I. Current Situation
Today, as never before in our nation’s history, there are contentious issues related to the free exercise of religion and the protection of individual civil liberties that challenge United States military chaplains in the conduct of their ministry to members of the Armed Forces.
One high profile issue is the liberty to pray in Jesus’ name, in public, non-sectarian settings, and without illegitimate pressures to refrain from doing so, both from within and without the uniformed services. The most common source of those unconstitutional pressures has been some senior chaplains and senior commanders who are fearful of offending others.
The secular settings in which these pressures are growing are settings of religious and cultural diversity commonly referred to as pluralism.
It should be noted that in the context of worship services, conducted in any military setting, the use of Jesus’ name in prayers is seldom an issue.
II. Historical Background
Congress established the military chaplaincy to protect the rights of uniformed Americans in the free exercise of their religion in environments where that exercise would otherwise be impossible or extremely difficult. It is no accident that the first amendment to our Constitution addresses the principle that the government may not establish any religion.
From the beginning of the military chaplaincy it was understood that the chaplaincy services necessarily included chaplains endorsed by different ecclesiastical bodies. Further, the providential circumstances of remote and/or combat environments required chaplains to provide ministry to those from religious traditions and communities other than their own. It was understood that such ministry was to be offered graciously, respecting the right of recipients to believe differently than the chaplain himself.
Well before the war of independence, the practice of offering public prayer in non-sectarian environments was a well-established practice. Prayer was commonly offered in local governmental meetings, school classrooms, civic memorial services, and even in Congress itself. For nearly two centuries, few saw this strong tradition of public prayer as a problem, so it was seldom addressed or challenged. In recent decades, that relatively benign situation has changed. Multiple lawsuits and court challenges became a major strategy for those who objected to public prayer at non-sectarian events.
This development generated a growing debate and conflict when a chaplain was invited to offer public prayer, and did so “in the name of Jesus Christ.” The reason this is so contentious is that many non-Christians, and even some churchgoers, rightly regard this phrase as implying that all religions which do not specifically highlight the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation, are therefore, “wrong.” In this, they are eminently correct, from the perspective of those who hold to the Bible as God’s inspired Word, and as revealing salvation in Jesus Christ alone. Admittedly, that truth, however circumspectly avoided in direct statement by a discerning chaplain in the wording of his public prayer, in today’s politically correct climate, is to invite attack, and, for chaplains, possibly cause damage to their careers.
Where the debate becomes murkier is in the widespread notion that chaplains, offering prayer at public events, should suppress the specific mention of Jesus’ name and use generic nomenclature to refer to God. That the specific understanding and intent of a rabbi or imam who would so use their respective traditional names for their god is of no offense to those of anti-Christian bias is scarcely surprising, even though adherents of those faiths also believe theirs is the only true way to Heaven. In the name of “pluralism” chaplains are often pressured by supervisors to restrict the expression of their Christocentric focus and commitment.
Yet, from a constitutional perspective, no governmental entity has the legal authority to tell a chaplain offering prayer, in a public ceremony, what the content of his prayers will be. To do so violates the stringent restrictions on our government to establish a religion of any sort. Governmental attempts at any level to restrict the content of any chaplains’ prayer constitute an effort to establish a generic religion, supposedly devoid of theological offense.
In sum, many Christians believe their entire faith and system of belief center in the person, and finished work, of Jesus Christ, of which one of many expressions is offering prayer in His name. Further, for some Christians, refraining from that obedience in such a circumstance constitutes betrayal of their Savior. Nevertheless, recognizing the diversity of an audience in a public setting, we counsel thoughtful language in the use of Jesus’ name (e.g., “I pray in Jesus’ name” versus “we pray …” and prefacing public prayer with a statement such as: “I am a Christian Chaplain, and am praying in accordance with my Christian faith”). Thus, chaplains and their endorsing bodies, have a spiritual and constitutional duty, to insist that they not be censored for the use of the name of Jesus Christ in public prayer.
That the PRCC petition the service Chiefs of Chaplains to cease any censorship of a military chaplain, or support of those who would so suppress a chaplain, who, by reason of ordination integrity and theological commitment, believe that he is required to pray in Jesus’ name, in all prayer offered to God.
That the PRCC petition the service Chiefs of Chaplains to train all chaplains in the duty of all chaplains to represent their traditions faithfully, without prejudice being exercised against those who seek to be faithful to their ordination vows, even in practice(s) not necessarily appreciated by the majority.
Updated on June 15, 2020
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