Religion and the Law [transcript]

Religion and the Law

Podcast with Winnifred Fallers Sullivan (22 April 2013).

Interviewed by Chris Duncan

Transcribed by Trevor Linn

Audio and transcript available at:


Religion and Law, Religion and Politics, Religion in America, Chaplaincy

Chris Duncan (CD)  0:56 

Hello, my name is Chris Duncan. And with me today is Professor Winnifred [Fallers] Sullivan, Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. Professor Sullivan is here at Arizona State University, giving a lecture called “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular”. So first, welcome to Arizona, great rainy weather, which is the only weekend this year that’s actually going to occur. The talk yesterday wasn’t what I thought it was going to be when I signed up for it, frankly. It was much more interesting than I was anticipating. As a religious studies student here in the US, talking about chaplains is usually something that doesn’t arise very often just because of the faux secular nature of what we’re trying to do, I guess is the best way of saying and bracketing out our ideas and our personal beliefs. The best way to start off, I would assume, would be just the talk on the chaplaincy. Your lecture yesterday focused on chaplaincy within secular settings. I think the federal prison system, US Wildlife Service, is one of the examples you gave.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan (WS) 2:53 

It’s actually Maine.

CD  2:55 

Oh, Maine.

WS  2:55 

The state of Maine. Yes.

CD  2:56 

Excellent. And federal hospitals as well. I had a long conversation with some friends about that last night.

WS  3:02 


CD  3:03 

The licensure for hospitalizing.

WS  3:05 


CD  3:05 

That requires a chaplain service, which is quite interesting. In specific regards to your lecture, is there any further detail that might be necessary? Would you like to give a two-to-three-minute summary of what your lecture went over in the 45-minute grandiose scale that it was?

WS  3:32 

Well, perhaps I could say that I, too, would have thought before I started working on this that chaplaincy would be a rather dull topic. And in fact, I think when I tell people that I’m writing a book about chaplains, their eyes begin to glaze over. What I have learned is that chaplains, or thinking about chaplains, has actually turned out to be a very useful way for me to think beyond the work I’ve done, criticizing and critiquing constitutional and international legal protection for religious freedom. And my critique has largely been the instability and incoherence of the category of religion as a basis for legal regulation. And this is now a well-worn topic in religious studies. Although I find it interesting that many religious studies scholars, who are very happy to trash the category of religion as an academic matter, remain themselves committed to something they call religious freedom, even though that combination of positions seems incoherent to me.

WS  5:05 

In any event, putting aside the management of religion in modern secular societies at the sort of constitutional level, and getting down in the weeds, which I think is actually much more interesting. In other words, how do religion and law shape each other on the ground? And so, what I have discovered, in the course of working on this book, is that, in the US context, in many kinds of institutions—governmental, quasi-governmental, and private—chaplains have come to serve a role of ministering to what is increasingly understood in the United States to be a universal spiritual need. It’s been a kind of naturalization of religion. How’s that to start?

CD  6:02 

That’s great. And actually, that last sentence was perfect, because the metaphor that was used several times throughout your talk, and the one that struck deepest to my heart, was the M*A*S*H reference from the TV show “Sitting Around the Korean War,” I would have to assume that the majority of American youth have seen at least one or two episodes of the show. And I could imagine that most of our international audience has seen at least clips somewhere along the lines. Most of the time, our attention is drawn to [Margaret] “Hotlips” Houlihan and Hawkeye, and the brash male characters in the big fight scene, going through these turns into these tumultuous moments in time. Yet, there’s this character in the background, the chaplain, who, in reality, looking back now, as a religious studies scholar, was a Catholic priest and nothing more than that.

CD  7:12 

Yet, both in mid-20th century American culture, we see the white-collar. And we recognize, I guess, at face, the attachment to a particular denomination or a particular ecclesiastical society. But with the requirement placed upon that same person to be able to, quite literally, minister or provide—as you put in your lecture—a presence to soldiers, to a group of people that may only have that one face to speak to, and that person may not be actually of their religious cut or cloth, we can say. During your lecture, you also bring up the anecdote of the federal prison chaplain, who must be licensed under state policies yet fully capable of operating on a spiritual level. And I think the way you mentioned it was they’re in a bit of an ambiguous power structure, or power struggle, between the secular and the state. Could you elaborate any more on perhaps the central figure that you’re talking about, this religious person who is expected to provide religiosity or spirituality, but within a “secular” setting, if that’s even possible?

