needs!

  20. A chaplain by definition and historical precedence is a representative of a spiritual entity. Therefore, an atheist chaplain would be a misnomer.

    However, there does need to be humanist and atheist counselors that can perform the same functions. It is my understanding that these do exist. But, I’ve never had direct conversations about this so I could be wrong. I have also had several servicemen tell me that the chaplains they interacted with were very respectful of those with different beliefs. E.g., a friend who was a Pentecostal believer developed a close relationship with a Jewish chaplain. They were very willing to cross lines to help because that is their calling. To show God’s love.

  21. Universities manage to have humanist chaplains. Hospitals manage to have humanist chaplains.

    There are no military atheist chaplains by any name. Not one. 22% of the military is denied access to ethical counselors who share their world view because religious people block the appointment of qualified humanist chaplains.

    This is usually accompanied by self righteous blather to the effect “if you don’t believe in supernatural beings like I do, you are clearly devoid of all morals or ethics, thus are not entitled to stigma free moral counseling. Nya nya nuh nya nya”

    Imagine not believing in supernatural deities, and trying to get ethical counseling from a Sandi Lukins or DirtyHarry#1 clone, who believes everyone must believe in their deity and disrespects every other view as “false teaching” and “selling out” and who says things like “How are these people going to get blessed and end up in Heaven without Him? Very sad.”

  22. You are free to believe this. The rest of us are free to consign your myths to the same bucket as Zeus, Odin and Thor.

  23. You have no evidence to declare your myths to be true. You believe. Fine. But that gives you no right to dictate the beliefs of any other human.

  24. You are incorrect. We do have enough evidence to make a decision based on faith.
    So what amount of evidence would you need to believe on Christ?

  25. The word chaplain means “minister of a chapel” and once referred only to Christian ministers. But just as we have accepted the existence of non-Christian “chaplains,” there can, etymologically at least, be non-theistic ones as well.

  26. While I hope that the Humanist military chaplain campaign succeeds, the Nones of the military are not denied access to chaplains. At least they are entitled to that access. US military chaplains are expected to serve members of their own faith and non-members as well, without proselytizing, getting them the services they need, whether that’s kosher food or grief counseling. Of course it doesn’t always work smoothly but that’s the goal.

  27. Well let’s just hope that if you’re a military chaplain, you don’t push those views on the people you serve.

  28. 1. Describe the evidence that would convince you that Odin is a real deity.

    2. Show me similar evidence for your deity.

    The evidence must be visible to all, unambiguous and verifiable.

    “I know it in my heart”
    “Sunsets are pretty”
    “Stars exist”
    “2000 years ago, some people met some people who said it was true” and
    “My book says my book is true”
    Are not evidence

  29. How are they selling out Jesus? By having non-Christian chaplains?

  30. I think you have to look pretty closely at the uniform to see the difference.

  31. Non-Christian religions are accommodated in the US military, they are not “promoted.”

  32. They are denied access to chaplains who share their world view.

    The fact that chaplains are supposed to respect other beliefs does not mean they do. Especially something as basic as the existence of a deity. If they could respect that belief, they would not oppose humanist chaplains.

  33. But I’ll bet the chaplains knew; whether that was an issue for them personally is another question of course.

  34. Yes, some of the opposition probably is coming from with the chaplaincy corps. However, it should be noted that at any given military station, especially if you’re a member of a minority faith group, you’re not necessarily going to have access to a chaplain who shares your worldview. So if you’re a Jewish servicemember and you’re looking for kosher food, you may have to go through a chaplain who believes you will go to hell when you die. But he’s obligated to do his best to get that food for you.

  35. Words mean things. A chaplain by definition is spiritual. Humanists and atheists have a different view and are not by definition spiritual.

    So, those soldiers need someone who shares their worldview and has all the same functional abilities of a chaplain. They would likely still fall under the auspices of the chaplaincy services. But by definition they cannot be a chaplain. The only difference between what you seem to be wanting and what I believe should be possible is a title– chaplain. And BTW, that doesn’t mean I think you are devoid of all morals or ethics. Those are not mutually exclusive. Have a good day.

  36. Except, Christ’s reality is not contingent on Lark’s decided whether He is real or not.

  37. A Chaplain is to bring godly comfort, Arb. If they don’t represent Christ, they don’t represent God.

  38. The US military was once only interested in the truth. Sad to see this happen.

  39. Yes. Words mean things. For example, Chaplain is defined as “a priest or other Christian religious leader who performs religious services for a military group (such as the army) or for a prison, hospital, etc.”

