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Remarks to the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces
As Delivered by Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. John J. Hamre , Arlington, Virginia , Tuesday, December 08, 1998

What came to mind as I prepared for today was an old story my father told. When he was a younger man he was very active in his church. There was an old member of the congregation who was very hard of hearing. One Sunday at a coffee hour my father was trying to introduce to him a new member of the congregation, in fact, a new deacon. This guy was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and thought my father had said "a New Dealer." He responded, "New Dealer! I don’t want to meet a New Dealer." And my father replied, "No, no, he’s not a New Dealer, he’s the son of a bishop." And the older man said: "They all are."

I thought to myself that too often those of us in the Defense Department and those of you in the religious community have been hard of hearing. We need to find a way to overcome that.


I worried a great deal about this presentation today because I looked down through the list of who was coming. I think no meeting in Washington is probably more complicated in terms of the audience than this one. The religious crosscurrents in this room are astounding.

Of course, what tends to play in American society is a least common denominator approach to religion in public life. In our quest to be all-inclusive and in our quest to be non-controversial, we tend at meetings like this to water things down, to embrace everyone’s pluralism. Religious content becomes vacuous. I was anxious that I not become a source of Department of Defense platitudes. So I thought a lot about this and I wondered what I should say.

I would like to start by reading a brief passage from the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Luke and to use that as a starting point for my discussion. "After Jesus had ended all that he had said he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a slave who was dear to him and who was sick and at the point of death. When he heard of Jesus he sent to him elders of the Judean people asking him to come to heal his slave. And when they came to Jesus they besought him earnestly saying, ‘He is worthy to have you do this for him , for he loves our nation and he built us a synagogue.’"

"And Jesus went with them. And when he was not far from the house, the Centurion sent friends to him saying to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, therefore I did not presume to come to you. Just say the word and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes and to another ‘Come,’ and he comes and to a slave ‘Do this,’ and he does it."

"When Jesus heard this he marveled at him and turned and said to the multitudes that followed him, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave well."

I think this is an enormously insightful story. It is not just a story about good civil-military relations, although it does talk about a local military officer ordering the troops to help build a synagogue. Ultimately this is a story about authority. These stories, like the parables, always take place at two levels. There is the immediate dimension of the story and then there is the more transcendent truth that emerges as we think about it. I think there is a very powerful message that is embedded inside of this story.

Despite all of the diversity and the richness of the views in this room there is a very profound and fundamental view that is shared by Jews and Christians and Muslims alike. All three of these three great monotheistic traditions are grounded in a common foundation. And that foundation is the ethical authority of God in governing our lives. It is probably most succinctly expressed in the sixth chapter of Micah, the eighth verse: "He has shown thee, o Man, what is good and what does the Lord require of thee but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God."

Each of these three traditions grows out of a fundamental premise that we live our lives in a profound form of obedience to a God who has revealed to us proper behavior in civil society. Islam has the Five Pillars to govern the behavior of a very good Muslim. Our Jewish brothers and sisters have Mitzvah, which govern every aspect of life. Christians have Commandments and Commissions that govern the way we interact with the world. So ultimately there is a grounding, a profound grounding of unity, despite all of the diversity that is sitting here in this room.

This probably came to me most vividly when I was a child. I grew up in South Dakota where our idea of diversity was Norwegian Lutherans and Swedish Lutherans. Out in South Dakota very near my home is a colony of Hutterites, a religious community out of the Anabaptist tradition. This particular Hutterite colony, while they had farming and other things, primarily profited by raising geese and turkeys for the kosher market in Chicago. Every fall the rabbis would come from Chicago and would supervise the final collecting and processing of the poultry returning them for slaughter in Chicago.

My father, who was a banker in this little town, was close to the Hutterite colony. I remember him talking one time with one of the rabbis who had come from Chicago. "Tell me," he asked, "why do you do this? Why do you come out here and have Hutterites do this?" I’ll never forget what the rabbi replied: "These people understand the importance of rules. They don’t understand why we do things but they understand that it’s important so they do what we ask. We trust them."

It was an interesting insight into the way in which religious communities live under a mandate of God’s direction. Even though we may not understand why a particular religious tradition is important in our respective backgrounds, we understand that it is important because of how it grounds them in their dealings with each other in ultimate obedience to God, and we understand that because we have rules in our respective traditions.

