1LT Scott I Klein, USA
Peer-reviewed research shows strong evidence for the mental and physical benefits of religious participation. The Army must continue to find ways to fully utilize religion as a tool for enhancing readiness and resiliency. Moreover, religious leaders of low-density faith groups – from Judaism and Islam to Unitarianism and Buddhism – are greatly underrepresented in the Chaplain Corps. In the absence of qualified low-density faith chaplains, the Army should enhance its efforts to recruit, train, and support lay leaders to serve the spiritual, social, and psychological needs of soldiers belonging to these religions.
When George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army on July 2, 1775, he found 15 chaplains already serving with the troops. Thus, even before there was a United States, America had an army that recognized the value of religion. Although military leaders lacked hard evidence that religion contributed to the health, readiness, and resiliency of soldiers, for nearly 250 years they have observed the positive effects of religious counseling, services, and community on soldiers separated from friends and family, training in far-flung locations, and facing the possibility of sudden death.
Religious Participation Offers Quantifiable Benefits
Over the past few decades, however, social scientists have conducted empirical studies that demonstrate the quantifiable benefits of religion. Specifically, many studies have found that regular participation in communal religion offers significant physical, relational, and psycho-social health benefits.
- A 10-year study of more than 18,000 adults found that those who regularly participate in religious services had a 40% lower mortality hazard were less likely to be smokers or heavy alcohol users, and more likely to exercise and promote healthy living.
- Another survey found that marriages in which both spouses regularly participate in communal religion have the lowest risk of divorce, whereas marriages in which neither spouse attends religious services dissolved 2.4 times more often.
- A study of over 13,000 men and women found that men who regularly attend religious services are nearly 50% less likely to commit domestic violence, and women who attend services weekly were found to be 34.8% less likely to commit violence. Moreover, a woman who attends church several times a week is 40% less likely to be a victim of violence than a woman who never attends.
- Several studies found that the more one attends religious services, the less likely one is to report, or be diagnosed with, mental health problems such as depression.
Low-Density Religious Groups Are Underserved
Despite growing evidence for the mental and physical benefits of religion, the Army does not fully utilize religious participation as a tool for enhancing mental and physical resiliency. Moreover, Soldiers who belong to low-density faith groups – religions ranging from Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism to Unitarianism, Paganism, Wicca, and Humanism – receive far less religious support than mainstream Christians.
Although the Army chaplaincy is 98% Christian, almost 30% of the US population identifies with another faith, or no faith. Of the latter, 5.9% belong to world religions such as Judaism and Islam while the remainder are “unaffiliated”—a category that includes atheists, agnostics, and “nones.” In recent years, however, some of the unaffiliated have created faith-like organizations such as “Humanism” that offer services and support similar to religious groups.
The Department of Defense currently recognizes 221 Faith and Belief Codes for reporting personnel data of service members, but because so few chaplains are members of low-density faiths, lay volunteers have been tapped to fulfill many of the duties of a chaplain. The Chaplain Corps tries to meet the needs of soldiers of different faiths, but given its small size (1,400 active duty chaplains; 1,200 in the reserves), it can’t possibly serve such a diverse population. As a result, I have yet to attend a service led by a Jewish chaplain. Instead, all services have been conducted by Jewish lay leaders, including myself. I have no doubt that members of other low-density faith groups have experienced similar challenges.
Deficiencies with the Army’s Lay Leader Program
On the plus side, a duly-authorized, well-trained, and well-supported lay leader can fulfill many of the duties and responsibilities of a chaplain. For example: As a Jewish lay leader, I routinely plan, promote, and administer Jewish services, leading Torah study sessions and conducting Shabbat services once a week. I also serve as a subject matter expert for Judaism, for example, advising on what Jewish soldiers need to celebrate high holidays like Rosh Hashanah.
On the minus side, there are strict limits to what a lay leader can do in the absence of a chaplain belonging to that faith. For example, I am limited in the kinds of pastoral care I can provide and I cannot advise a unit commander on matters of religious accommodation. Regardless of how knowledgeable a lay leader is about a religion, they cannot, for example, recommend that a soldier be allowed to grow a beard or receive special meals for an upcoming holiday.
Also, there is ambiguity surrounding the issue of confidentiality between lay leaders and their congregations. A chaplain, like a psychiatrist, cannot normally be compelled to divulge the contents of conversations with congregants. Typically the only exception is when someone presents a risk of serious harm to others, and disclosure is necessary to prevent that harm. Unfortunately, there is no “privilege rule” governing lay leaders and the soldiers they serve. If I returned from a meeting with a member of my congregation, and my unit commander ordered me to divulge the content of our conversation, I would have to comply or risk disciplinary action. Because the term “DRGL” (Distinctive Religious Group Leader) is also ambiguous, most service members, unit commanders, and even chaplains may be unaware of the roles and responsibilities that a DRGL can – and cannot – fulfill.
