In his most recent book, G. Kurt Piehler praises President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for something we rarely consider: his unwavering commitment to religious liberty and the role he played in helping American troops make facing the terror of World War II.
To appreciate this idea, we must first examine the emissaries of FDR’s message: the US military chaplains. Because ordained clergy were exempt from conscription, all chaplains were volunteers (or, in the case of Catholic clergy, were volunteered by their superiors). Army chaplains were trained at Harvard; naval chaplains to William and Mary. Upon graduation, they were integrated into American forces for the duration of the war. As a result, many chaplains faced deadly combat, even though they were strictly forbidden to carry weapons for self-defense.
A Religious History of the American GI in World War II details not only how American chaplains provided spiritual sustenance to troops, but also how they courageously aided medical personnel, evacuated troops wounded in battle, treated the wounded, and presided over the funerals of those who never returned home. Some chaplains were captured and continued to care as best they could for their fellow POWs in prison. Possibly as many as 100 chaplains were killed.
These myriads of requests constantly overwhelmed chaplains during America’s four years of war. There were never enough of them to effectively serve the millions of men and women in uniform. Yet, Piehler notes, the military staunchly refused to allow ordained female clergy to serve as chaplains — not even in the United States and out of harm’s way, which would have freed up more male chaplains to serve overseas. Muslims or Native American faiths were also not allowed to provide their clergy to serve as chaplains, and it was not until late in the war that Buddhists were permitted to do so.
Piehler also devotes a lot of ink to Jim Crow’s nasty stain. In addition to essentially segregating all units by race, the Army set educational requirements for its uniformed clergy that excluded many black ministers from serving as chaplains. In fact, the navy – where segregation persisted much longer than in the army – mandated only two black chaplains throughout the war. This two-pronged discrimination meant that large swathes of black troops often found themselves without meaningful access to any chaplain.
Piehler’s in-depth study is by no means limited to chaplains. It also examines the faith of those they served: GIs desperate to feel a connection to the lives they left behind, especially in times of terror. There is a striking tenderness in Piehler’s use of the letters and oral histories of individual GIs to demonstrate their struggle when faith seemed to fail them.
I warmly and unconditionally recommend A Religious History of the American GI in World War II as the best book available on WWII chaplain service and the challenges American forces faced in trying to maintain their faith. While Ronit Stahl enlist the faith (2017) is a superb chronicle of American military chaplains in the 20th century, only two of its chapters are dedicated to World War II. Also, as Stahl’s book focuses on chaplains, the experience of troops is understandably sparsely covered.
Likewise, while Michael Snape God and Uncle Sam (2015) competently addresses many of the same topics as Piehler, it lacks Piehler’s careful use of confessional records and unpublished soldier accounts. Snape also misses Piehler’s crucial point about FDR’s pivotal role in ensuring that American troops enjoyed the free exercise of religion during war.
Since 1791, when the First Amendment was added to the Constitution, Americans have been guaranteed freedom of religion. The American faithful have largely accepted this restriction on the dominance of a single religious tradition, although sometimes grudgingly. FDR’s attitude was not one of reluctant acceptance. Piehler details how he consciously erected a structure of religious tolerance and pluralism to guarantee everyone in uniform the right to exercise their faith. FDR’s intent is evident in the government-sponsored films directed by Frank Capra, particularly Prelude to Warwhich opens with quotes from Moses, Confucius, Muhammad and Jesus.
Nor was FDR’s commitment to religious pluralism a mere pragmatic improvisation imposed on him after Pearl Harbor. On the contrary, as Piehler notes, it had been a central concern for him since he first took office in 1933. FDR frequently hosted representatives of Reform Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and major Protestant sects. In a 1936 national radio speech in support of the National Interdenominational Conference of Christians and Jews, he said: “There are honest differences of religious belief among the citizens of your city, as there are among my citizens. . . . And it is good that we remember that our America is not the product of any race, creed or class.
