The U.S. Military Chaplaincy and Twentieth-Century Society [transcript]

The U.S. Military Chaplaincy and Twentieth-Century Society

Podcast with Ronit Y. Stahl (22 March 2021).

Interviewed by Dan Gorman, Jr.

Transcribed by Andie Alexander

Audio and transcript available at:


Military History, Pluralism, Management, Judaism, Catholicism, Evangelical

Dan Gorman (DG)  00:03

I’m speaking today with Dr. Ronit Y. Stahl, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Faculty Affiliate of the Religious Diversity Cluster of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. Dr. Stahl’s research focuses on religious pluralism in American society by examining how politics, law, and religion interact in institutions. Her first book, Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America, was published by Harvard University Press in 2017. It demonstrates how, despite the constitutional separation of church and state, the federal government authorized and manage religion in the military. Dr. Stahl, thank you so much for joining us on the program.

Ronit Stahl (RS)  01:17

Thank you for having me.

DG  01:19

In this Zoom remote environment, which we were doing before the pandemic, so our workflow hasn’t been affected too much.

RS  01:30

We’ve all now become Zoom experts, I suppose.

DG  01:34

Exactly. But you know, there is no paid advertising in this program. We are not—we don’t get points for mentioning Zoom. So, I wanted to start off by talking about a little anecdote you share on page 338 of Enlisting Faith. It’s in the acknowledgments, and you mentioned how your father when he was training at Fort Jackson, on Saturdays, he would attend Shabbat morning service. And then on Sundays, he would go in, take church call and sleep for a couple hours. And I thought that was a really interesting anecdote, even though it’s not part of the main argument of your book, because it captures that sort of, not always sincere use of religious opportunities in the military.

RS  02:20

Yes, so, my father was an expert at systems in many ways—he really understood how institutions worked. And he had low draft number in Vietnam. And part of his reckoning with institutions was understanding that if he enlisted in the National Guard, that that would be a way of performing military service, but not being sent to Vietnam. And he actually convinced a few of his classmates to do the same thing. So, he had his original initial basic training and service at Fort Jackson. And then he did weekend duty. And he actually was a committed Jew and did both attend and leave Shabbat services on Saturday mornings, but he also recognized an opportunity when it appeared in front of him. And so yeah, he would take church call on Sundays and get a little sleep in. And, you know, again, I think it does highlight the ways in which this the military is a system, it’s an institution. It’s actually, in the context of the chaplaincy, multiple institutions coming together—institutions of religion and institutions of the military—and when these spaces come together, people can use them in all sorts of ways. And I think one question that always arises in the context of religion these days are questions of sincerity. And part of what this highlights, I think, is the complexity of sincerity. He was sincere in his Jewish faith; he really did and continued to be an active and observant American Jew, but he also again was very content to get a little rest in on Sundays. So religion can be used for all sorts of purposes, and individuals can have that complexity isn’t just about institutions, complexity exists on an individual level as well. And religion is one of those spaces where there are parts that can be appealing and genuine and show deep conviction. And at the same time, also there are opportunities that one can take advantage of.

DG  04:43

And one of the things I appreciated the most about this book the detailing the history of military chaplaincy is capturing that….—I don’t want to say not polyvocal because it’s not a voice. I’m trying to find a word to describe… There’s multiple categories at work here. There’s the institution of the military, there’s the actual business of making war, then there’s also this molding of what we want officers and enlisted men to be like, which is this very progressive era, we’re gonna shape these people into what we want them to be.

RS  05:14

Yeah, this is an institution, and we can use it for a lot of different aims. And I think that’s what makes institutions so fascinating to study and such interesting spaces. I think often institutional histories are thought of as kind of boring, just the history of a particular organization or a particular institutional space. But I think when done well, institutions are some of the most fascinating places to see a multivalence society and in the US context, really the variety of experiences of American society located in one place. What happens when people converge, even if they share certain commitments? And of course, other times they don’t share those commitments, but are still sent to the same place. But what happens when there are certain rules that govern how people ought to behave or what they ought to be doing? But also, these spaces are used for multiple purposes, and how do the individuals in them respond to these different kinds of social cues, these political cues? What are they doing with the information they receive? What does the military want to do? Why does it want to do it? And what’s actually the outcomes, and the outcomes are rarely uniform. And that’s part of again, what I think makes this so fascinating is that there are lots of tensions. There’s opportunity for many people in the military at different moments. But there’s also coercion, there’s also repression, there’s also real obstacles and real challenges. And we can see this on all sorts of axes. And the religious space in the military opens up a lot of these—whether we’re also looking at race, or gender, or sexuality, or questions of morality. How do people navigate these tensions, both ideologically but most importantly, in their everyday life? What happens when you just have to make decisions?

