Bibles for the Troops

Table with Bibles in Kuwait, March 2003, just prior to invasion of Iraq.
Table with Bibles in Kuwait, March 2003, just prior to invasion of Iraq.

From time to time I receive an appeal from Campus Crusade (via Christianity Today) to help provide Bibles for deployed Soldiers. The latest message contained this quote:

“I am a chaplain in the Army preparing to deploy with my infantry battalion of approximately 800 soldiers. I have no Bibles or resources as I have just taken over this battalion. They just returned from Iraq this past November and are already returning again . . . Whatever you can do to help in resources would be greatly appreciated.”

While Campus Crusade is a fine organization and I appreciate what they are doing for the troops, I’m afraid that some people may receive a mistaken impression about military chaplains and religious resources.

No Need to Beg for Bibles

At least in the active duty Army, commanders may use appropriated funds (your tax dollars) from their operating budget to purchase Bibles, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price, Jewish prayer books, the Book of Common Prayer, the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, missals and other essential resources actually required to support the religious practices of their assigned troops. Chaplains manage the religious support of the unit for the commander and should ensure that every Soldier has access to the essential elements of their religion. When it comes to Bibles, then, that means the chaplain should provide the RIGHT Bible for the right soldier – Catholic Bibles for Catholic Soldiers, KJVs for Soldiers with “KJV only” faith requirements, the TANAKH for Jewish Soldiers, etc. Hymnals, bulletin stock rosaries, icons, vestments, hosts, wine and grape juice are among the other essential items that can be purchased with appropriated dollars for use in the field. Even religious education material and devotional material can be purchased. The bottom line, however, is that procurement – by whatever means – is based on the religious requirements of the Soldiers assigned, not on the chaplain’s desire to convert the battalion to his or her own brand of faith. Unit chaplains can order a number of these items directly from the government supply system, but purchasing commercially available items “on the economy” is also allowed. These items constitute a minuscule sliver of a commander’s budget. Of course the commander’s budget is limited and chaplains don’t have a blank check, but Army chaplains do not have to beg for Bibles.

Soldiers can – and should in most cases – bring their own essential religious books with them to the field. Not all do, however, and the field takes a toll on printed material. Chaplains deploy with religious material for Soldiers for the same reason that units deploys with extra air filters and tires for its vehicles: things break, get lost, wear out and so forth. The supply chain for religious supplies is not exactly a high priority during operations, so chaplains need to take a healthy supply with them whenever they deploy.

Chaplains can – and should in most cases – procure additional material for use with troops of their own faith background. Jewish chaplains, for example, should deploy with material to support the religious needs of Jewish soldiers who may not be assigned to their command. The same goes for Muslim imams and Orthodox or Roman Catholic priests. Chaplains from “low density” faith groups often provide religious support to soldiers outside their units. Even Protestant chaplains can bring a supply of Bibles in their favored translation or other material to use with Soldiers who voluntarily attend the Bible studies or worship services they conduct.

Effective Resource Management

I don’t know the chaplain who wrote to Campus Crusade (or what text is missing from the quotation), but if I were in a staff supervisory role for this young captain I would train him or her to work with the unit’s XO and S4 to get religious support requirements funded in the command budget. Then I would train him or her to work the Army procurement system. If the battalion leadership didn’t understand its regulatory obligation to fund religious support for its Soldiers, I would educate the commander and the XO. And then I would coach the young chaplain NOT to leave his or her successor in the same boat. Don’t just think about your own tenure in the battalion; think about your Soldiers’ requirements even after you are gone.

Campus Crusade reports a large number of requests for the Rapid Deployment Kits and I don’t doubt it. Somewhere along the line I learned one of the most basic rules of resource management for religious support: whenever possible, use other people’s money. There’s never enough in the command budget to do everything you would like to do, so it is wise to preserve your commander’s dollars for those things you can’t get elsewhere. When possible, use a different pot of government dollars to accomplish the mission. Or, if a resource that you actually need is available at no cost to the government (and it doesn’t violate ethics regulations), use it. Still, we need to be good stewards – even of the resources that others provide us for free.

