Peace through Religious Expertise: Strategic Peacebuilding and the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps

by Anna S. Page


The United States Military will continue to need expert peacemakers even as our strategy pivots from an emphasis on unconventional and irregular warfare to a focus on great power competition. In particular, the U.S. Military needs expert peacemakers trained in religious and spiritual language, beliefs, and practices. Thankfully, the military already contains a group of religious experts embedded in its ranks. These are chaplains.


Given that the military operates in distinctly religious environments, chaplains can leverage their unique skill sets to enhance the peacebuilding, or stabilization, process. Indeed, U.S. Army Chaplains are uniquely positioned to act as strategic peacebuilders for two reasons. First, joint operations doctrine communicates that the Army already conducts strategic peacebuilding in the context of stability operations. Thus, chaplains’ participation in this framework aligns with the Army’s overall mission. Second, chaplains profess key skills that can be instrumental to peacebuilding in religiously characterized operational environments.


Peacebuilding and U.S. Military Doctrine

Many definitions of peacebuilding exist. What appears to be true across the definitions is a desire to rebuild societal foundations and transform conflict in order to avoid conflict relapse. Take, for example, the definition of peacebuilding from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. The Kroc Institute defines peacebuilding as the “development of constructive personal, group, and political relationships across ethnic, religious, class, national, and racial boundaries…to resolve injustice in nonviolent ways and to transform the structural conditions that generate deadly conflict.”[1] Thus, the practice of peacebuilding is an art which demands intentionality and coordination. This is particularly true of strategic peacebuilding, which looks at systemic violence and embraces complexity to transform oppressive conditions into ones which allow for flourishing.[2] Strategic peacebuilding nurtures constructive and cooperative human relationships, strives for social justice, and ends violent conflict.[3] Achieving these ends requires attunement to social conditions and human interaction. It requires experts dedicated to these ends.


These experts, or potential experts, may already be within the Army’s ranks. With a little creativity, parallels between stability operations and peacekeeping operations can be seen. Stability operations doctrine lists the requirements for stabilization. Like peacebuilding, stabilization occurs across the conflict continuum, requires relationality via an interagency and partner approach to conflict, and works to eliminate drivers of violence through “security, justice and reconciliation, humanitarian assistance and social well-being, governance and participation, and economic stabilization and infrastructure.”[4] These stabilization principles resemble those expressed in the definitions of peacebuilding. Namely, they appear focused on building societal foundations and structures which support continuous peace. Thus, the case could be made that readers and practitioners of stability doctrine have a base understanding of some principles which inform peacebuilding processes. The question remains, however, regarding who specifically could provide the needed expertise to achieve peace.


Gerard Powers, director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the University of Notre Dame, further nuances this question. Writing about the role of religious persons and institutions in peacebuilding, Powers argues that the “unique spiritual and religious resources available for peacebuilding” deserve attention in the peacebuilding process.[5] This is true because religion plays a role in both conflict and peace. Consider the U.S.’s main competitors according to the National Defense Strategy. The U.S. Military is currently concerned with China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and transnational terrorist organizations. While we fight throughout the Middle East, tensions rise in Eastern Europe and we closely monitor the actions of China and North Korea. Meanwhile, violent extremism continues to be a major national security concern. Though not all these 4+1 challengers profess religious ideology – some even denounce religion for secularism – religion influences each potential area of operations through culture, governance, or motivation. Thus, the U.S. Military cannot overlook religious factors in conflict if it is to achieve peace.


The doctrine on Civil-Military operations (CMO), a component of stability, highlights the necessity of religious awareness. CMO are conducted to “establish, maintain, influence, or exploit relationships between military forces and indigenous populations and institutions (IPI).”[6] This doctrine explicitly advises CMO to “incorporate civil considerations,” including religion.[7] Thus, this doctrine stresses including the religious makeup of the battlespace in planning processes. Ultimately, CMO recognize that religion is a central part of the societal fabric – the very fabric into which the Army weaves itself when we conduct an operation.


Faith-based peacebuilding, therefore, can be one component to strategic peacebuilding. In Powers’s formulation, this would include using “distinctively religious and spiritual resources – such as ritual, prayer, and spiritual healing” and leadership by an apolitical, values-based force who can leverage and mobilize governmental assets.[8] Powers’s character description matches the doctrinal definition of U.S. Army Chaplains. Chaplains are leaders in their own faith traditions and serve two primary functions. The first is service as a professional religious leader and the second is as a professional religious advisor.[9] As religious leaders, chaplains must provide for the free exercise of religion for all Soldiers, Family members, and Department of Defense Civilians in their care.[10] This means that they must be apolitical defenders of First Amendment Constitutional rights within the U.S. Military.


Then, as religious advisors, they advise the command on religion, ethics, and morale.[11] Given that chaplains are religious leaders, their advisement is values-driven, both as informed by their own religious beliefs and the Army Values. Moreover, in the vein of ethics, chaplains are the gatekeepers of the Just War Tradition – the philosophical and theological tradition which informs our Law of Armed Conflict (jus ad bellum) and Law of War (jus in bello). [12] Tellingly, Powers says this tradition does not run counter to peacebuilding. He instead says it is a “necessary compliment to it.”[13] Thus, chaplains provide expertise on a subject necessary for planning operations.


From their roles as religious leaders to their roles as religious advisors, chaplains satisfy Powers’s model for an effective peacebuilder. Overall, peacebuilding frameworks run parallel to U.S. Military doctrine, thereby creating space for chaplains to be peacebuilders within a military context. Doctrine may not name the process as peacebuilding; but opportunities exist for peacebuilding expertise to develop within the ranks. Considering the prevalence of religion in the military’s operational environments, chaplains should be considered in this process given three of their unique skill sets.

Skill Set #1: Bridging the Religious-Secular Language Divide

Chaplains have an intimate understanding of religious mindsets and language in the public sphere through study and lived experience. As Staff Officers and religious leaders, chaplains are the Subject Matter Experts on religion for a military organization. It is in their wheelhouse to provide insight and nuance on violence which seems to be religiously fueled. Stability doctrine frequently references religion as a potential driver of instability or mode by which instability is carried out and continued. A “successful” instability narrative may frame grievances as religious in nature, amongst other causes, and emphasize “its marginalization by the host nation government,” including religious leaders.[14]


Though the definition of “religion” could be debated and nuanced, the assessment that religion contributes to violence resembles that of theologian and ethicist Sathianathan Clarke in his book Competing Fundamentalisms. He champions understanding the deep complexities which influence behavior and how religion factors into it. To Clarke, religion is both its own unique phenomenon and something which operates “through and alongside other dimensions of the world.”[15] Clarke essentially asserts that while religion may not be a primary factor in conflict, there is no avoiding its influence.

Therefore, to Clarke, the only way to achieve peace is to be bilingual in secularism and religiosity because “colliding cultures” are at play.[16] By speaking both languages, religion can transcend contemporary culture to encourage peace and be curbed so as to not become fundamentalist in nature. This enables opportunities for “mutual understanding” as well as “shows grace to other cultural and religious worldviews,