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

Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America. By Ronit Y. Stahl. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. x + 348 pp.

Separating church from state is an idea that sounds eminently manageable in theory but has proven close to impossible in practice. There is perhaps no institution that offers a better example of the deeply intertwined nature of religion and the modern American state than the military chaplaincy. In Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America, Ronit Stahl offers a profoundly valuable new analysis of the military chaplaincy and its engagement with American conceptions of religion, race, gender roles, and the boundaries of state power. Earlier histories offer very solid accounts of the institutional growth and triumphs of the military chaplaincy but stop short of exploring what the institution can reveal to us about the complex dynamics of religion and the American state. Stahl's broadly researched and well-contextualized book successfully fills this void and clearly demonstrates what the chaplaincy tells us about the history of religion in America over the past century.

Stahl opens her study with World War I, when at the instigation of General John Pershing, with the assistance of his friend and confidante Episcopal Bishop Charles Brent, the chaplaincy was expanded and transformed into a professionalized component of the military, officially charged with providing for the spiritual needs of all American servicemen. As a result of both these new organizational policies and the multiple religious affiliations of the soldiers, the military chaplaincy became a crucial cite for developing a new, tri-faith--Protestant, Catholic, Jewish--understanding of American religion. Stahl follows the evolution of this tri-faith vision and examines the ways that the idea of a normative Judeo-Christian American religious tradition was celebrated and institutionalized by the military during World War II, and then challenged and transformed from the second half of the twentieth century to the present.

As Stahl demonstrates, throughout this century of American military and religious history, the chaplaincy always offered more than just comfort to soldiers; it was a mechanism through which religious, racial, and gendered communities negotiated for recognition and rights from the American government. During World War I, Jews and Catholics struggled for that recognition. By the time the country emerged from World War II, they had largely achieved the status of religious insiders so long as they were willing to conform to military policies designed to promote a shared, liberal Judeo-Christian tradition. Stahl offers an engaging description of the careful editing of scripts for the radio show Chaplain Jim to showcase the ways that this tradition was shaped and broadcast to the American public during the war. She also describes the ways that the racial and religious biases embedded within this definition of American religion made it woefully inadequate to addressing the needs of African American soldiers serving in a still segregated military, or of Buddhist soldiers, some of whom served in the military while their families struggled in US internment camps.

By the time the US entered the war in Vietnam, Stahl makes it clear that the tri-faith model of American religion no longer reflected either the realities of American society or the demands of American soldiers and citizens. Buddhist soldiers still struggled against a Judeo-Christian conception of American religion, and they were now joined by growing numbers of Muslims in the military. African American soldiers and chaplains demanded religious engagement with issues of racism and social justice. Other religious groups, like Greek and Russian Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mormons, who had earlier been uncomfortably categorized under "General Protestantism," wanted recognition of their own distinctive traditions within the institutions of the military. In each of these cases, Stahl uses her study of religion in the military as a lens for considering both the chaplaincy and changing American attitudes and policies regarding religious freedoms more broadly.

In the final chapters of the book, Stahl examines some of the changes in the structure of the contemporary military chaplaincy that resulted most directly from the Vietnam War. As anti-Vietnam sentiment drove liberal clergy away from the military chaplaincy, evangelical Protestants under the focused leadership of Billy Graham seized upon the opportunity to fill empty commissions and move the chaplaincy away from the compromises that had defined the liberal Judeo-Christian tradition of the mid-twentieth century, and toward more distinctly differentiated conceptions of American religion. In examining this shift, Stahl captures the inherent entanglement of identity, politics, and state policy that shapes the chaplaincy and American religion more broadly.

Stahl musters an impressive range of archival sources in this study. She makes use of official reports and publications, but also draws heavily on the voices of individual soldiers and chaplains. Their stories and perspectives bring the conflicts facing chaplains clearly to light and add compelling personal details to the century-long narrative of institutional and social change that Stahl presents. For scholars interested in American Judaism and American Jewish history, Stahl's book is not strictly focused on Jews and Judaism. Rather, it usefully explores the Jewish experience as part of a larger story of religion in the American military. As a result, it is a study that will be valuable to scholars who seek to effectively situate Jewish experience within the broader contexts of American religion, as well as to anyone interested in exploring the complicated ways that religion and state long have and continue to shape each other in the United States.

Jessica Cooperman

Muhlenberg College

Jessica Cooperman is an associate professor of religion studies and director of the Jewish Studies Program at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. She is the author of Making Judaism Safe for America: World War I and the Origins of Religious Pluralism (New York University Press, 2018).
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Author:Cooperman, Jessica
Publication:American Jewish History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2019
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