April 2011 Church & State | People & Events

Liberty University, a fundamentalist Christian school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, is training large numbers of military chaplains, a newspaper has revealed.One out of every five Air Force chaplain candidates is enrolled at Liberty, reported Tim Townsend, a religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.The newspaper reported that Charles Davidson, a retired Air Force chaplain, took control of Liberty’s chaplaincy training program in 2007 and reworked it to meet specifications laid down by the Pentagon.Many seminaries require 90 hours of credit with courses mandating study of ancient Hebrew and Greek, the languages of the Old and New Testaments respectively. Liberty’s Master of Divinity program, by contrast, requires only 72 hours and does not mandate study of ancient languages. Much of the coursework can be done online.As a result, Townsend wrote, there has been “an explosion of interest in the program, growing from two students in 2007 to more than 1,000 today.”Davidson said most chaplain candidates are interested in the Army and that the vast majority are studying online.“Praise the Lord – 10 or 15 years from now we could have 600, 700, 800 evangelical chaplains sprinkled throughout the military who are Liberty graduates,” Davidson said.At least some military officials are questioning the value of an influx of chaplains who were trained mostly online.“We are taking note of that,” said Col. Steven Keith, commandant of the Air Force Chaplain Corps at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. “Resident seminarians, we feel, are better prepared.”Candidates for the military chaplaincy must be approved by an endorsing agency, such as a religious denomination. Liberty, based in Lynchburg, Va., has its own endorsing body called Liberty Baptist Fellowship. It is estimated that the school has already endorsed 180 graduates for chaplaincy positions.The Department of Defense reports that the military chaplaincy already leans heavily toward the evangelical end of the spectrum. For example, 33 percent of military chaplains are Southern Baptist, Pentecostal or evangelical, even though only 3 percent of enlisted personnel identify with those faith groups, Townsend reported.In response, some mainline and liberal religious denominations are escalating their efforts to train chaplains. Eden Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, has stepped up its involvement.