In the case of Bibles, it seems that higher headquarters is always finding a source and pushing them down to subordinate units. In addition to Protestant groups who provide Bibles, there are also groups who provide Jewish, LDS scriptures and so forth. And somebody on the installation usually has a cache of Bibles laying around unused. So, even though I CAN  pay for Bibles, I hardly ever do.

I’ve also learned how easy it is to overestimate the need. Before we deployed for Iraq, chaplains in my division received a large number of Rapid Deployment Kits from Campus Crusade.  While many Soldiers appreciated receiving this resource, somebody overestimated the requirement. We couldn’t begin to give them all away.

So the one last thing that I would teach that young captain who wrote to Campus Crusade is this: just because you have 800 Soldiers in your formation doesn’t mean you need 800 Bibles of any sort. Be realistic when determining your need. And look around – there may be more resources at hand than you think.

What’s in the Rapid Deployment Kit?

The Rapid Deployment Kit distributed by Campus Crusade’s “Military Ministry” division consists of three items in a transparent, waterproof plastic bag.

1. New Testament, Psalms & ProverbsGood News Translation from the American Bible Society with camouflage cover - a “Military Ministry” special imprint with beginning and ending “help” pages provided by Campus Crusade. Most of the “helps” are in the form of “Where to find it” lists. The last page is designed to record a decision to accept Christ and the next-to-last page is a prayer list for the salvation of one’s friends. Soldiers do not frequently request (and sometimes turn up their noses at) the Good News Translation, but I personally like it. This Bible fits easily inside the breast pocket of the ACU uniform, either alone or in the provided plastic bag. It also fits in the shoulder pocket of the ACU uniform. This item is useful, but it certainly does not meet every Soldier’s need for a Bible.

2. Our Daily Bread – 90 day, undated version of a popular evangelical daily devotional. The regular Our Daily Bread devotional magazine is widely popular among Soldiers. Many of the devotions in this edition have a military theme or come from Soldiers’ experiences. Explicitly but broadly evangelical in its point of view. Published by Radio Bible Class for Military Ministry / Campus Crusade for inclusion in the Rapid Deployment Kit. The devotional fits inside the breast pocket of the ACU uniform, but just barely. It’s a very tight fit and difficult to insert and remove. It does not fit in the ACU breast pocket at all when the plastic bag is used.  Neither does it fit in the shoulder pocket of the ACU uniform. It fits easily in the mid-leg pocket of the ACU, but I personally hate carrying books there. They rub against your leg and over time can cause sores. The devotional booklet is thin enough, however, that it might not be a problem to carry it the trouser pocket.

3. Would You Like to Know God Personally? – Wedged between the New Testament and the Our Daily Bread (and somewhat hidden from view in the plastic bag) is a 16 page booklet based on Campus Crusade’s “Four Spiritual Laws” approach to becoming a Christian. It’s an attractive, well-designed booklet printed on really nice, thick paper. The “Four Spiritual Laws” reflect one form of evangelical Christianity’s understanding of what it means to become a Christian.  The primary aim of the booklet is to lead readers to make faith commitments to Christ. Even within the Christian community, however, many will have minor or major differences with the booklet’s points of emphases. The major issue for chaplains, however, is this: who needs this booklet? If your theology is close to the author’s, your answer may be “everybody.” Remember, however, that the chaplain provides resources based on the Soldier’s need, not on the chaplain’s desire to see conversions. Still, the booklet may be useful. Evangelical Christians may appreciate this renewed reminder of the basics of their faith. An evangelical chaplain might use the booklet with those who voluntarily attend a “How to Become a Christian” class. An evangelical chaplain might also use it in his conversation with Soldiers who have expressed an interest in learning more about the chaplain’s Christian faith. This booklet is NOT, however, a “give this to every Soldier” kind of resource. If you put the Rapid Deployment Kits on a table for general distribution at a Soldier Readiness Processing (SRP) or similar event, I would recommend letting Soldiers know that the bundle of material contains a variety of different items; Soldiers are free to keep whatever they find useful in the kit and discard the rest. From a “Free Exercise” point of view, this item will have the most narrow applicability of anything in the Rapid Deployment Kit.

As always, this essay reflects my own personal opinions and does not necessarily reflect the position of the government or my church.