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Joint Staff Chaplains Host Symposium on Strategic Religious Advisement

By Christianne M. Witten
Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Public Affairs

WASHINGTON--Chaplains and chaplain assistants from across the services and combatant commands gathered this week for the 2019 Joint Religious Affairs Symposium at the Pentagon Library and Conference Center. 

The Joint Staff Religious Affairs office coordinated the symposium to discuss strategic religious advisement within the U.S. military and related topics.

Representatives from the State Department, the U.S. Institute for Peace, and other interagency organizations were also invited to provide an outside perspective and discuss the role of interagency partners in promoting religious freedom and international stability. Organizations like these are an invaluable resource for chaplains, given they have people dedicated to research and analysis on what is happening globally in terms of religious dynamics, according to Joint Staff Chaplain and Chief of Religious Affairs Navy Capt. Wayne MacRae.


In his opening remarks, MacRae cited the need for senior chaplains to increase their own communication efforts to develop a robust understanding of religious dynamics across the combatant commands and their theaters of operations.  


“Every one of our theaters has different dynamics of what goes on in terms of religion. But the one thing that’s common is that, in every single theater you look at, religion is present,” said MacRae. “Even in countries we regard as atheist, religion is present. It might be under the surface, but it’s there.” 


An information paper from the Joint Staff History Office indicates that in addition to the primary and ongoing role of providing religious support, for over 70 years now, military chaplains have also been asked to advise commanders on the intersection of religious affairs and military operations.


One of the primary goals of the symposium was to finalize a white paper on the strategic employment of religious affairs in joint operations. MacRae hopes it will be ready for dissemination to the service chiefs and combatant commanders this spring. 


While most commanders are familiar with their chaplain’s religious support role to take care of the service members under their charge, the chaplain’s unique advisement capability in the operations environment is often underutilized and under resourced, according to MacRae. The white paper is intended to help combatant commanders better understand, resource, integrate, and employ religious affairs in complex joint operations. 


Incorporating religious affairs professionals at the strategic level offers significant capabilities to ensure mission success and support U.S. national security objectives, according to MacRae. 


“The goal of the paper is to argue for a more robust involvement of religious affairs at the strategic level…for commanders to better understand what we bring and the important role religion plays in their geographic theaters,” he said.


Participants also spent time in working groups to discuss the implementation of the paper’s findings, identifying training and manning gaps, and how to best articulate the benefits to commanders from investments in religious affairs staff in their respective commands. 


While chaplain advisement policy and doctrine currently exist across the services and in Joint Publication 3-0 on Joint Operations, the Joint Staff has a unique role to play in articulating this capability to the combatant commanders, said MacRae. 


“It has to come from the Joint Staff level,” he said. “That’s the piece we have to build.”


Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul J. Selva addressed the participants and offered up his personal experience on the value of chaplain advisement. 


“The ability of chaplains to bring to their commanders the kind of advice that lets us know the environment that we are in, that lets us know what the religious fracture lines are around us [is invaluable],” said Selva.


He went on to discuss the value of their objectivity and frank counsel to help commanders correct course. Chaplains “are also the only people on the entire base who can walk into my office, close the door and say ‘we’re about to have a conversation that neither of us will ever have to talk about again.’ You’re actually the only people who can do that,” Selva said referring to the unlimited nature of a chaplain’s confidentiality.


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