I personally think that this is a very hard concept for Americans to understand. If you

live in a country where you have a king or a despot, I think it is easier to understand your life in obedience to authority. In America where we are profoundly the children of the Enlightenment, we view our government as just being there at our sufferance. After all, those who govern us are there only so long as we choose to elect them. That is our public mythology -- that government serves us, the people. And it is very hard with that sort of a concept in our day to day lives, to really understand this nature of authority in which our religious convictions are grounded. Except for one community and that’s the military.

We in the Defense Department live every day under authority. That’s really what the story of the centurion is about. In a superficial sense, Jesus was pointing to a man who lived every day under authority. He was both in a chain of command looking up and had people looking up to him. Yet in the deeper sense Jesus used the centurion to discuss his relationship to God: faithful obedience. I would argue to you that that is profoundly the life that we have in the military. We are probably the only organization where every day is lived in obedience. In terms of secular life, the Department of Defense is profoundly aligned in obedience to authority.

Now that doesn’t mean that people in uniform are unthinking. Living under authority does not mean you have no rational choice. I am a Lutheran and those of us who come out of that tradition are profoundly aware of our God given us the right to make mistakes – and we often do. It doesn’t mean that people in uniform are unthinking. As a matter of fact they are profoundly thoughtful people. It does mean that ultimately they are bound by authority.

I personally believe that this accounts for some of the very unique elements or dimensions of the Department of Defense. First, I see a very deep spiritual reservoir in the Department of Defense and in military life. When I look around the room, I see the chaplains who are here nodding their heads; they see it too. I contrast that with much of the rest of modern society and it stands out very sharply here in Washington. I doubt very much that a group of lawyers would begin a meal with a blessing, but that is the norm in the Department of Defense.

Second, I see a genuine ecumenism. And that has to be because we cannot afford to place in every unit chaplains who reflect the full diversity of American religious life. We have a very profound and genuine ecumenism in the chaplaincy.

Third, the Department of Defense is the most racially integrated institution in America. That does not mean to say that we are without problems. We struggle mightily. We work at it very hard. But it is one of the few work places where you would see routinely blacks commanding whites or Hispanics commanding whites. It is understood and accepted. I think it is one of the sad tragedies, as Dr. [Martin Luther] King pointed out, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours in America -- every place except the Department of Defense.

It is for this reason that I believe that there is a very natural partnership between the military community and the religious community. I think that partnership has been masked over the last twenty- five years. I think one of the lingering casualties of the Vietnam War was the breakdown in communion between the religious community and the Department of Defense. I have had many conversations with my brothers here, the chaplains, regarding this. The Vietnam War period was such a painful time that we stopped talking to each other. We reduced our dialogue with each other to a very narrow dimension, to a mechanical dimension. Things like how do we recruit chaplains? I strongly believe that we need to change that.

It is for all these reasons that I believe the chaplaincy is such an integral part of the Department of Defense. We have had chaplains since we had the Continental Army. We have always had chaplains at the Department of Defense. It is not just so that we can have a duty invocation giver. Some people may look at it that way seeing a chaplain as someone who can pop up and give an invocation or a benediction. That would be trivial and superficial.

We have chaplains because all of these military personnel are wrestling constantly with what it means to be an individual of free will living in an organization that commands obedience. There are struggles all the time, and they are very difficult. And it takes embedded in our organization, chaplains who can help people through those problems. I am not talking narrowly just about personal ethics counselors; it’s much deeper than that.

I think that DOD represents a very profound brotherhood and now increasingly sisterhood. I think this was in many ways best summarized by the words of Chaplain Roland Gittelsohn who dedicated the Fifth Marine Division cemetery at Iwo Jima, fifty-two years ago. I would like to conclude by reading a portion of Rabbi Gittelsohn’s remarks:

"Here lie officers and men of all colors. Rich men and poor men together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, Jews – all together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith, or despises a man because of his color. Here there are no quotas: how many of each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy."

"Any among us, the living, who fail to understand that, will thereby betray those who lie here. Whoever lifts a hand in hate against a brother, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in a minority, makes of their sacrifice an empty and hollow mockery. Thus, do we consecrate ourselves, the living, to carry on the struggle that they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren."

I believe that Rabbi Gittelsohn’s remarks are at the very heart of the cause for which every American soldier, sailor, airmen and Marine and Coast Guardsmen have joined these units to fight and to die. Ultimately it is the spiritual mandate that links up their professional calling in the Armed Forces with our national calling. It is for that reason we must always have the chaplaincy in the Armed Forces.

Thank you very much for inviting me to be with you today.