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Military chaplains: a rich history of more than just blessing the cannons

An interview with Doris Bergen, a scholar of clergy in the military

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Where and when did military chaplaincies begin?

You can find evidence of [what] you would call military chaplains in the ancient Roman military. There it was usually the military leader who also had religious functions. The idea was that somehow God or the gods were extremely important forces behind military success, but it was usually one and the same person, a general or a military commander, a leader who also had religious responsibilities and duties.

You can look at Biblical times... the high priest Aaron – the idea that you had a religious figure who traveled together with the military really has ancient roots.

You can find, back to the armies of Charlemagne, pretty remarkable consistency in the Christian West the idea of the military chaplain.

Were chaplains used just during war?

Yes, really until World War II and sometimes later. Chaplains were particularly important in combat because the idea of the chaplain is both to bring the blessing of the God or the gods to the cause of the army, but also to strengthen the fighting power, the morale, of individual soldiers [and] of providing the sacrament to soldiers who are prepared to kill other people.... And also soldiers who are risking being killed themselves – the idea that they go in a blessed state to their death.

It's only really in the 20th century that you get the idea that a chaplain also has a kind of a counseling role.

Do you include in that moral counseling to commanders?

That is the most interesting question, particularly in the context of the war you're looking at right now [Iraq]. That role has never been the official job of a chaplain. Even in cases where the discussion has been, for example, [that] a chaplain has a duty to be the conscience of the military, that has been a very contested role for chaplains. Chaplains who have taken that upon themselves have frequently found that it's not a role that their military superiors welcome from them.

[For example] Kermit Johnson, who opposed the Reagan administration's policies regarding nuclear weapons and El Salvador placed himself in an untenable position. He was basically pushed out of his position as chief of chaplains.


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