A Christian sister writes, “My husband has always been bothered by the notion of chaplains performing a Mass or service before battle to seek success in that engagement. Isn’t it better for a follower of Christ to encourage love of mankind? I also question the practices of chaplains holding rank and receiving governmental support. What do you think?”
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Although I never served in the military, I have known a few service chaplains and my perception of their work does not at all match your question. I understand the role of service chaplain to be that of spiritual director and confidant, marriage and family counselor, and leader of regular worship. So far as praying before going into battle, I can think of nothing better to do under the circumstances — and we may be sure in many cases that the relatives, loved ones and friends back home are doing the very same thing on both sides.
In a military context, assignment of rank is essential to proper order and discipline, and here it accords appropriate respect for a function which some might tend to undervalue. So far as receiving tax support, promoting the general welfare is a constitutional function of the central government and the work of chaplains certainly accomplishes that result. Indeed, it is considerably more beneficial to the common good than countless other projects which consume our public funds.
The theoretical “wall of separation” between church and state is not even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, and the Supreme Court today appears ready to reverse, even slightly, some of the anti-religious presumption which often seemed to shape First Amendment decisions during the past 50 years. There is an enormous difference between establishing an official state church, and in supporting citizens of all faiths in times of crisis according to their respective consciences regarding matters of the spirit.