Complicating the situation is the fact that the challenges described above are those faced by “duly-authorized, well-trained, and well-supported lay leaders.” In the case of low-density religions, qualified lay leaders, as well as proper training, are often in short supply. And due to a lack of standard operating procedures, processes, and guidelines governing the lay leadership program, many low-density religion lay volunteers receive inadequate support from their unit’s chaplain or commanding officer. Based on my research, some lay leaders are granted the necessary time and resources (e.g. communications tools, facilities for worship, transport to religious services, supplies, etc.), while others must fend for themselves. This can inflict a great deal of stress on those who already have full-time jobs within the Army and are simply volunteering their time to nurture religious participation among soldiers of their faith.
Without proactive efforts to recruit and adequately train chaplains and lay leaders of low-density religions, it’s certain that many soldiers of these faiths will receive less support – and less respect – for their religious convictions.
As an organization committed to building character, morale, and resilience, I would argue that part of the Army’s mission is fostering recognition and respect for every religion to which the soldiers adhere. Unfortunately, the lack of qualified and trained chaplains and lay leaders is sometimes interpreted as a sign of indifference or disrespect for both that faith and the soldiers who subscribe to it.
For example, when I arrived at Fort Bliss, Texas, I discovered that a Torah scroll had been left unsecured and was not being cared for. Even if we overlook the cost of replacing a Torah, which is upward of $50,000, these scrolls are considered holy objects by the Jewish people. I think everyone can agree that a Torah should be treated with respect, but nobody at Fort Bliss, the second-largest Department of Defense installation in the world, had been informed on how to properly handle one.
Recommendations for Improving the Lay Leader Program
The fact that the Department of Defense recognizes so many religions and belief systems, and even has a formal lay leadership program, reflects well on its commitment to improving the mental and physical health of its personnel. Still, the administration of the lay leader program needs improvement, as well as certain adjustments, in order to adequately meet the needs of soldiers of low-density faiths.
My recommendations include:
- Targeted efforts to recruit qualified lay leaders and chaplains of low-density faiths. Chaplains should be encouraged to discuss the process of becoming a lay-leader with soldiers of low-density faiths who show leadership potential. Materials regarding the role of lay-leadership should be created, published, and circulated to help with recruitment and awareness. Additionally, the Chaplain Corps should advertise in the journals and periodicals of low-density faith groups regarding the need for faith leaders to serve as chaplains or volunteers. Emphasis should be put on diversity in the Army and the education benefits that are available.
- The term “Distinctive Religious Group Leader” should be replaced with “Religious Lay-Leader,” and any abbreviations avoided. This will increase understanding of the role, and encourage individuals of those faiths to seek support from lay leaders.
- Revisions to, or clarification of, regulations regarding the endorsement process for chaplains and lay leaders. More research is needed, but anecdotal evidence suggests that some low-density religions do not have endorsement councils or agencies to authorize chaplains and lay leaders. In the absence of such agencies, these religions will not be formally represented in the Army.
- A mechanism for identifying DRGLs and communicating this information to unit chaplains and commanders. The army records system contains a field known as ASI (Additional Skills Identifier), which is used when a soldier possesses a potentially valuable skill such as a foreign language. An ASI for religion should be included so that anyone can immediately locate a DRGL to meet the needs of soldiers belonging to low-density faiths.
- With the appropriate database or directory of low-density faith lay leaders, chaplains can seek out subject matter expert guidance on providing religious accommodation recommendations to commanders and senior leaders.
- Additional training for unit commanders to ensure that they recognize the importance of, and provide support for, lay leaders of low-density religions.
- Codification stating that professional development hours for lay leaders should be supported by unit commanders during duty hours, and that those serving as lay leaders should be eligible for recognition and awards.
- Clarification of regulations governing the activities that lay leaders can and cannot perform, as well as issues such as pastor-congregant confidentiality.
- Implementation of a mentorship program to encourage experienced chaplains and lay leaders to offer one-on-one training, education, and support for low-density DRGLs. Lay leaders should also be integrated into RSO/UMT training and receive support and guidance from 56M religious affairs specialists.
- Training for chaplains and lay leaders on how to properly maintain custody of and care for high-value religious items with which they may not be familiar.
As CH (CPT) Patrick G. Stefan observed in a recent white paper entitled “Community Based Religion and Soldier Readiness,” the US military is in a unique position with regard to organized religion. Unlike society at large, religion is governmentally funded in the US military. This unique relationship offers an under-appreciated opportunity to build robust religious communities in the Army – communities that can significantly contribute to the overall health, readiness, and resiliency of soldiers.
Through enhanced recruitment, training, and support for lay leaders of low-density faiths, the Army will ensure that it is not only more diverse and representative of the US population, but that every soldier receives the benefits that come from participating in communal religious services and other faith-based activities.
This article was originally published in the Purim 2022 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.