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Unitarian Universalism and Military Chaplaincy

A few years ago, at a Unitarian Universalist Houston Network event, a young woman challenged in a loud and public way how I could dare call myself a Unitarian Universalist, and be willing to serve in the military. I was not actually in the military at the time; I had been out for almost eight years. The heresy that I committed that day was mentioning in public that I was considering serving as a military chaplain after seminary. It is certainly not the only time I have been called out for such heresy, but it was the first, and it is part of the reason why a ministerial colleague (not a Chaplain) refers to Unitarian Universalists who serve as Military Chaplains as “our last monastic order”.

Over the last three years, my experience of my fellow Unitarian Universalists around the issue of military chaplaincy has been wide and varied. Sometimes that experience has been deeply affirming, at other times it has been deeply hurtful, both as a future chaplain and as a Unitarian Universalist military veteran. Sometimes the issue has arisen simply because of the many misunderstandings and misconceptions in our movement about this particular kind of ministry. Other times the issue has arisen because of our varied understandings of some of our most deeply held convictions.

In this article, I’m not going to make the persuasive argument for why we Unitarian Universalists and religious liberals need to support our ministers who feel the call to serve in the military as chaplains. I make that argument in a chapter of an upcoming book, written with several UU ministers and other seminarians. In this article, I want to specifically address some of the arguments against allowing Unitarian Universalist Ministers to serve as Military Chaplains. I look forward to engagement on this issue, but I ask you take some time and reflect before replying, because I do understand how emotions can get heated for some people in having this discussion.

Generally, the objections that are raised to Unitarian Universalist ministers serving in the military as chaplains come in four categories: pacifism, separation of church and state, responsibility to your faith, and the institutional “sins” of the military. Often, these categories are jumbled up in someone’s reaction to military chaplaincy, and it is necessary to untangle them, both rationally and emotionally.

The most heated objection to military chaplaincy is often centered around a particular person’s commitment to pacifism, and their projection of that commitment upon the entire movement of Unitarian Universalism. I understand that there are many in our movement who deeply wish Unitarian Universalism were a pacifist faith, but that is certainly not in line with our history, nor do I feel it is in line with our deepest held values and beliefs. I believe we are a faith called to do the deep work within the human soul that will, in the end, call humanity away from the conflict at the heart of war; the conflict in the individual human heart, spirit, and soul.

In my first draft of this article, I wrote here an impassioned description of how I understand war in the human experience. I wrote it from the experience of having been a soldier, in Bosnia and in Latin America. But, all of that is personal to me… and not really an answer to the question. If you are interested, here is a sermon on the topic.

There is currently no doctrinal requirement to pacifism that is a part of Unitarian Universalism. Even if there were such a doctrinal formulation, the fifth principle (the right of conscience) would give me the right to disagree and still remain a Unitarian Universalist. I am not a pacifist… because I do not believe pacifism has any practical reality in the world as it currently exists. We have a lot of work to do to prepare the world for a true cessation from war, and much of that work needs to be done deep in the hearts of each and every human being, as well as in the structures and systems of the myriad of human societies. Some of that work will involve the use of military force to stop other military force, in the same way that forest fire fighters often use fire to stop fire. Some of that work will involve controlling the politicians we elect, in how they use and misuse the military power we grant them through such elections.

I want to be a pacifist. I pray for the day when we have the practical possibility of ceasing from war. That call within me to pacifism was why I made the faith commitment that I personally would never carry or fire a weapon again. But we are not there, nor will we be for a long time. In essence, by my commitment to serve as a military chaplain, I have dug in for the long campaign, one that in the end I believe will create the conditions for pacifism; for an end to the need for military force. I have accepted that this work will last longer than my personal lifetime. I do this work, first in my own heart, second by ministering to and with the young men and women who we as a nation send to war, and third by serving as an ethical voice within the military, and asking my non-military fellow UU’s to serve as ethical voices from outside of the military.

Military chaplains are precluded by federal and international law from carrying weapons. In the Army, we are precluded even from touching them by military tradition. A Unitarian military chaplain in the Civil War, Rev. Arthur B. Fuller, resigned his commission as a Military Chaplain for health reasons, and then picked up a weapon and joined in the battle of Fredericksburg, where he was killed. His Unitarian values and beliefs called him to a deep opposition to slavery, and in the service of those values and beliefs he became an active combatant, and he died for them.

