Chaplain Prayer at Military Ceremonies

This essay reflects my personal thoughts on the issue of chaplain-led prayer at military ceremonies. I offer these thoughts in this forum solely as an explanation to the church that endorsed me of how I personally approach the task of offering prayers in public events, and not to inject myself into a debate on public policy. It’s actually an expanded version of a letter that I wrote to my mother when she asked me about an email she had received. Someone had told her that the government is being mean to chaplains and “not letting them pray like they want.” As always, this essay does not necessarily represent the position of the Army or the United Methodist Endorsing Agency.

In the discussion that follows, I’ll use the words “Army” and “he” for rhetorical convenience, but most of the discussion applies to all military services. Both men and women, of course, serve as chaplains, commanders and Soldiers. I regret that I cannot write more easily in a gender-neutral form.


There has been a significant discussion in recent years about chaplain-led prayers at military ceremonies. These ceremonies include occasions such as changes of command, memorial ceremonies, retirement ceremonies and patriotic holidays.

In summary, I believe that chaplain-led prayer during military ceremonies should meet three tests: 1) the chaplain’s own faith commitments; 2) the chaplain’s obligation as a commissioned officer to provide religious support to all authorized persons; and 3) the military purpose of the occasion. The prayer should take place at the intersection of these three circles of interest.

Free Exercise View

One view of chaplain-led prayers insists that every chaplain pray simply according to the dictates of his or her own faith, even at military ceremonies and command-directed functions. I call this the “chaplain-free-exercise” view.

The “chaplain-free-exercise” view says, in effect, let Catholics pray like Catholics and Muslims pray like Muslims and evangelicals pray like evangelicals. Today’s prayer might invoke Jesus, tomorrow’s the intercession of the saints and the next day, it might even be in Arabic.

At first glance, there appears to be some merit in the “chaplain-free-exercise” view: 1) it respects the individual chaplain’s freedom to believe and practice as he chooses; 2) it’s a “market-place of ideas” approach that truly allows competing ideas to be heard and 3) it avoids the danger of creating an artificial, lowest-common denominator pseudo-religion.

In my view, however, the “chaplain-free-exercise” perspective is incomplete. It accounts for the chaplain’s role as an ordained member of the clergy and a representative of his endorsing body, but it fails to account for the chaplain’s role as a commissioned officer with specific military obligations. It also fails to account adequately for the ceremonial nature of the occasion.

I want to suggest a different approach to chaplain-led prayers, but first I need offer a little background

Why Does the Government Employ Military Chaplains?

The Army chaplain is not only an endorsed member of the clergy; he is also a commissioned military officer. The chaplain’s role as an officer entails both general responsibilities as an Army leader and specific responsibilities in furthering the free exercise of religion.

Chaplains serve in the Army because Soldiers have a First Amendment right to practice religion. Chaplains, to be sure, also have a personal First Amendment right to to religious freedom, but they don’t wear the uniform to serve their own needs. Their sole purpose for serving in uniform is to assist the commander in providing for the free exercise of religion for Soldiers and their family members. That’s why chaplains receive a commission as a military officer and that’s why the taxpayers send them a check every month.

Chaplains execute that function by performing religious acts for members of their own faith groups and by providing similar opportunities for members of other religions. Normally, the chaplain conducts the “provide” function through activities such as staff planning and coordination, supervising lay leaders of distinctive faith groups, arranging for chaplains from other religions to visit their Soldiers, providing appropriate religious literature, and so forth. Chaplains also provide some direct religious support to those outside their denomination in the form of pastoral counseling and emergency religious ministrations. Both of these latter occasions, however, deserve their own discussions and I won’t go into them here.

Public Prayers in Services and Ceremonies

There are two distinct occasions at which a chaplain might pray in public. One occasion is a religious service. There, the chaplain’s purpose is to minister to his flock with the full weight of his own religious tradition. An endorsing agency (usually a religious denomination) sent the chaplain into the Army to represent its beliefs and practices. It is the endorsing agency – and not the government – which determines if the chaplain is fulfilling his religious calling.

The other occasion for public prayer is a military ceremony. A military ceremony is an official government function. It is not a worship service, nor is it a forum for First Amendment speech. A military ceremony belongs to the commander and has a secular military purpose: building esprit de corps, maintaining unit cohesion and traditions, and so forth. Every action taken is the prerogative of the commander and serves the commander’s intent. Furthermore, attendance at ceremonies is a mandatory duty for some if not all of those present.

Memorial observances provide a perfect illustration of the difference between a religious service and a military ceremony. There is a difference between a memorial religious service and a memorial ceremony. If a Roman Catholic Soldier dies, for example, the chapel congregation in which he participated might conduct a memorial mass. A Roman Catholic chaplain would officiate and wear the robes of his sacerdotal office. The service would take place in the chapel and follow the order of the mass. Leaders of the Soldier’s unit will probably attend as a mark or respect, but attendance by the rank-and-file is purely voluntary.

If, on the other hand, the Soldier’s unit conducted a memorial ceremony, the unit commander would direct the ceremony. The ceremony would consist primarily of military rituals and speeches in memory of the deceased. The unit chaplain – regardless of religious affiliation – might have a small role in executing the ceremony (a prayer perhaps, or a short speech of remembrance or encouragement). The chaplain will also probably have a fairly large role behind the scenes in planning and preparing for the ceremony, along with the Command Sergeant Major. If the chaplain participates in the ceremony itself, he will wear a military uniform. The ceremony may or may not take place in the chapel, but it is not a religious event. Attendance by the members of the deceased’s unit is very likely mandatory.