DG  07:19

And it’s interesting, you mentioned that this question of making decisions. Because the military when it created the modern formalized military chaplaincy around the time of WWI, defined it in a very narrow ways. And I think you mentioned in the book, the, you know, the Will Herberg’s book from the 1950s, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, saying that there are these three silos that Americans can fall into. Well, 30 years before that book was written, the military was saying, we’re gonna have Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic chaplains. And that’s it.

RS  07:49

Yeah, and that gets at that kind of progressive era moment of WWI where the military wants efficiency. So okay, we’re gonna open up the chaplaincy. It’s typically been Protestants and Catholics, and within Protestants, a few different mostly mainline groups. And we’re going to open this space to Jews—that really is for the military, a different religious group. They recognize they can’t quite smoosh it in with everyone else. But also, there’s a chaplains-at-large bill that opens the military chaplaincy to Mormons, to Christian scientists, at the time to the Salvation Army, at least in theory to the Eastern Orthodox, though they’re not included until WWII. But the question the military faces and comes up against over and over again in the 20th century is, “well, how do we organize these groups? And where do they fit?” And again, in this progressive mindset of efficiency, you don’t want a proliferation of tons of different groups. Instead, you want like—it’s a very management perspective of organization. So okay, well, we know, we’ve had different Protestants before, that’s kind of a big category, we’ll just add more to it. We recognize that Catholics are different. They’re going to come from and be endorsed by—because there’s this process by which chaplains have to be endorsed by their religious group—we recognize that the Catholic Church is going to handle that differently than these Protestant groups. And then we’re going to have a group for Jews. But even there, we’re also going to sort of impose a certain degree of efficiency, which is to say, while there are different movements within the Jewish tradition in the United States, there is this thing called the Jewish Welfare Board, and it’s going to be our interface. And it doesn’t matter if Orthodox Jews and Reformed Jews view the world differently or might want different things out of their rabbis, they’re just Jewish chaplains. So at multiple levels, there’s this clustering. And again, this idea of kind of a Protestant-Catholic-Jewish America that emerges publicly in force in the 50s with Herberg’s book is actually a really much older idea, as you said, and it’s, it starts in many ways, in the military trying to organize religious categories and stuff people into these boxes. And basically, if you’re not Jewish or Catholic, you’re Protestant, from the military’s perspective, these are your options.

DG  10:16

I remember in the book you talk at length about the difficulty of classifying the Greek Orthodox Church, because, technically… I mean, it’s Eastern Catholicism from one perspective. But of course, there was the schism, but they weren’t Protestant, either. And it’s like the Apollo 13 problem of the square peg in the round hole where it’s like, it doesn’t quite fit. And the typical WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) military man of 1920 doesn’t know how to broaden his horizons.

RS  10:49

That’s right. You know, there are a number of incidences where things just don’t quite fit. And that’s where you see this friction. So you see it with the Eastern Orthodox who are like—even when it’s just, you know, soldiers, “what box do I check, right? Like, do I say I’m Protestant? Or do I say I’m Catholic, because none of these resonate with me?” We see it with Latter Day Saints who really don’t like being classified as Protestants, and then we see it with groups like Buddhists who are like, “We are definitely none of these.” But in WWII, from the military’s perspective, a Buddhist may as well be a Protestant. Like, it’s not just a… I do want to complicate that by saying that the military did recognize, in the case of burials, that there would be different rituals for a group like Buddhists; there was more options when it came to things like burials, but in terms of living, and who your chaplain options were, you had Protestants, you had Catholics, and you had Jews. And again, in the WWII military, this becomes even more obvious, the problems of this categorization. And yet still, the chiefs of chaplains are kind of throwing up their hands and are like, you know, if we allow every group to be recognized as their specific denomination or their specific group, we’re going to have upwards of 250 or more religious groups and how on earth are we going to manage that? It’s a management problem from the military’s perspective.