We humans order our values. We have to. For some of us Unitarian Universalists, ending war is the highest value we carry… and I respect that. For me, based in my life experience, I have a few values I order higher than ending war. I understand the abolitionist sentiment that brought Rev. Fuller to take off his cross and pick up a weapon. I wrestled long and hard with the thought of picking a weapon back up if it meant I could serve as a peacekeeper to end the genocide in Darfur, for stopping genocide is very high in my order of values, stemming from my experience in Latin America and Bosnia.

By ministering to the young men and women most deeply affected by war, I am working for peace. Peace begins in the heart, and it is to the hearts of soldiers that I am called to minister. Your call to peace might be to stand in a line and yell at your opposition, waiving placards. I respect that. Heck, I’ve done that. My call to peace however, is to go to the front line and minister to souls, and I ask you to respect that both are valid and necessary if we are ever to really “study war no more”.

The issue that was the greatest challenge for me in making the decision to serve as a military chaplain has been the issue of the separation of Church and State. The idea of the separation between the “sword of secular authority” and the “blossoming tree of human religion” has been dear to me, tracing back to my days as a leader in the Deist movement in the United States. I have moved away from my focus on Deism, but I still carry with me that banner of defending the separation of church and state. In fact, defending that separation is a part of my call to serve as a military chaplain.

Seems a little paradoxical, doesn’t it? To be a government paid minister in defense of the separation of church and state?

In 1979, two Harvard Law School students filed suit against the Secretary of the Army, claiming that the existence of the U.S. Army Chaplaincy violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The case (Katkoff v. Marsh) was deliberated for six years, and it resulted in the 1985 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and to the current formulation of Title 10 of the U.S. Code. In short, the decision stated that the Chaplaincy remained constitutional, so long as the primary reason for its existence was the protection of the free exercise of religion within the military.

In other words, my primary duty as a military chaplain is to insure that all of the soldiers under my care are given the necessary time, space, materials, and freedom to practice their religion. It is not to proselytize, to convert people to my faith, or to hinder those who hold a faith other than my own. It is to insure that I help soldiers to explore and connect deeper with the religious faith they are called to, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Atheism, Humanism, Paganism, Wicca, Hinduism, or anything else.

What a profound call for a Unitarian Universalist! The separation of church and state is deeply imbued in our faith, as is religious pluralism, and this ministry is the opportunity to practice both in a profound way. It is a chance to grow with others as they grow in many different faiths, and to call others back to this commitment to religious freedom when, for reasons of passionate belief in their own faith, they stray from what is constitutionally permissible. This is the reason that, besides being a military chaplain candidate, I support the work of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, to continually remind the Chaplaincy of where our primary mission lies: the protection of the free exercise of religion.

In this ministry I get to live out the oath that I took to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, against all enemies, foreign and domestic”. I think I probably focus generic imitrex images much more on the “domestic” than I do on the “foreign”.

The third most common challenge often occurs within conversations among the ministry… and that is the question of where our ultimate responsibility lies as ministers in the military. Are we primarily responsible to our faith, or to our military command? Can we conduct effective and authentic liberal ministry within the boundaries, rules, and regulations of the military?

Believe it or not, the military answer to this is fairly clear… military chaplains are primarily responsible to the religious organizations that endorse them to the chaplaincy. Military Chaplains are required to maintain a continuing endorsement by a religious organization approved to endorse chaplains. For Unitarian Universalists, that religious organization is the Unitarian Universalist Association, in the person of the Director of the Ministry and Professional Leadership Staff Group (MPL). The Director of MPL has a committee, the Committee on Military Ministry, which aids her in discernment and support on this issue.

If a military chaplain strays outside of what their Endorser considers appropriate, the endorser is completely justified in removing that endorsement, thereby removing them from the Chaplaincy. As a Chaplain and Chaplain Candidate, I officially annually report to my Endorser what is occurring in my ministry, and provide copies of my Officer Evaluation Reports and other military documentation. I have a member of the Committee on Military Ministry who is my sponsor and who I work with in discerning issues in my ministry. As an additional step, I plan on maintaining a relationship with a church as well, in the way many of our community ministers do.

In the daily conduct of my ministry in the military, I of course am subject to a chain of command… actually two. The first is the command of the units in which I serve. The second, known as the “technical chain” is the advisement of the Chaplains senior to me in my unit structure. But all of this is dependent on my maintaining my Endorsement from my Endorsing Agency… the UUA.

I am also responsible to my own personal faith and my conscience. I wrestled deeply with both when it came time to make the decision whether to accept a commission as a military chaplain candidate. I suspect I will do so again when and if the time comes for me to accession as an active duty chaplain. I expect to continually wrestle with my faith and my call through out, not just during my time as a military chaplain, but through the entirety of my ministry.

