Chaplains’ work: In the halls of medicine, politics and business

Wendy Cadge, author of Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine and a sociology professor at Brandeis University, has written a piece in Religion & Politics responding to Martin Doblmeier’s 2015 documentary Chaplains: On the Front Lines of Faith, including a historical perspective on chaplains in D.C. government:

Many Americans know little about chaplains, perhaps recalling only Father John Mulcahy, the chaplain character who appeared on the 1970s show M*A*S*H. And yet, chaplains date to the earliest years of the American republic. In 1774 Jacob Duché, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, was recruited to offer prayers before the First Continental Congress. After the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the U.S. Senate selected Samuel Proovost, an Episcopal bishop from New York, as chaplain in April 1789. The House elected William Linn, a Philadelphia Presbyterian minister, as its first chaplain in May 1789. Both Proovost and Linn received an annual salary of $500. After Congress moved to Washington, D.C., local clergy took turns leading prayers before permanent chaplaincies were institutionalized. Chaplains remain in Congress today where they hold full-time, strictly nonpartisan, and nonsectarian jobs. Each chaplain has a staff and is paid as a level IV executive federal employee: $158,700 in 2015. As profiled in Doblmeier’s film, Barry Black currently serves the Senate and Fr. Patrick J. Conroy, S.J, is chaplain to the House of Representatives. Each serves as a chaplain to all—from members of Congress and their staffs to the Capitol Police and the cleaning crews for the buildings.

A chaplain Cadge had interviewed for her book described her work as being in “the theology of hope,” but Cadge doesn’t see that reflected universally in the work of the chaplains profiled in Doblmeier’s documentary:

The chaplains Doblmeier profiles do not share a uniform theology of hope—or any theology—and I remain uncertain after watching this film whether they share much beyond their titles. Many—probably most—are good listeners, genuinely concerned about the people for whom they care. Many have deep networks in their community and serve as effective translators between particular communities and the police or families and healthcare providers.

Cadge puts forth a number of questions:

How are changing religious demographics, particularly growing numbers of people who claim no religious affiliation, influencing the demand for and work of chaplains?

What factors influence both who chaplains are and also what work they do in different sectors?

How do chaplains work with people who are religiously similar to and different from themselves?

Read her entire essay here.

Photo: “US Navy 040418-M-4657S-001 Battalion Landing Team Chaplain, Navy Lt. John Hoke, holds mass for several Marines” by U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Robert A. Sturkie – This Image was released by the United States Marine Corps with the ID 040418-M-4657S-001

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