DG  12:15

Well, and there’s there is a fourth unspoken category, which is that in the military in this period, until President Truman’s 1948 order it was Protestant, Catholic, Jew, African American, and how African American chaplains were shoved into their own category and not allowed to work with white troops.

RS  12:39

That’s right. So, the chaplaincy was actually the first space in the military to, itself, desegregate, which is to say chaplain training school, chaplain officer training school was desegregated before Truman desegregates the armed forces, and that I want to be clear was a very practical decision from the military’s perspective. There aren’t that many chaplains we have to train, and also, they’re educated men, they’re men of God, they can sort of handle integration. But still African-American chaplains will only minister to African-American troops. And so, there is this, for the military, like they’ve created these three religious categories, but they’re coming up against segregation. And so what does it mean? What do you do with African-American chaplains, who typically, were mostly Protestant, but there are a few Catholics, and there’s no single African-American tradition—the Black church is not one thing, it’s many things. And so that really does come up against this. There’s sort of a religious architecture and a racial architecture, and they don’t overlap perfectly. And so yeah, you get in, if you look at forms, if you look at data, if you look at assignments, from WWII, you get these four categories, not just three, and you get kind of in the imagination of what does a chaplain look like. This question of, you know, where do African-American chaplains fit? And this is not just a question of religion, it really is a question in the military, of also of authority, because between WWI and WWII, there are only five black officers in the entire US military, and three of them are chaplains. So, the space of authority in African-American leadership in the military, you will get more African American officers during WWII, but still in terms of a durable line, places where people understand the institution and know how to work within it also know how to challenge it. Often that’s coming out of these religious spaces. But again, it’s a messy situation, and that’s why it does matter to be looking at this religious space but also being really keenly aware of the racial dynamics at work.

DG  15:03

Yeah, and it’s interesting we’re having this conversation during the end of Black History Month 2021. Thinking of this too, Henry Louis Gates’ Black Church documentary just came out on PBS. But on page 91, you talk about Chaplain Luther Fuller, and this anecdote really disturbed my actually, that he gives a sermon in the South Pacific protesting racism in the military and then word comes down that white officers are planning to murder him. And then he had to be protected by fellow Black troops until he goes home, at which point he is dishonorably discharged from the military. I mean, really just a horrible story. Also good you could spin it looking at the courage of the soldiers who protected him, but just such a damning indictment of American racism, both on the individual and institutional level.

RS  15:54

Absolutely, and I think, again, that’s why it really matters to always when you’re looking at sources and finding the stories in the archives to be paying attention to the multiple dynamics at work and recognizing when did religion protect, and when did it, in this case, it didn’t protect him at all. And his, what were deemed as, allegations by white superiors. They were real, they were accurate. We now very clearly understand the way the segregated military worked, and I think it’s important to recognize it’s not that the people at the time didn’t—they also knew how it worked. You wouldn’t have Black troops protecting him if they didn’t understand that this was a space where white supremacy had power. It also doesn’t mean—there were other moments, other chaplains, who used different tactics to try and circumvent some of that racism. But in the end, it was still a racist institution, it was a segregated institution, and so Black chaplains—though officers, though well-educated, though part of this larger system—in many ways, had to depend on other people for their safety and security. And in the case of Fuller, it was his troops who did a lot to physically protect him. In other cases—other allies who stood up for Black chaplains—but in some cases they were left on their own, and so it was a really difficult space to navigate. And religion offered some support, but it did not erase racism, and that was a real and tangible aspect of military service in that period.