WS  9:02 

Well, of course, it’s possible. It happens every day. But I think it’s helpful to remember that the figure of the chaplain, in at least Christian history, in the Western churches of Europe, and the colonial extension of those Churches, have always been a sort of in-between or ambiguous figure. And what you describe as a power struggle, I would actually describe more as an issue of ambiguous authority lines—that the chaplain is someone, and has always been since medieval chaplaincies, a minister who is sort of detailed away from the church. In other words, not operating in the direct line or chain of command, in a sort of military sense, is away from the bishop, if you’re talking about the Catholic or whoever’s in charge of him. And he’s away from the demands that sort of humdrum, dailiness of a congregation, if you’re thinking in a more kind of Protestant sense.

WS  10:19 

And so, on the one hand, there’s that ambiguous connection to the sending religious community. On the other hand, the person has, the chaplain has, a somewhat ambiguous role in the institution in which they work. Because whether they’re in—they’re not a doctor in a hospital, or not a prison guard, they’re not a soldier. They are a kind of broker, as I described, between sacred and secular for these reasons. On the other hand, they’re paid by the secular institution, and they have to answer to that authority. And there are many examples in literature and in history of chaplains being captured by the secular mission and nationalism, if we’re talking about the military, but other secular the secular mission of the of the institution, in which he or she works. I think that people are drawn to chaplaincy partly because they like the ministry in this context, which is kind of like being an emergency room doctor. You have to have get a kind of charge out of this set of ambiguity in encountering a stranger, whether in your hospital role, or wherever, in an airport, and in a crisis situation, in a city, national disaster, that’s also where chaplains work, and making it up at that moment, what it means to offers services or spiritual care. Is that what you had in mind?

CD  12:16 

That’s perfect. And that’s perhaps the best way to distill my surprise and pleasure at the topic. We have this preconceived notion of the chaplain: he sits over here in the hospital, and he marries people, and he divorces people, and he baptizes babies—or she, I guess—and we never really consider perhaps the human being behind the collar or behind office itself. [It’s] almost a psychological profile of someone who would be drawn to that type of work. It’s extremely fascinating, specifically because of those purposes. They are, perhaps emotionally or mentally, on par with a doctor or someone who responds well under pressure. But they don’t pick up a weapon, or they don’t pick up a syringe, they pick up a holy text, or they pick up someone’s hand. They seem to be—and this sounds a bit probably hyperbolic—but they’re almost, to me, the friend that you would always want to have. Because they know, to a minimum level, how to help people and some of their most dark hours of their existence sometimes.

WS  13:46 

Yes, so I think that it’s important to focus on how this role has changed in the last 50 years since Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H. So, this form of encounter that you’re describing, what is described by chaplains today, is a ministry of presence, a kind of stripped-down form of witness, if you like, using a Christian word, but more existentially basic than that. A sort of suffering with, or sitting with, is the way it’s described. And so, the shift that has happened is from a perception that chaplains in mid-[20th]century in the US, but also in other places, had a kind of bag of tricks that was specific to their particular religions, and they were there to provide them. And this is particularly the case of Catholic priests because it is believed by non-Catholics, that only Catholic priests can do certain things and that Catholics will go to hell if they don’t have those things priest gives. And so, the priest is sort of dispenser of sacraments and necessary sacraments. But then also at mid-century in the US, of the kind of reduction of American religious diversity to the Protestant, the Catholic, and Jew meant that those three chaplains are the ones that we see in stories of, in World War II movies, and also in the Korean War.

WS  15:27 

And they are each representing their own religious communities in quite a full way, although they do switch it for each other and care for each other’s religious congregants. But we’ve moved to something which is far more generalized and in which—for one thing, they’re not enough Catholic priests to do all the sacramental ministry that is imagined in this early model—but also what the chaplain does now is much less identified with a particular religious tradition. And in fact, the ministry of presence is distinguished by the fact of non-imposition of any kind of religious identity so that when the chaplain encounters you—what you describe, the friend you in need—the chaplain is trained and understands [they need] to be a non-impositional presence and to let you take the lead in terms of any kind of religious specificities concerned.