Memorial services, then, belong to the chaplain and the religious community conducting the service; memorial ceremonies belong to the commander and the unit conducting the ceremony. Both share the goal of consoling those who grieve. The purpose of a Christian memorial service, however, is also to glorify God and rejoice in the hope of the resurrection. The purpose of a military memorial ceremony is altogether different than that. Confusing or intermixing these two distinct memorial occasions can lead to all sorts of trouble.

Prayer that Performs and Provides

If a commander determines that a prayer is necessary or appropriate at a military ceremony, the chaplain delivering the prayer still has both “perform” and “provide” functions that he must conduct. His usual approach of providing separate resources for different groups is not available to him. The words of his prayer are the only resource available to those in attendance. His prayer, then, must not only minister to the members of his own faith group, it must also provide as broad an opportunity as possible for everyone present – including members of other faith groups – to exercise their religious faith. Therefore, the chaplain must choose his words carefully, selecting from his own faith tradition those elements which most broadly speak to the occasion. He is not only praying his own prayer; he is providing words with which others can experience prayer as well. The concern here is not merely to avoid offense and maintain government neutrality; it is to provide an opportunity for religious expression for as many of those present as possible.

A Christian chaplain might object that he can only pray Christian prayers and that he has no interest in saying anything a Buddhist or a Jew could use in their non-Christian experience of prayer. He might object that such a broad approach watered down the Christian faith or that it established some form of official “we’re all the same” pseudo-religion as the official government position. There are three responses to these objections.

First, no one is asking a chaplain to say anything inconsistent with his own religious beliefs or that he wouldn’t pray on another occasion. In 30 seconds, however, no one can speak to the entire content of his faith or address every subject that might be addressed in prayer. Every chaplain already selects only a tiny fragment from the treasure of his faith to compose his prayers. In that process, the chaplain has the opportunity to select that which is most appropriate for the occasion. He should do so.

Second, the chaplain must be concerned with the free exercise rights of all present. Every Army chaplain provides a statement like this in the application for appointment:

While remaining faithful to my denominational beliefs and practices, I understand that, as a chaplain, I must be sensitive to religious pluralism and will provide for the free exercise of religion by military personnel, their families, and other authorized personnel served by the Army. I further understand that, while the Army places a high value on the rights of its members to observe the tenets of their respective religions, accommodation is based on military need and cannot be guaranteed at all times and in all places.

I also recognize the importance of a diverse Army Chaplaincy representing all faiths, genders, and ethnic backgrounds. I fully support the diversity of the Corps that enables the branch to minister to the plurality of America’s Soldiers.

The sole reason for the chaplain’s presence in the unit is so that he can provide for the religious needs of all. If a chaplain cannot in good conscience enable people of another faith to practice their religion, his vocation lies outside the Army. When a chaplain only thinks about himself and his own faith when composing a prayer for a military ceremony, one has to ask, “Whose need are you meeting? And whose need did you swear to meet when you took your oath of office?” The chaplain is not participating in the ceremony just so that the audience can listen to his private prayer.

Third, pluralism is the environment in which the Army chaplain operates. Pluralism is not a new hybrid faith of some sort of government-sponsored civil religion. The objection that “pluralism” is a “government-sanitized faith” is a straw man. Soldiers are participating in many real, diverse communities of faith. No one in the government is trying to stop them. In fact, commanders are doing their best to assist them. When the government asks the chaplain to facilitate free-exercise for everyone present at a military ceremony, it’s not suggesting that anyone believe or practice or believe only that which is included in the chaplain’s prayer. Requiring that chaplains take a broad approach to their prayers on official occasions doesn’t limit or restrict religious diversity in the Army population. On the contrary, that approach respects the diversity that already exists within the Army community. It also furthers a legitimate government interest of creating an environment in which religious respect and tolerance help build unit cohesion.

Praying at the Intersection

This diagram expresses what I believe is a more complete view of the place of prayer at military ceremonies than the ‘chaplain-free-exercise” view offers. Public prayer at military ceremonies must take place at the intersection of three circles of interest.

The content of public prayers during military ceremonies must be able to meet all three tests equally. The content must be absolutely, 100% consistent with the chaplain’s own faith commitments. But the content must also be fully consistent with the chaplain’s obligation to provide free exercise to all and with the military purpose of the event. Any content that cannot equally pass all three tests should not be part of a chaplain’s public prayer at military ceremonies.

When I pray at the intersection of the circles of interest, I am not saying anything inconsistent with my faith. I am simply selecting that within my faith tradition which is also consistent with my military role and with the purpose of the event.

Certainly, praying at the intersection of the circles of is likely produce prayers that are similar in tone and content no matter who is praying or what the faith group of the chaplain involved. The focus of such prayers is narrow because of the nature of the event. It’s not like praying in chapel or in other settings where the chaplain’s role as religious leader predominates.

It would be difficult to confuse such prayers with religious faith in its full expression. In practice, there is little danger of mistakenly believing that these public prayers establish some sort of new civic religion. Quite frankly, even non-religious service members might assent to the content of these prayers as a wish or a sentiment. Some may question whether such prayers are prayer at all.

I still believe that there is value in the prayers that are offered on significant occasions in the life of the Army. When I pray on ceremonial occasions, my prayer remains a genuine expression of my faith even though it is tailored to fit the event and the audience. In fact, the preparation of the prayer – as I consider the people involved and the meaning of the occasion – is a religious act for me as well. If I craft my prayer properly, I will collect the hopes, fears and challenges of this occasion into a single, brief expression of our common life, so that those listening can exercise their own faith commitments at this solemn moment. Praying at the intersection of my faith, my commission and the military purpose of the event is the best way to achieve this goal.