DG  17:38

I remember you mention in the introduction the tensions between faith and pluralists environment is between ethnic groups and racial groups too, and also the anecdote—the book opens with the story of poor Private Leonard Shapiro, who dies in France, and his mother receives a letter that he has received a good Catholic burial when, of course, the Shapiro family was Jewish. And, to me, the most telling part of the whole saga was when his division chaplain said, “Well I looked down a list of the dead, and I looked at their last names, and I saw the ones that ended with vowels and I figured he was Italian.” And what that told me was that, at this point, back on the home front, you still didn’t have a lot of overlap between these ethnic groups. That it was possible that A) a Catholic chaplain might not know anyone who was Jewish, and also might not know non-Italian or non-Irish Catholics depending on what neighborhood he was from. It’s this very segmented culture.

RS  17:39

That’s right. And that is one way in which the military did create opportunities. Obviously, in the case of Leonard Shapiro and his poor family, it was a vexing situation, but what it also highlights is the ways in which the military was this space of encounter between religious and ethnic groups that people were not getting at home in their neighborhoods. And one of the interesting things that happened after the book was published was people telling me about their childhoods, especially if they came from areas in Brooklyn or other urban places where there were large both urban Catholic and Jewish communities and what was happening in schools at the time and the interesting alliances that would build up about presumptions of who was who and sort of mask—not necessarily passing as a different religion, but if you wanted to be student council president, sometimes it was helpful to have a name that play those tricks on people because of assumptions about what vowels at the end of a name meant. So that really affirmed for me that this was connected to larger currents in American culture and society in which there wasn’t that much contact. So, the military is, in essence, a very much an educational space, though it wasn’t necessarily a space of deliberate education. It meant by WWII people really were encountering very different people, different circumstances. Someone like chaplain Roland Gittelsohn, who becomes famous in part because of the anti-Semitism he experienced at Iwo Jima when he’s supposed to give, he was asked by his superior to give a sermon at a eulogy for fallen soldiers, and then there were other chaplains who didn’t want a Jewish chaplain doing that work. But also, he commented about his own experiences going into chaplain school, that, you know, prior to entering the military, and he had also been a pacifist prior to WWII. But more importantly, for kind of thinking about religious diversity and pluralism, prior to entering the military, he said, you know, 90%, of his contact was with Jews, the majority of his contact with other clergy was with rabbis, these were pretty tight religious circles. So, one thing you get out of this is also these new connections. And these, you know, interfaith and inter religious encounters where people are, you know, actually learning about other faith traditions, not as something kind of distant or in books, but as how people live their lives. And we can also see that in terms of crossing racial lines, you get someone like Jacob Rothschild, who’s a Jewish chaplain and WWII, who goes on to lead the temple Reformed congregation and Atlanta and he becomes very active in civil rights work, in part, not exclusively, but in part because of some of the connections he built with Black chaplains in WWII, and his synagogue will be bombed, because of his civil rights activism. But it gets at the ways in which, you know, WWI was such a transformative moment, not just for the nation and abroad, you know, sort of the US in the world sense, but in the ways in which communities were built, and the ways in which people encounter one another and learned about one another and built networks that were maintained in different forms after military service. And, you know, can really see in that sense, the military has this hub of transformations religiously, racially, and otherwise, after WWII.

DG  22:15

And the chapters on Korea and Vietnam speak to that further how, on the one hand, you have the military acting as this incubator of a pluralistic society. But it’s still within the culture of we’re going to go off and we’re going to fight the communists and we’re going to make the world safe for democracy, or more specifically, what you talk about this idea of moral monotheism as almost this Christian infused civil religion that the military is pushing on to its trainees?

RS  22:43

Yeah, I mean, part of what happens in the, you know, post WWII years is what is the role of the US in the world? This is a really huge question, and the chaplaincies answer to it, and this is coming, both from religious leaders in the chaplaincy and some ideas in the military writ large about what is its role, both as a martial force, a fighting force, but also as this moral force. And we see the moralism in the ways in which the US is set up as the good or saintly, or divine presence in the world against the atheist communists. But we also see this at the level of what becomes these character education and morality lectures that become the province of chaplains in these years. They have long been kind of tasked, especially around sex, with grappling with morality, at least as the military side. But this expands in WWII, becomes much more formal. There are these lecture series about duty, honor country, and folding kind of these patriotic morality into how you build soldiers. It’s a time where there are debates about universal military training, and what does it mean to maintain a draft? But what is the military doing with these young men that are drafted? Well, it’s conveying certain ideas about what it means to be a moral citizen. And that of course, is going to come to a head with Vietnam as people see an immoral war. And you know, what do you do when you know the messaging on one side is about fighting this war and the messaging is also saying you should be a moral citizen and what happens when these conflict?

DG  24:34

Well, and because of that you talk about liberal chaplains, who for many of them did not want to go to the war on so we’re claiming status as conscientious objectors—you do get a few going to fight or will not to fight by saying that okay, even if I oppose the war, these men need, you know, these soldiers needs counseling. The other thing that struck me about this is that you have fundamentalist to conservative groups. going, “Oh, this is our opening now. We can turn this institution… If the liberals are leaving, we can use this to our advantage.” And not to make them sound totally sinister—I don’t want to engage in caricatures here. But what I found so interesting was that you’re talking about 10 years before the formation of the Moral Majority, or the real explosion of evangelicals, international politics. You have conservative evangelicals, trying to change a government institution, in this case, the military chaplaincy. When the liberals left there were more opportunities for evangelicals to join.

RS  25:37

Yes, I think much like the ways in which the military is where the ideas of kind of that tri-faith architecture of the Protestant-Catholic-Jew that emerges in WWI and then becomes really public in the 1950s. We get a similar kind of pattern with the role of evangelicals because they’ve had their—and I’m talking here about white evangelicals who have had their eye on the military for a while, in fact, you know, the National Association of evangelicals is formed in 1942. And one of their first subcommittees is a committee on chaplaincy. They see the military as an important venue that they want to participate in. And part of what’s happening prior to Vietnam is building the foundation for participation in this space, which in part means sending clergy to the chaplaincy encouraging them to be in this space. But what it also means institutional development on the ground, because one of the challenges for white evangelicals at that time is that the military has these education requirements for chaplains requiring bachelor’s degrees and seminary ordination. And there are certain traditions in white evangelical and white fundamentalist bases where a calling was much more important than education. So, evangelicals had a choice. And you can see this in meeting minutes in the 1950s. And again, as a historian of institutions and bureaucracy, I actually love meeting minutes, I think there are fascinating documents, which I know makes me…

DG  27:06

That’s one of the good… No, no, I agree, I consider myself a bit of an archive rat, when we can go to archives, and the meeting minutes—that’s where the good stuffs buried.

RS  27:16

And I have so much gratitude for the people who were taking really good meeting minutes, because part of what you see is this debate over do we challenge the military about these requirements? Or do we build the infrastructure to meet the requirements, and it’s a really… It’s one of these decisions, it’s one of these contingencies of history that could have gone a different way. But they decide we’re going to build the infrastructure, right, instead of being antagonistic toward the military is requirements, we’re going to meet them on their own turf. And so then as things develop, and in ways that no one could have, obviously, completely foreseen, by the time you get to Vietnam, you’ve got the people, you’ve got people who you’ve got white evangelical and fundamentalist pastors who have the education and can meet their requirements. So as this opportunity arises, they’re ready to meet it. And a different set of decisions, you know, could have led in different directions, which I think is also what makes this history so interesting. But it is this parallel kind of pattern of there’s a lot happening, if you look carefully at the military space for much earlier than you see the evangelical emergence in kind of national electoral politics, which is where much of the attention has been focused. The groundwork is being built much earlier. And so, part of our job is to see where the groundwork is, identify what are the ways in which capacity is built to enter these spaces. And I also want to say, I know there’s a month of podcasts on narrative. And I want to say, figuring out the Vietnam chapter was actually one of those chapters that was that was tricky to figure out, in part because it’s one of the places where the archives and sources changed my mind, which is to say, when I started this project, I thought things would fall pretty clearly mapped, pretty clearly on to what we saw in society, writ large, liberals are anti-war, liberal religion is anti-war at this moment, conservatives and conservative religion tends to be pro-Vietnam. So, one thing that really surprised me, because some of that is true, but the thing that surprised me most was the real deep moral reckoning that a lot of clergy had with the role of the chaplain. And really, in this space in which these anti-war clergy still felt a deep responsibility, commitment, or obligation to serving soldiers and then trying to really walk a narrow line between being employed by an institution engaged in a war. That they thought was immoral, but still being dedicated to supporting soldiers. And that was something that like took me a long time to work out to kind of wrestle with the sources and sort of figure out what was happening. And to understand that moment as far more complicated than I had initially anticipated it being.