CD  16:45 

Perhaps changing tact, a bit broadly, one of the major mental images that I was aware of while listening to your lecture yesterday, was the imposition in particularly US Penal System and the federal prison system of prisoner rehab. One would have to assume that the chaplaincy, as such, must remain removed from the general prison system itself. Yet at the same time, what I was really making connections with was actually a documentary that I’ve seen—I don’t know, maybe six or seven months ago called Dharma Brothers, where they essentially—I think it’s an Alabama—a group of Zen Buddhist masters create this rehab space almost or a safe space for these violent offenders to kind of ground themselves or center themselves. With this in mind, and then with the understanding of the implied separation of church and state that the majority of the western world likes to at least put up as a front, could we draw conclusions between groups of this nature who are trying to, quite literally, rehabilitate?

WS  18:19 

I wrote a book about prisons, and prisons are a very specific context. In the US, there are state prisons and federal prisons, and they’re all different. There are 51 different jurisdictions in United States—the criminal jurisdictions—and then there are many prisons and jails at the municipal and county level. These prisons have very different policies with respect to the accommodation of the religious needs of prisoners. But you could say that chaplaincies in prisons, for the most part, although they operate on different models, are there to provide services on demand for prisoners.

CD  19:15 

Non-denominational religious expression is, I think, a term that might have been used in your, in your lecture.

WS  19:22 

I don’t think I ever used…

CD  19:23 

Spiritual, secular, not a religious kind of a thing.

WS  19:26 

Oh, I’m sure is it spiritual not religious. I’m sure I did not say non-denominational because I don’t say that. But I wanted to say one thing about your remarks, which is the separation of church and state is not something that’s ever been the fact in the United States or anywhere. It is a particular sort of political myth of America that was created in the 19th century, and it’s been argued, partly a reaction to Catholic immigration, and that with the mainstreaming of Catholics, it’s basically over in terms of any kind of general political motivation in this country; we don’t need to separate them because they’re now like us. But we were trying to separate them for a while—that didn’t work either. So, I don’t think the separation of church and state is the model to think about. I think the concern, and I think this would be fairly widely shared in the US, is non-imposition. And so that’s how it would be, we would be distinguished, from some non-coercive, non-imposition of voluntary religious activity is what distinguishes, I think, for most Americans, across the political and religious spectrum, what we’re up to politically and legally.

WS  20:59 

But just to say one more thing about prisons, the United States has the highest percentage of incarcerated citizens in the world, by a lot. It’s way ahead of some other countries we usually don’t like to be compared to, and massive incarceration is a huge American scandal. So, this is combined with very low spending on rehabilitation, generally, and that has declined in the last 20-30 years and also the privatization of social services. So, prisons are reliant to a larger extent on both voluntary and contract rehabilitation programs. And there are such programs that are run by all religious communities. So, the one you suggest—I’ve read about it also—by the Buddhist monks, that’s one of them, but all religious communities provide these kinds of things to various types of prisons. Some of them are paid for, and some of them are voluntary, and it would be really hard to generalize about them.

WS  22:16 

But there’s plenty of religion in prisons. Prison superintendents like religion. It gives people something to do, and it may be a way of providing rehabilitation services, which the prison itself can’t afford to provide, including reentry. I mean, I would say reentry is much more, I should say this, I mean, in terms of where we are with prisons right now, is that the focus, both by reformers of all kinds is on reentry, more than in prison. And so, these reentry programs—because many prisoners in this country are simply given a bus ticket when they leave prison, they find themselves unable to work, because there’s so many laws that prevent them from working, getting a driver’s license, voting. I mean, so they’re usually hobbled by the law as soon as they get out of prison. And it’s that interface that people are working on now, both religious groups and non-religious groups.

CD  23:20 

That’s interesting. I would like to hear more about that actually. Excellent. Well, thank you, Winnifred Sullivan. I appreciate all of your time today.

WS  23:27 

You’re welcome.

Citation Info:

Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers and Chris Duncan. 2013. “Religion and the Law”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 22 April 2013. Transcribed by Trevor Linn. Version 1.0, 17 February 2022. Available at:

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