George Washington versus Chuck Hagel on Military Chaplains

In the world according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, military chaplains are not essential personnel who can continue working during a government shutdown. But family counselors are.

George Washington must be spinning in his grave.

Indeed, Hagel must have worked really hard to twist existing congressional provisions into a prohibition on paying chaplains.

The Pay Our Military Act specifically authorizes pay to “contractors of the Department of Defense . . . [who are] providing support to members of the Armed Forces.” Surely military chaplains “support . . . members of the Armed Forces”? Not according to Hagel. Instead, he worked to explain the provision away in an October 5 memo. Apparently, employees can work during the shutdown only if they “contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of covered military members.” In Hagel’s world, chaplains do not fall into this category. However, as the memo explained, “Family Support Programs and Activities” and “Behavorial Health and Suicide Prevention Programs” do.

So psychologists and counselors can support families and individuals in a way that pastors cannot? Secular guidance contributes to morale and well-being, but spiritual guidance is—what exactly? Useless?!


Washington took the precise opposite position. He considered chaplains to be a critical asset in any army.  Early in his life, as commander of the Virginia Regiment, he actively campaigned for a publicly paid chaplain for his regiment.  He had been offered private funding, but he declined to take it. He believed that the chaplain—who would be providing a public service—should be publicly supported.   As he explained to the Virginia Governor, “I think it would have a more graceful appearance were he appointed as others are.”

Later, as Commander-in-Chief of the American Army, Washington was constantly advocating for his chaplains. Early in the war, he wrote to the President of Congress, asking for higher pay for them. The current pay level, he argued, was “too Small to encourage men of Abilities.” He defended the need for more funds: “I need not point out the great utility of Gentlemen whose Lives & Conversation are unexceptionable, being employed for that Service, in this Army.”

Washington’s chaplains were expected to provide counseling services, help the sick and wounded, and conduct divine services. A chaplain, he wrote, should be “a Man of Character & good conversation” who will “influence the manners of the Corps both by precept & example.” A good chaplain was very useful, as Washington explained, because “he is employed in the glorious work of attending to the Morals, of a brave people who are fighting for their Liberties.”

Washington’s perspective was simple: Morality and virtue are a necessary prerequisite for a well-disciplined, successful army. Religion is a necessary prerequisite for morality and virtue. Thus, religion is necessary to a well-disciplined and successful army.  Any army acts in its own self-interest when it partners with and encourages religion among its soldiers. Washington tended to rely upon religion in a non-denominational way.  He knew that religious discord would undermine the benefits that he could otherwise obtain from encouraging religion in the public sphere.

Our first Commander-in-Chief valued his chaplains and was always scrounging for funds to pay them adequately.  I imagine he would be unable to understand a Secretary of Defense who would so casually blow off the opportunity to pay and utilize military chaplains.

Please check out my book with Joseph C. Smith, Jr. for more information on George Washington and his views on matters of church and state.  The book is available on Amazon: