Do the American military services "recognize" Wicca? How do I start a Circle on my installation? How do Pagans practice our religion in the Military? Is military service really compatible with the spiritual values of Wicca? Why do we need a Chaplain? How can I become a Wiccan/Pagan Chaplain in the U.S. Military?
I am the director of military affairs for the Sacred Well Congregation, a large international Universalist Wiccan Church. In that capacity; I answer at least one of these questions every day; over the past decade, the presence and visibility of non-Christian religious groups within the American Military has grown very rapidly.
How many Pagans are there
in the armed services?
The exact number of Pagans is difficult to assess, complicated by (current) imprecise personnel reporting techniques. Until very recently; all military Pagans were forced to list themselves inaccurately as members of other religions or as having "no religious preference" in official documents. Some Pagans were reluctant to come out at all. Still, surveys of varying fidelity place our number at somewhere between three to eight thousand people.1 That means that there are now more Pagan service members than there are Jews or Muslims.
The military needs more specific data on religious affiliation in order to provide better service, facilities, manpower and supplies to support all faith groups. Lt. Col. Anthony Gatlin of the Military Pagan Network (www.milpagan.org) has convinced the Department of Defense to adopt more accurate reporting techniques. Now military Pagans can list ourselves as Gardnerian Wicca, Dianic Wicca, Seax Wicca, Wicca, Druid, Shaman or Pagan.
The U.S. Air Force recently released new data indicating that they have nearly 1,000 officially registered Pagan members - more than Muslims or Jews within that service. This data was only recently collected because the Air Force only recently implemented the new reporting techniques. The U. S. Army and Navy intend to follow in the near future.
Does the U. S. Military
The short answer is "No," but then they don't actually "recognize" any religion. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respect-ing an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The free exercise of religion is a Constitutional right for all United States citizens, including members of the Military.
It is illegal for the Department of Defense (DoD) to "recognize" a religion or to prevent the practice of a religion. The Armed Forces Chaplaincy is not a religious institution per se. It was established by Congress to protect and ensure that the free exercise of religion is maintained inviolate for all members of the United States Armed Forces.2
(Only one federal agency has the authority to "recognize" a religion the Internal Revenue Service. An organization desiring to be recognized as a "church" can petition the IRS for a letter of determination granting "church status" under title 5Ol(c)3 to the petitioning organization.8)
The legal mandate of the Armed Forces Chaplaincy. is translated into practical guidance by DoD regulation 1300.17. There are over 1200 pages of regulations in the DOD3. I'll summarize their content in one (take a deep breath) sentence. "Constitutional law and military regulations mandate the U.S. military must guarantee the right of every member to freely practice their religion within the confines of good order, discipline, and mission accomplishment, free from discrimination or harassment." In our experience, the corps of military chaplains does an outstanding job of promoting religious pluralism and set an example for society as a whole.
In 1999, when former Congressman, Bob Barr, called for the prohibition of the practice of Wicca on military installations, many high-ranking officers literally put their careers on the line to stand up for religious pluralism.4 Several wrote papers quoting legal precedents such as the Dettmer v; Landon decision, which found Wicca fully "qualified" as a religion within the confines of that cases. Others, such as Major Gen Dendinger, wrote strong endorsements stating that a failure to support Wiccans would, in fact, jeopardize the practice of all faiths in the service.6
Stereotypes notwithstanding, the U.S. military has been on the leading edge of social experimentation since its inception. George Washington personally established the Chaplains Corps as a pluralistic entity over two hundred years ago; blacks were fully integrated in the U.S. military when "white only" signs were still posted on public transportation; women have been serving in combat missions for over twenty years.7
How do military Pagans practice?
The short answer is that it depends on the group and its leadership. We'll cover some specifics a little later. First, it may be helpful to discuss two unique challenges facing military Pagans as they practice their faith: transience and diversity.
A soldier can expect to move every two to three years. This makes it difficult for military Pagan groups to bond quite as closely as civilian groups. Both group leaders and chaplains also move frequently; All distinctive faith groups need to re-certify their denominational support every time either the chaplain or the faith group leader changes. I once issued three letters of denominational support from our organization to the same Circle in a six-month period.
Another unique challenge for military Pagans is that of practicing while deployed away from their assigned station. This is further complicated when a member deploys to a duty location away from the supporting chaplain with whom they've built a modicum of trust and/or the DFGL. (Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL) or Designated Service Leader (DSL) — see box below for definitions of these terms.) If a DFGL is deploying and s/he will be responsible for a group at the deployed locale, our group tries to offer a denominational support letter for him/her.
A word about Pagan diversity
Military Pagan groups reflect the full range of Pagan diversity. Most of the military Circles sponsored by Sacred Well are about 60% Wiccan. The other 40% is comprised of members of other Pagan faiths: Druids, Asatruar, etc. We encourage intrafaith discussion and practice.
That said, Sacred Well is a Traditional Wiccan organization. We sponsor specifically Wiccan DFGLs and expect them to conduct Wiccan rituals for the benefit of the majority; Other Pagan denominational support groups such as The Circle of the Fold (www.circleofthefold.net) are more eclectic in their orientation.
It is even more essential for Pagans to have venues for worship and fellowship within the military than for members of other religions. Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or Muslim members may find a welcome at a local church, mosque, or temple "downtown," but local Pagan groups are often harder to find. Even well established local groups are far less likely to accept transient military personnel as regular members, even if they welcome them to open events. Some groups openly oppose Pagan military service, and are not shy about sharing their opinions.