DG  30:21

And it becomes a microcosm of the larger complexities of American history in that era, on the one hand growing more diverse, and then also backlash to it, but then it’s tempered, right. Because even if you are a socially religiously conservative person, and you want to shape the culture in conservative ways, you still have to deal with all these other people who you may not deal with back in your own little community.

RS  30:44

Exactly. And that’s part of again, what I think makes the military so interesting, and also why it makes the era after the draft ends so different, because it’s not that the draft was perfect at pulling from all parts of American life—it was always the case that some people were better able to get out of military service. But there is a real shift just in terms of who’s serving in the military, and who takes over kind of military spaces. And the shift works in both directions. It’s not a single line. Because you get, on the one hand, you get many fewer elite, or wealthy white people or even middle-class whites serving in the armed forces—the military has to figure out how do we have enough personnel after the end of the draft, and they really start to focus on often low-income and immigrant communities and kind of dangle the possibilities of what people can get out of military service. And sometimes those opportunities are real, and sometimes there is a false promise. And so, you get a real dichotomy of who’s then serving in the military, when it’s not, when it’s optional as a choice to enlist, and you also get, you know, we also see patterns of white nationalism in the military. But I think it’s always important… There’s a really broad spectrum, and the end of the draft segments the military in different ways and creates again, then these new puzzles around religion because again, it’s a really, it’s an opportune space for people especially—it’s always been a space where you can kind of become American by being in this space. Now, of course, whether that promise is fulfilled in civilian spaces is a different question. But you do get more… you get racial diversity, you know, the, as an institution, the military is one of the most racially diverse spaces in the United States. As you get more women in the military… It’s a space where there are opportunities for women, it’s also a space, as we as we know, have immense sexual harassment and all sorts of problems tied to gender, and sexuality. So, as you’re saying, like all of these issues that we can see in American society writ large, that are, you know, all of these conflicts and tensions and friction, we see them in the military, the timing is sometimes different, the mechanism of handling things is sometimes different, which can mean both more and less successful. But you get more religious diversity, and also more white evangelicals and fundamentalists. So again, you’re getting these two different patterns in the military. And it’s a real challenge to tackle when you actually have to tackle it, you can’t just acknowledge that it exists and let it be because it will come into conflict.

DG  33:47

I wanted to—as we move towards the end of this segment—to ask a slightly different question. This is a book that tells a roughly narrative history, it goes from WWI to the present day, but it doesn’t have a single protagonist in the way that, you know, a biography would. So could you speak a little bit about how you structure an institutional history that doesn’t have one protagonist, or which archive collections offered you a path into this material?