    Except meanings change (welcome to the English language) and now not all chaplains are christains who oversee chapels. And now it’s time for the definition of chaplain to expand again. I expect we will survive.

    Humanist chaplains already exist. Google it.

    Words have meaning, but words are also used to classify and separate. Your desire to treat humanist chaplains as less worthy than “real” chaplains is petty.

    Petty is defined as “(of behavior) characterized by an undue concern for trivial matters, especially in a small-minded or spiteful way.” This word comes from the French word for “small.”


  40. Except, Christ’s reality (or lack thereof) is not impacted by Sandi Luckins deciding whether he is real or not.

  41. Like the moon landing. Which many deny happened. That was visible to all in the form of video. It was unambiguous as the govt. told us it happened, and it was verifiable as we have moon rocks – yet many people do not believe it happened. Do you believe the moon landing happened? I do.
    Specifically, what would be proof enough for you? Do you believe any ancient document? Herodotus or Thucydides? Can they meet your test for evidence? Can your existence meet your standard of proof?

  42. “Push”? What do mean “push”? Chaplains are permitted to preach what their denominations believe. Do you mean a chaplain can’t preach that Jesus is the Son of God? That He died on a cross for sinners? That he rose from the grave? That He will save those who put their trust in Him? Is that what you mean by “push”?

  43. Non-Christians have been in the American military since before we declared independence from your King. You are flat out wrong on this.

  44. I have met several chaplains, from Evangelical to Jewish. They represent their faith groups and serve all. If you can’t deal with that, too bad. Your attempts to erase non-Christians are embarrassing and violate our First Amendment.

  45. Yes, chaplains are allowed to preach the doctrine of their sponsoring sect in services and classes for that purpose, but they are not to proselytize service members of other faiths when the members come to them for assistance because a chaplain of their own faith is unavailable to them.

  46. I notice you did not share what evidence would convince you that Odin is real.

    I understand. Odin is a myth. You know it’s a myth. And you can’t imagine evidence for Odin any more than you can imagine evidence for tbe tooth fairy.

    So let’s compare and contrast moon landings with religion. Several decades ago, a science fiction writer said the way to get really rich is to start your own religion. A few years later he started scientology. Now millions of people around the world believe scientology. And L Ron Hubbard died very very rich. A couple centuries ago, a convicted com man said he found golden tablets that no one else has ever seen. The mormon church also has millions of followers.

    In all religion, very few people (claim to) have seen evidence. But lots of people get rich telling others to believe what someone else saw. Everyone repeats the stories that were told to them. Sometimes they even extol the virtues of believing without evidence. This is necessary because there is no evidence.

    There are no golden tablets. There is no planet Kobol. No one can dig deeper. When you try to dig deeper, all you get are unverifiable stories of what someone says someone else saw. The more one digs into the story of the exodus, the sillier it gets. The more one digs into the gospels, the more obvious it gets that there is no consistent story and most was borrowed from other mystery religions that were a fad at the time. There are only stories told word of mouth for decades before someone wrote the stories down.

    In science, thousands of people have seen the evidence and the evidence is still there. Thousands of people were on hand to monitor equipment during the moon landings. The people who walked on the moon gave interviews and wrote books. The evidence of Gene Krantz can be checked against the evidence of Neil Armstrong and the technician monitoring the computer display.

    The equipment they took to the moon is still there to be seen by anyone with the technology. The moon rocks brought back were shared with hundreds of universities in the US and around the world. At each university, dozens of professors and grad students studied the lunar samples. The more one digs, the more lines if evidence there are. Read “The Story of Earth” by Hazen and read about when his university received a sample of lunar dust. Go to the Smithsonian in DC and you can touch a moon rock.

    In science, “someone saw this once but no one else can see it ever” is not evidence. In religion, that’s all you’ve got.

  47. Of course, one would first have to provide evidence that their imaginary happy place is real.

  48. If only priests were around when priests were raping children, then priests would not have been transferred by other priests to new parishes where their position as priests gave them access to more children to rape.

    Priests and preachers do not have a corner on the market for morality. Being surrounded by Jesus and prayer and Bible verses changes nothing.

  49. Chaplains are permitted and expected to evangelize: to share their faith with a willing audience, to hold religious services, sermons, etc. What they are not allowed to do is proselytize: to push their religious beliefs on those who don’t want to hear it.

  50. Arb…..naaa……I won’t argue with you today. Blessings.

  51. But, it isn’t only Sandi Luckins who know the truth of God. That’s where you make your error Lark.

  52. Strange that when lefties speak of the “shameful past” they never look at their own miserable failures. Talk about narrowminded.

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