Pagan DFGLs conduct rituals, provide religious education, and minister to military Pagans. These DFGLs rely heavily on the good graces of military chaplains who are of decidedly different religious orientations. Although DFGLs are not legally recognized as clergy within the military, they serve the Old Gods and their people well.
The author climbs aboard his F-16, named "The Hexen Besen" (The Witch_ Broom), stationed in Saudi Arabia for a mission over Iraq during United Nations Operation Southern Watch.
Some military groups are very active, gathering weekly for classes, twice monthly for Esbats, celebrating all the Sabbats, and participating heavily in interfaith activities. Some even engage in hospital and prison ministries.
Depending on the experience of the DFGL/DSL, their program may include intense meditations, magical workings, and highly structured, tradition-based study groups. Other groups provide more casual fellowship.
Most sponsoring organizations will not dictate a group's practice in detail. The Sacred Well is fairly "hands off," but we do require our DFGLs to conduct the four greater Sabbats as Open Circles in a "manner commensurate with the practice of Traditional Craft Wicca." The rituals need not be highly choreographed galas, but should promote active participation for as many congregants as possible and provide a meaningful religious experience. We leave the specific detailed planning of the rite up to the group leaders.
Why do we need a Chaplain?
In a religion with no dogma, holy book or formal hierarchy? This is a fair question. Nothing in our religion requires us to have "standardization" or alignment of autonomous groups as some other faiths. Still, there are pragmatic benefits to having a "formal" representative of the Pagan faith serving as a DoD chaplain.
A Pagan who is known to have met the stringent qualifications for DoD chaplaincy would be a credible and visible emissary of our faith. His or her visible presence would help secure our right to freedom of religious practice on an equal footing with other faith groups. It would also prevent our faith from being marginalized, and counter the efforts of special interest groups and religious fanatics who might attempt to repress our public practice. A chaplain could effectively represent our community to Washington on issues ranging from spiritual philosophy to funding and facilities. The person would be a "voice in Washington" and in the media and could promote credibility and understanding with other faith groups.
A chaplain could also serve as advisor and consultant to Pagan DFGLs, and help educate them about regulations and laws affecting their practice. The chaplain could also assist denominational sponsors in networking and reach out to seekers and local Pagan groups. Some agencies require denominational credentials to participate in hospital/prison ministries. A chaplain could facilitate a program to train and sponsor people for this kind of institutional ministry; Dr. David Oringderff of the Sacred Well Congregation recently summed up most succinctly:
"If we had a full time [or even reserve] Chaplain who is a Wiccan, that person would provide a recognized and official point of contact for service members of our faith [or related faith groups] and would greatly enhance the Sacred Well Congregation's ability to provide support to the various and dispersed lay-led groups that we sponsor. Such a Chaplain would, of the 19th and early 20th centuries."9
Could I become a military Chaplain?
Military chaplains serve two masters - their military branch and the sponsoring denomination which ordained them. In their military capacity, chaplains must first and foremost ensure that all soldiers in his or her pastoral care have access to practice their faith, regardless of religion. If, as has happened, the chaplain is part of an evangelical denomination of a proselytizing faith, serious conflicts of interest can arise. The denominational responsibility of the chaplain is to minister to those of his/her own faith. Finally the chaplain must be trained in pastoral counseling for a wide range of faiths (secular training) and be a spiritual mentor to those of his or her own faith.
If you are considering becoming a chaplain, ask yourself: Can you, while standing strong in your own faith, offer not just logistical support, but solace and counsel to people whose beliefs are very different from yours?
If the answer to that question is "yes," then there are some more specific requirements.16 A candidate for the military chaplaincy must:
- Be a graduate of a Seminary recognized by the AFCB (Armed Forces Chaplains Board) or possess a Master of Divinity or a Master's Degree in Religious Studies, Theology, Pastoral counseling, or a "closely related field of study" from an accredited institution. This degree must consist of at least seventy-two graduate hours.
- Be commissionable in the Armed forces.
- Meet physical standards.
- Be younger than age forty-two for the Air Force, forty for the other branches of service.
- Be qualified and recognized as clergy by an Ecclesiastical Endorsing Agency (more about this below).
The immediate obstacle before any candidate is that no Pagan or Wiccan organization has yet been recognized as an Ecclesiastical Endorsing Agency.
The Sacred Well Congregation and Circle Sanctuary currently have petitions at the AFCB to gain approval as EEAs. Both organizations' credentials and reputation far exceed minimum requirements. The catch is that an application for EEA status must include at least one application from a "perfect" candidate for chaplain. Later on, when an organization is recognized as an EEA, they can nominate candidates who may require a waiver to certain requirement such as age or height, but the first candidate must completely fulfill every requirement. We have some excellent candidates, but none so far has been "perfect."
If anyone reading this is interested in the Chaplaincy and meets all the requirements and would like to apply please contact us. We'll be happy to consider your application and to help you in every way we can.
Military Pagans: Our Time is Here
There has been prolific growth in Earth-based, neo-Pagan religions in the past ten years. No where has that trend been more evident than in that culturally diverse and unexpectedly pluralistic ranks of the U. S. military; This martial environment is also one of the most fertile venues for the growth of a religion that promotes religious tolerance, peace and harmony with nature - a religion deeply needed in these days.
The growing numbers of Pagan faithful in the military need better and more visible support. We need denominational sponsorship, Pagan religious education for all of us, professional training and support for our group leaders, liaison with military authorities. We need a Pagan chaplain to be there for us. With the help of our Gods and the will of our people, I believe that a new time for all military Pagans is at hand.