As the power of the Nazis grew, FDR reinforced this message, asserting that “the defense of religion, democracy and good faith between nations is one fight. To save one, you must now decide to save everything. FDR’s framing of the global crisis in this way clearly influenced those who served in the war – a fact that is evident in the social science surveys given to military inductees. These GIs overwhelmingly “expressed strong feelings regarding the religious nature of this conflict and the threat posed not only to Jews but to all religions if the Nazis conquered America.”
As America began its military build-up in anticipation of entering the war, FDR had chapels erected at government expense in army training camps. It was a dramatic break from the past, when chapels had been built largely with private funds. He also asked the military to print three different versions of the Bible – Jewish, Catholic and Protestant – for soldiers and airmen. (The Navy, ever more resistant to change, refused to spend funds on chapels and Bibles, relying instead on private sources such as the American Bible Society.) And, at FDR’s insistence, the clergy was selected in proportion to the demographic composition of the troops. they would serve. This led to a dramatic increase in the number of Catholic and Jewish chaplains.
By design, the training of chaplains at both Harvard and William and Mary forced them to engage with clergy from other faith traditions. In fact, “Jews, Catholics, and Protestants were brought together as roommates” so that “misconceptions and falsehoods could be confronted and corrected.” Once integrated into their units, chaplains were required to file monthly reports indicating how they had served the men in their units who were Protestant, Jewish and Catholic because “the expectation was that chaplains had to accept the religious pluralism of the forces armies and see to the spiritual needs of individuals outside their own traditions.
It is important to note that once embedded in their units, chaplains were granted the right to maintain complete confidentiality in their communications with those serving in their units – a privilege not afforded to medical doctors. This guarantee of confidentiality strengthened the bonds between chaplains and those they served.
It was not always easy for chaplains to meet the spiritual needs of American troops in a pluralistic faith community. Some faced serious challenges to their own beliefs and practices. Christian Science chaplains helped medical personnel treat the wounded in battle, sober Protestant chaplains were often tasked with distributing beer to their troops, and Catholic chaplains blanched at the military’s use of Freudian psychology. in psychiatric examinations. There were frequent complaints from all quarters that chaplains of other denominations had poached converts.
Others struggled with worship. Reform Jewish chaplains often had limited fluency with the Hebrew spoken by their Orthodox colleagues, and many Fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews could never get used to the ecumenism on display during worship services. Additionally, chaplains served under senior officers, some of whom were hostile to religion.
Yet Piehler points out that these structural obstacles and petty grievances were more than outweighed by the bravery with which most chaplains served. Importantly, these chaplains did so not by abandoning their core religious beliefs, but rather by setting those beliefs aside to help the Allies defeat the tyrannical Axis regimes they saw as existential threats. free exercise of their faith.
This was, in fact, the attitude that motivated the entire WWII generation. Piehler points out that this shared fear of the consequences of failure also led American troops of various religious traditions to seek spiritual guidance from clergy they likely would never have encountered before the war. The chaplains, in turn, offered spiritual guidance to these troops, regardless of their religious beliefs.
These chaplains succeeded in this work far more often than they failed – which, of course, was FDR’s intention. As he said in 1944, “We, on our side, have made freedom of religion one of the principles for which we are waging this war.
In the book’s acknowledgments, Piehler expresses the hope that his children “will live in an America that continues to strive to promote the vision of religious pluralism espoused by Franklin D. Roosevelt.” While we share Piehler’s hope, we cannot ignore the reality that America seems to be heading in the opposite direction. Something has happened in the 80 years since that repudiates the belief of those Americans fighting World War II – the belief that we are all in this together and that we must be tolerant of those who religious opinions different from ours.
I suggest we take a page from the WWII generation. Rather than making ourselves enemies of our fellow citizens simply because they don’t share our beliefs, we should embrace what drove our parents and grandparents (and their chaplains) to serve so bravely in World War II: the FDR’s clear message that there is no place for intolerance and bigotry in a free society, and there never will be.