Review: Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America

By July 31, 2019

Military chaplains are tasked with leading worship, teaching the faithful, and burying the dead, among other things. In her book, Ronit Stahl lays out a broad narrative that argues that the military chaplaincy was responsible for much more than the souls of soldiers; chaplains may have a distinct mandate of spiritual care, but the chaplaincy itself was involved in a much bigger project: that of reflecting and shaping modern American responses to religious pluralism, issues of race and gender, and the separation of church and state. As America changed and the hegemony of Protestantism waned, the chaplaincy underwent changes too. In eight chapters and an epilogue, Stahl demonstrates the shift in demographics and public life that took the chaplaincy from a generically Protestant institution to a tri-faith model accommodating Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, to the situation today where 221 faiths are recognized in one form or another.

One of the powers of the book is how it trades in the general and the specific: it is broad enough to offer a compelling narrative of change from World War I to the end of the Cold War, and particular enough to detail the men, women, and specific situations that enacted those changes along the way. Stahl’s book opens with the professionalization of the chaplaincy during WWI, discusses the sometimes begrudging development of a normative tri-faith view of American religion during WWII, and then moves to the ways that Judeo-Christian tradition would eventually be challenged. She demonstrates how amongst growing pluralization the idea of  “moral monotheism” or “religious identity and moral behavior unfettered by doctrinal specificity” (39) that centered on morality, spirituality, and citizenship would remain a central principle for a long time. 

Throughout the book, Stahl demonstrates again and again that the chaplaincy was a premier site of negotiation for outsider groups: to be recognized by the chaplaincy–the American government–was a way to seek acceptance and integration into American life and signalled the same to citizens stateside. Outsider groups could become insider, however, only as long as they were willing to perform a kind of forced ecumenism, that is, not challenge the Judeo-Christian tradition too much. Stahl describes how the institution controlled the production of religion in the armed forces by carefully “circumscrib[ing] participation in the chaplaincy to a limited population of American clergy” (105), namely those deemed acceptable and not a threat by the powers that be. 

But bit by bit, non-white, non-Protestant, and/or non-Christian groups managed to move the needle–some much faster than others. Stahl writes, for example, how Mormonism’s model of lay leadership challenged the educational and ordination requirements for chaplains, or how decades of advocacy eventually would result in the 2017 decision to allow soldiers to wear hijabs, beards, and turbans. Stahl also describes how the larger question of race in America entered the chaplaincy, for example through a discussion of how the military did or did not meet the needs of African-American soldiers in the still-segregated armed forces or Buddhists serving during WWII while family members were locked into US internment camps. By the Vietnam War, a tri-faith model of American religion was no longer adequate: Muslims joined Buddhists in operating entirely outside of that structure, while non-Protestant Christians like Mormons and Russian Orthodox chafed under the generic Protestantism still in play, for example. Stahl analyzes the chaplaincy’s response to this changing American landscape as a way to chart shifts in and challenges to the idea of religious freedoms in the modern United States. 

Through the use of military reports and other official sources, but also the reflections of individual soldiers and chaplains, and even the scripts of the popular radio show Chaplain Jim that was broadcast to the American public, Stahl shows how the military, religious groups, and those at home negotiated what it meant to be an American of faith during wartime–and after. Latter-day Saints come up regularly in Stahl’s book; it is of interest to a Mormon Studies audience not because it focuses intensely on the Mormon presence in the military, but because it treats the LDS Church as one of the many groups vying for recognition in America as American. It is an oft-repeated mantra now that Mormonism is worth studying on its own merits, but also because it illuminates bigger questions in American history; this book is an example of that and is a resource for scholars looking to contextualize the Mormon experience in the US, as well as for scholars interested in the larger question of the separation of church and state–religion and state, rather–in America. 

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. Thanks, Mees! This is one of the more interesting books for thinking about Mormonism and Americanization that I’ve seen in some time. Definitely putting it on my list!

    Comment by J Stuart — July 31, 2019 @ 9:47 am

  2. Thanks for the write-up, Mees. Ardis wrote up an article on BH Roberts in WWI, that really opened my mind on this. And a number of years ago I interviewed a female Latter-day Saint chaplain, who as I remember, was one of the first women certified by the church. There is a lot to explore here in society and individual denominations (as you show here).

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 31, 2019 @ 12:12 pm

  3. …in fact Ardis has a number of stories up, all of which are great, if anyone wants to check them out:

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 31, 2019 @ 12:14 pm

  4. J–chaplaincy as an avenue for female religious participation in the LDS Church outside of gendered leadership structures is a really interesting thing. I’ll be doing chaplaincy training later this year (albeit in a hospital setting) and it’s interesting to think about how chaplaincy exists in the American religious landscape and intersects with institutions, etc.

    Thanks for the link! Those are great.

    Comment by Mees — August 2, 2019 @ 3:47 pm


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