If, when later in my call to ministry I am serving a church, and, like Emerson, there is an issue that brings into conflict my faith and my ministry, I would feel compelled to resign that pulpit. The same is true of my ministry as a military chaplain. I have given a lot of thought to the situations and conflicts that might occur in my ministry as a military chaplain that would require of me a decision to resign my commission, and leave the chaplaincy. If that ever happens, I hope some church will consider me for a call, but leave the military I will, even if I have to request my endorser pull my endorsement. My faith is and must remain my highest order of value.

This is not something unique to Military Chaplaincy. I believe such continued wresting with faith, with call, and with the limits of our ministry is necessary in all ministry. If we ever stop wrestling with faith, call and ministry, then it is time to find another line of work.

The second aspect of this question about responsibility and boundaries is whether or not authentic liberal ministry can occur in the boundaries and regulations of the military. That is a question that is central to one’s discernment about whether they are called to the military chaplaincy. It is one of the primary evaluations that the Committee on Military Ministry and the Endorser uses in granting Endorsement. And it is something very personal to the individual.

Many people might not be able conduct effective and authentic liberal ministry within the boundaries and regulations of the military, but some of us can. This is the reason, I believe, why many of those pursuing this particular call to military ministry from the UUA today are prior service military. Through that service, they already understand the particular community of the military and are able to envision their ministry in that community. Without that experience, I can imagine how hard that ministry would be to envision.

It is also true that all ministry is constrained by specific boundaries and regulations, the military is just more clear and obvious about it than others. In the parish, there are specific boundaries within which one ministers, and those boundaries can vary from congregation to congregation. You can work to change and modify those boundaries, but you must do that from within the system… from within the congregation. The same is true of hospital chaplaincy, the boundaries are just different and so are the ways in which you work within them or seek to change them. The same is true of military chaplaincy. How you minister and how you work for change is different in military, but it is no less authentic ministry.

Working for change brings us to the fourth and last common objection among Unitarian Universalists to Military Chaplaincy, and that is the particular “sins” of the military.

I have always been one to work for change from within an institution, not just to call for change from outside of institutions. Each and every institution has its faults, and that is certainly true of a military whose primary purpose, whether we like it or not, is to kill people and break things. I have no illusions about why the military exists, but I also know that is not all that it is. I was a child whose parent was active duty military. I was a military student in high school. I was an 18year old kid who signed a contract. I was a 22 year old Sergeant who had the weight of the world dropped on his shoulders. Now, I am a 35 year old Chaplain Candidate who can see the liberal “sins” of the military, and they call me to ask a question of myself. Am I called to stand outside and make a statement, or am I called to work from within as a voice and agent for change?

The answer for me is clear. I have always chosen to work from within. If I did not, then I would never have chosen to become a Unitarian Universalist, knowing the inherent problems and faults of this faith tradition, and loving it anyway. I love this faith and want to make it better… so I joined a church… so I went to seminary… to work from within to make it better than it was before. If any institution is to change, then it requires dispassionate critical voices from without, but also passionate, committed critical voices from within… voices willing to also be hands doing the work within for change to become real. That is as true of the UUA as it is of the military.

In my case, I have chosen to work from within the military to see that one day we no longer need “Don’t ask, Don’t tell”, because Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, and Transgender persons are able to serve openly in the military if they so choose. I have chosen to work from within for women to be equally treated within the military. I have chosen to work from within to see that we incorporate real ethical training for soldiers at early stages in their military career, so they not only understand that instances like Abu Gharib can not happen again, but they also understand why. I have chosen to work from within with officers and non-commissioned officers to deepen their understanding of the need for humanitarian concerns in any military strategy. I have chosen to work from within to see that the religious freedoms of my soldiers are not only respected, but celebrated. I have chosen to work from within in order to begin soldiers on the road of coming to terms with the ramification of the experience of war, and of their own actions within war.

I need my fellow liberals to be that dispassionate voice from without… to, with reason and good conscience continue to point out to the military and to the government the concerns about the military. I need my fellow liberals to elect politicians who will say the same thing to the military through legislation. I need you all to do this, to grant me and the other military UU’s and other liberals the ability to do the necessary work from within.

There is also the need for liberal ministry for those affected by these issues. We need liberal ministers in the military to be someone that a GLBT servicemember knows it is safe to “tell”. We need liberal ministers in the military who can see when there is a danger of unethical behavior, and have the moral authority within the system to call attention to it. We need liberal ministers in the military who can work to address humanitarian concerns on the battlefield.