RS  34:16

Figuring out how to tell this story was one of the biggest intellectual puzzles of putting the book together. And also, one of the ways in which, at least in hindsight, I can say one of the really fun parts of it. I’m not totally sure I thought it was so fun when I was working on it. But in retrospect, I think of it as kind of a fun exercise. And part of it was moving from draft trying to figure out how… I knew it’d be chronological, but I still had to figure out kind of periodization both of chapters of chunks. Did I want sections? And again, yeah, how do you get narrative momentum and a real narrative arc? And I want to say, I’m grateful I worked with Joyce Seltzer at Harvard University Press, who really pushed me on what’s the narrative arc here? And how do you take readers through this space? And so one of the things I did was at the time I, in my office, I had this whiteboard. And every week I kind of challenged myself for a couple months that every week I would write up a new kind of possible chapter organization, sometimes there were sections, and sometimes they were parts of the book and just kind of really play with it. And so, the ultimate product is the result of that. I’m playing around with what the options were. So, I knew it was always going to be chronological. But yeah, the question there isn’t, it couldn’t be tied to one individual, it was, in part because it is focused on an institution, but also because the chronology was just too long for one person to be central. But I wanted to make sure that every chapter had, you know, had had some degree of either… Energy had to come from somewhere. So, energy, right, and they had to, and so that could be from a puzzle or attention. It could be because there are at various points, certain people who are really central to the organization, and also through whom a lot of stories could be told. One of the big challenges in book writing, at least for me, was actually in winnowing and cutting back and sculpting in many ways the narrative. So, the original draft of the book was actually a lot longer if you can believe it. And a lot of it was about paring down and paring back, and what are the ways to really hone in, what are the best examples to use that are illustrative but also have momentum in terms of moving things forward? And so, someone like that chief of chaplains, William Arnold plays a really important role it over a couple of chapters, in part because he was so important to the WWII chaplaincy, and other chiefs of chaplains kind of come in and out, but don’t have quite the same anchoring role just because of where the story was going, or where it seemed I needed to focus attention. But it was a series of choices, but also choices that came after a lot of kind of deliberation and playing with things and sometimes just making the decision to cut people out or cut events out, even if I wanted them there, because they just didn’t quite fit or they kind of created a… kind of going off on a tangent that just didn’t quite work. So, I really did, in the end, keep the institution at the center, and sometimes you tell institutional stories through the through single individuals, but in this case, much like the institution itself, it really had to be an ensemble cast. But part of them the work of the author, when you’re you’ve got an ensemble cast and institutional history is connecting people drawing contrast using individuals to illuminate larger ideas. And it’s always… you never quite know how it’s going to land until other people start reading it. So in many ways, it then is about how the success of it… There’s what the author does, but ultimately, some of that comes in the hands of the readers.

DG  38:31

And to finish off I wanted to read one reason I responded so much to that anecdote about your dad. And I didn’t mean to suggest he was insincere about Shabbat. I love the detail about him napping was because my dad used to do that in the Marine Corps. And when my father was in the Marine Corps at Officer Candidate School in the 1980s, he has told me repeatedly how on Sundays he would go to the Latter Day Saints services, which at that time, were three hours long, because the room was air conditioned, in the Latter Day Saints let the marines sleep in the pews. So even though my father was Catholic, many weeks he would go to Mormon services. And the other detail that resonated with me was that where he was stationed, they had a Greek Orthodox chaplain. And so again, this speaks to the changes that you described the by the 1980s, the chaplaincy was becoming a more diverse institution, even as America continues to suffer these growing pains or whatever you want to call it, the tensions of being both pluralistic and a regressive society.

RS  39:34

Yeah, I mean, I think that’s part of that kind of winking ecumenism—it’s one of the things I really I do find delightful in its own way. And I think sometimes we want everyone to be acting always with the best of intentions but think about—not to speak for your father—but for anyone who just decides like, great, some other service gives me a little bit of time to sleep, but also it means you have conscious with a group of people that you might not otherwise, and maybe friendships and other connections build out of those spaces. And so, I think we also have to allow that space these incidental decisions that maybe are driven by other reasons also are opportunities. And they also create—they helped create and build these institutions. And chaplains will sometimes tell me “oh, I knew someone was coming just for the snacks.” Right? Food is also a lure. We see this not just—you don’t need religion to see that. And in days, when we’re not zooming, there are plenty of people, myself included, that have shown up to talks, because there was lunch, right? I mean, it’s okay, you get lunch, and you learn. And so, I think it’s okay, that people come into these spaces for all sorts of different reasons. It also produces these encounters. And for me, one of the most meaningful and satisfying parts of having this book in the world, is when people then share their stories and their anecdotes, as connected to things they read in the book. And it’s been really fun to hear all the different ways people connect, and what are the connections they make based on their own experiences, or their family members experiences, the tales they heard from grandparents or, you know, whomever and that that’s great. I mean, I want to write books that that you know, people can relate to. So, I think that’s awesome.

DG  41:34

Ronit Stahl, thank you so much for joining us this afternoon.

RS  41:39

Thank you. It’s delightful to talk to you.

Citation Info:

Stahl, Ronit Y. and Dan Gorman, Jr. 2021. “The U.S. Military Chaplaincy and Twentieth-Century Society”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 22 March 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 22 March 2021. Available at:

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