Pluralism: Less Polemic Within the Military

Certain debated concepts often get packed into a single word that is armed, thorny, and filled much like a Trojan horse ready to let open the gates to outside attack. In Christian conversation, the word pluralism has been modified to be just such a fully loaded word, and unpacking it sometimes takes a skilled explosive technician. However, when pluralism is used to describe how multiple religious systems operate in the same the military community, the word retracts its claws and speaks of mutual respect and opportunity.

In its most basic form, pluralism is, “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization” (Merriam, “pluralism”).  Those Christians using the term as a debate weapon have added their interpretation of some Biblical concepts about living among and adapting to the practices of non-Christian societies and beliefs[1] and blended in “syncretism.”  Syncretism is, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice” (Merriam, “syncretism”). While it is not my purpose to argue in favor or against the present use of the definition of pluralism, I do argue that the military’s use of the word is strictly in its most basic definition.

While the Army is vague on its exact definition of pluralism, it does provide some conceptual guidance. A requirement of entry to the Army Chaplain Corps is a signed Memorandum for Record (MFR) that reads in part,
While remaining faithful to my denominational beliefs and practices, I understand that, as a chaplain [or chaplain candidate], 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 Soldier (Blackwell, 2008).
In addition to the MFR for entry, Army Regulation 165-1, 3-3a states, “The Army recognizes that religion is constitutionally protected and does not favor one form of religious expression over another.  Accordingly, all religious denominations are viewed as distinctive faith groups and all soldiers are entitled to chaplain services and support” (U.S. Department of the Army 2004, 5).  And the chaplain is required under 4-4b of the same regulation to, “...minister to the personnel of the unit and facilitate the ‘free-exercise’ rights of all personnel, regardless of religious affiliation of either the chaplain or the unit member” (2004, 6).

Soldiers, according to Army regulation are “entitled to chaplain services and support” and chaplains are to “facilitate” the right to worship but are not required to deviate from their denominational beliefs or practices.  What this regulation does not say is that chaplains are to accept or adopt the belief of the soldier. Therefore, pluralism allows each soldier the right to worship (or not worship) in his or her own distinct manner with the support of a chaplain, all inside the single community of the military.  In no way is syncretism required. Instead, a mutual respect and understanding is expected.

Chaplain Joseph F. O’Donnell, C.S.C. best describes the spirit of pluralism while explaining the first of three qualities important to every chaplain.  He writes, “As a chaplain, I must realize that no matter how firm I feel about my own approach to God, I cannot have the last word for anyone else” (Bergen 2004, 222).

Reference List
Bergen, Doris L. The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplain from the First to the Twenty-First
     Century.  Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2004.
Blackwell, Steve CH (CPT). 2008 Sample MFR sent to author electronically. October 31.
Headquarters of the Department of the Army. 2004. Army Regulation 165-1: Chaplain Activities
     in the United States Army (March, 25). By Order of the Secretary of the Army, Peter J.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. s.v. “pluralism,” http://www.merriam- (accessed February 15, 2009.)
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. s.v. “syncretism,” http://www.merriam- (accessed February 15, 2009.)

[1] Concepts from passages of Judges, 1 Peter, and Colossians for example.

*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.
** Photo is registered under a Creative Commons License: / CC BY-NC 2.0