Through this essay, I am sure my passion for this ministry has come through. Part of that passion stems from my faith, but another part of it stems from once being a soldier from an “alternate faith tradition”, who was convinced there was “no chaplain for me”… until I met one outside the Post Exchange one afternoon. He was shaking hands, and he told me that his church would welcome Deists… He was a Unitarian Universalist, a military chaplain, and a minister… the first person to ever say those two words to me… Unitarian Universalism. Thank you Vernon… ahem… I mean, Chaplain Colonel Chandler, sir.

 This essay was written in response to a controversy at the Meadville Lombard Theological School over a visit by an Army Chaplain Recruiter to the school. 

Yours in Faith,


22 Thoughts on “Unitarian Universalism and Military Chaplaincy

  1. So you finally wrote the sermon about your Bosnia experience. It is, of course, excellent – and so is this post. Blessings on your work & ministry, friend – and if you go into dangerous places, I’ll be holding you in the light…

  2. David, thank you for writing this. You have very eloquently articulated this issue of Unitarian Universalist values with regards to the military and chaplaincy — anyone who wants to have an informed opinion on this subject would do well to read what you’ve laid out here.

    I remember when my minister husband spoke to the Army chaplain recruiters at Meadville, that I was somewhat skeptical of what they might have to say and what his response might be. To be honest, I was and am fearful of what may happen to those who choose to serve, because of the way the military is misused by our government, and that fear is a very powerful thing. I’ve come to understand, through his reactions to that conversation and through knowing you and Seanan, that this is a much larger issue than can be grasped at first glance — I can only say now that of course there is a place, a much needed place, for Unitarian Universalists in the military, especially in chaplaincy. This is a very high calling, and I am grateful that there are those who choose to take it up.

    Thank you for the work that you do. What you’ve written here gives me the words to better express my own thoughts on the issue, particularly when confronted with very vocal, anti-military voices in our movement.

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  4. Richard Boeke on Sunday April 6, 2008 at 14:23 +0000 said:

    Dear David:

    Thanks for directing me to your essay.

    I enjoyed several of your references, especially to Emerson resigning his ministry as a matter of conscience. He did join the Concord Mass. Church
    two weeks after Lincoln was shot, and continued as a member the rest of his life.

    Perhaps I’ll drop in on you and the recruiting sergeant just to say hello.
    In trust and hope, Richard Boeke

  5. With a warm heart I thank all of you for your kind comments… and Richard, I would love it if you would drop by. I doubt it will be that crowded. As I said in the email I sent to the ML Community, I was not going to attend the meeting with the recruiter until this controversy came up… Mondays are usually my sabbath. But, I can not in good conscience let the recruiter be alone in case someone intended to come challenge his presence at the school.

    I will see you then, if you come by.

    ES and Jess, as always, thank you for your kind words…

    Yours in Faith,


  6. This visit is happening… when? Drop me a private email & if I can be there I will be – I won’t be signing up (I’m too old,anyway), but I walk the middle way between pacifism and whatever the opposite is. Be well.

  7. I, for one, am proud to have colleagues who are following their call to minister to those who serve my country. Thank you.

    I do, however, question whether the UUA’s headquarters is the appropriate “endorsing body” in our faith. I would think that maintaining ministerial fellowship would be one requirement, but that the appropriate endorsing body would be one of our congregations. But then, I’m a polity nerd.

    in peace,

  8. Michael,

    Yes, I am a polity nerd too (though I prefer the term “geek” to “nerd”). I understand your concern, and if there was an easy way to address it, I would love to do so.

    Here is the issue… the miltiary would not recognize so many possible endorsing authorities. The Full Gospel Churches formed an organization specifically to endorse military chaplains, due to the same kind of concern.

    The only other possibility would be to move the authority to the UUMA, or perhaps the CLF… but I wonder at the efficacy of that as well… the UUMA would have the same problems polity-wise as the UUAoC, and I’m not sure the CLF would want the responsibility, nor that the military would accept them as an endorser.

    But, this is the system as it exists… and if that is to change then the “Polity nerds” would have to not only raise an objection, but come up with a viable solution as well.

    Yours in Faith,


  9. David: A very powerful post… thank you for sharing it with us. I often mention you to my congregants when the topic of military and UUism come up. I want my congregants to understand that our principles allows for a wide variety of conclusions and each of them are as valid as the ones we have sifted through and selected for our own. I am so very grateful that I got a chance to get to know you at Meadville. Blessings my friend, Fred

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  13. Your article shows compassion and reason – and a lot more compassion and reason than those who oppose UU chaplaincy as a knee-jerk hostile stance. I’m glad you met Vernon Chandler, and may you pass on what you received!

