By Graham Glover
“Pro Deo et Patria” (For God and Country): the motto of the US Army Chaplain Corps. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out its message – that chaplains are servants to their Lord and their nation.
As one of those servants, I oftentimes cringe when I hear this motto extolled. Don’t get me wrong, I love God and my country, and rejoice that I am given the privilege to serve both. But I cringe because the message that most people hear when they encounter this motto is one that could not be more convoluted.
Allow me to explain…
As a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, my vocation is one of service to my Lord and His Church. As a chaplain in the United States Army, my vocation has currently called me to serve the Soldiers and Family Members of those in uniform. For the past 6 years, this service has been one of the highest honors of my life. In no uncertain terms, I love being a pastor and a chaplain.
So what’s my issue with the motto: “For God and Country”, you ask? Just look at the above image. This image speaks volumes to what many in our country think about the Chaplain Corps and what makes me cringe about its motto. For in this image and motto is the idea that God and country are one. Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that a patriotic American cannot be an orthodox Christian or vice versa. But to suggest, as so many images and mottos do, that these things are synonymous, is a perilous move to make.
Consider the following: When we say “God” in this motto, whose God are we referring to? The vast majority of the chaplains in the US Armed Forces are Christian, but there are Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Buddhist, Hindu, and (I think) Unitarian chaplains in our ranks. And let’s be honest, the Triune God that Christians confess in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds finds no home among those faiths. By no means am I suggesting that the Chaplain Corps should not welcome chaplains from other faiths. As one who believes firmly in the freedom of governmental influence on religion, I support the inclusion of those chaplains not of my faith, especially since there are Soldiers who share their confession. But that’s just it. These other chaplains and Soldiers do not share my faith. We do not believe in the same God. And yet we stand “together” behind the motto “For God and Country” and in so doing, support a fallacy that suggests all faiths are the same. And you wonder why I cringe?
“But Chaplain, aren’t most of your colleagues Christian? Why make a mountain out of a molehill? Can’t you find unity in this motto among them?” Out of the 1,594 Active Duty US Army Chaplains, 1,575 of them are Christian (1,465 Protestant, 102 Roman Catholic, and 8 Eastern Orthodox). But to this I reply, “What does this mean?” Yes, 98.8% of my chaplain peers are Christian and I think most of them could confess the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds (even among the “non-creedal” types), but does this mean that we share the same faith? I oftentimes find my sacramental theology and biblical hermeneutics so diametrically opposed to some of my Christian peers, that I wonder if I have more in common with the Orthodox Rabbi I currently serve with than them.
My point is simply this, chaplains in the US Army do not all serve the same God. We do not all confess the same faith. Even among ‘Christian’ and ‘Protestant’ chaplains, there are such widely divergent theologies that to suggest we are united in our faith is not only false, but grossly misleading. We proudly serve our nation and offer spiritual care to those who defend her freedoms, but that is where our unity ends.
Oh yes, I cringe when I hear the Army Chaplain Corps’ motto. But I will continue to minister to those in the greatest Army the world has ever known, simultaneously serving in my ecclesial and civil vocations. But why should this be a problem, as it is such a naturally Lutheran thing to do…