The chaplaincy is a strange land, strange indeed.
It is no secret that the rank and file of the U.S. military is a conservative bunch that finds itself definitely on the right side of the spectrum of politics, society, and religion. Consequently, one would expect military chaplains to largely be conservative types as well, but that is simply not the case. Taking a cross section of the chaplaincy would reveal that, by and large, the exact opposite is true…at least among Protestants.
Now there are certainly ‘conservative’ Protestant chaplains, but in the chaplaincy as in the larger land of American Evangelicalism, ‘conservative’ usually has less to do with theological conservatism as it does political and social persuasion. To be more blunt, the moniker ‘conservative chaplain’ like ‘conservative Evangelical’ is more likely to mean ‘Republican’ than anything else. While there are indeed theologically conservative chaplains in the historical sense, there don’t seem to be many. In fact, there are many more ‘moderate’ or even ‘liberal’ chaplains…hands down.
All this makes for some interesting situations in class here at Maxwell AFB. For instance, during a session on ‘Cultivating Diversity’ our class was discussing the various reasons that different groups had a hard time living and working together and just what we as chaplains could do to foster a better climate in the Air Force. Keeping in mind that my class is 100% Protestant Christian chaplains (very unusual) and that this particular session was led by a Protestant Christian chaplain, the discussion sounded exactly like something that would take place in a sociology class at Yale. Various reasons were suggested why an adverse climate existed in some parts of the military: differing social backgrounds, cultural stereotypes, upbringing, ethnic prejudices, etc. I apparently went out on a limb by suggesting that the true, deep-seated reason for these conflicts was sin and the proper response to dealing with those who differed from us was to treat them graciously as Christ has treated us. Upon making this suggestion, the rather heated discussion we were having abruptly ceased, and the only sound to be heard for some time was a deafening silence…until our instructor started tap dancing around my proposal and returned to the earlier discussion.
Was my suggestion really that radical? From a Christian perspective, absolutely not! Did the class reaction to my comment surprise me? Not at all. Perhaps the situation is most profoundly summarized by an Army chaplain and seminary classmate of conservative Presbyterian persuasion who said to me today (via chat from Afghanistan), “The biggest problem I face as a conservative chaplain is the other chaplains.” Well said, Ben. Well said.