  14. Gun ownership in America is increasing.
    Common Sense says the MAJORITY are in the middle, like
    a bell curve. Not military invasion, WARRIORS gun nuts,
    nor complete pacifist sissies.

    UU are accepting and PRACTICAL. Even hunting can be
    justified, if you eat all the meat, you obey the law,
    keep deer population in balance with nature, reduce deer ticks
    and DEFORESTATION (ecology) and accurately shoot.

    Isn’t it ridiculous that UU is painted as completely LIBERAL, a
    strange branch of the QUAKERS?

  15. Floridaman,

    I love my pacifist friends, and would never call them sissies… In fact, they often show alot of courage for thier beliefs. Psychologist Thomas Moore shows in his book “King, Warrior, Magician, Lover” how some of the same energy that brings soldiers to the field of battle also brings pacifists to the protest lines.

    That being said… I think that UU’ism at its best spans both the far left and the center… and perhaps creeps to the right a bit… not just in politics but also in theology and in religious practice. We need each other, because instead of a creed we have a covenant and a quest. The covenant is beloved community, the quest is for the development, deepening, and interdependence of humankind. If we do not have voices other than our own, then we stand no chance at being successful at either.

    And I will say one thing… while I may be more of a centrist in UU’ism, I am a raging liberal in most of the other communities I am in (including the Army Chaplaincy). One of the things I love about my UU congregations is they help me feel that I’m not really the complete radical I seem most of the rest of the time.

    One last thought… you might enjoy reading some John Dewey…

    Yours in faith,


  16. thank you for this.

    i am a seminary student at a liberal seminary and have just begun thinking about military chaplaincy. i appreciate this post for the care it takes to address so many concerns brought about by liberal religion to serving in a military capacity.

    i have a couple of questions for you about chaplaincy and if you would be willing to email me i would greatly appreciate it. thanks!

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  18. I support the presence of uu’s in the military. I do not support the idea that we will get to a point where there will no longer be war. I understand that population pressure causes war. This is unlikely to change. Since we are going to have the problems that cause war forever, it stands to reason that we will have war forever. Since we are going to have war as an active part of the human condition it is completely reasonable that we have religious liberals in the military and in the chaplaincy.

    The fact that pacifists are members of congregations doesn’t mean that they have the right to take away the obligation of other members to shoulder the burden of the reality as expressed by population pressure. I hope that reasoned and ethical voices will continue to prevent that minority from attempting to dictate an alternative path than reality. Those societies that we find ourselves at war with practice the exclusionary practices that proponents of a peace church prefer even if their stated aims sound different.

    I commend you for your service. I hope that in the ongoing recruitment efforts to create additional liberal chaplains, that the recruiters use science to negate the call to fantasy that is partially what I left the conservative theological world. I would prefer that recruiters get the theological schools to admit that war is not something that we will ever eliminate in some fantasy, but rather seek to find that rational minds within the liberal world and faith that will leaven the religious experience for our citizens in military service. Rational thought as a consequence of liberal religious involvement because war is not going to go away, is an important component of a free society that permits liberal religious faith and practice.

    The existence of free societies is uncommon on our planet for the majority. since war is an inevitable consequence of existence and the totalitarian percentage of our planet could take over, it is important that we defend our freedoms that include freedom of faith. Support for the troops that provide us with the permission to practice our liberal faith is not an abjuration of responsibility but (I would prefer) the norm.

  19. I just came upon your blog recently, so sorry that this comment is two years late! But as someone who is considering becoming a military chaplain, this really spoke to my heart. I am 20 years old and unlike you, do not have prior military service. I became passionate about the military this summer after doing a college project about military values.
    After awhile, something in me, thought, doing research is nice and fun, but I want to work with the soliders. I want to understand the military and understand a little of what they go through not just through research but through experience. And as a mainline christian who falls on the liberal side, I feel like I can do some good.

    Most of my friends have been supportive thus far, but one went on a rant about the evils of the U.S. military. She bought up some valid points, but like you mentioned in the essay, you need people both on the inside and the outside to effect change.

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  22. David,

    I’d like to talk to you about preparing a version of this post as an article in a military chaplaincy journal I edit, Curtana: Sword of Mercy. Please contact me as soon as you have a chance.


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