SORAAAD BookNotes with the Bulletin: Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, A Ministry of Presence: Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care, and the Law

9780226779751-1Kolby Knight

Perhaps no one has fleshed out the complex interaction between religion and law better, and is more qualified to do so, than Winnifred Sullivan. As former vice president of the North American Association for the Study of Religion and current professor of religious studies and law at the University of Indiana-Bloomington, Sullivan brings a wealth of expertise and methodological range to the topic. In her latest work, A Ministry of Presence, Sullivan analyzes the complicated place of chaplains who work outside of religious institutions and whose ‘presence’ in VA hospitals, police departments, and the military presents legal quandaries about the public role of individuals who serve an explicitly religious purpose.

Sullivan situates her study of chaplaincy in a broader examination of the ways in which legal thinking on religion has evolved and continues to shape religious practice in the public domain. Sullivan is particularly interested in the “ways in which the prevalence of the secular rule of law itself acts a disciplining force on religious life.” (15) The change in the role of the chaplain, according to Sullivan, provides a window into just how much legal thinking on religion has changed over the last fifty years. Whereas chaplains once were justified as a way to accommodate religious pluralism (i.e. to accommodate diverse religious particularities), recent court cases have focused on the function of chaplains in facilitating a spirituality that is increasingly defined as a natural and universal component of human existence. This shift means that chaplains no longer serve primarily on behalf and within their own confessional traditions but rather assume responsibility for fostering a spiritual health now considered integral to the very operation of government.

Sullivan’s work revolves around and is animated by the concept of “spiritual governance.” Sullivan relies on Foucault’s notion of governmentality to explore the disciplinary role of chaplains in instilling and promoting a spirituality that recent court decisions have defined as conducive to and compatible with the goals of secular government. The Supreme Court has moved from regulating religion on the grounds of church/state separation toward what Sullivan sees as a ‘horizontal’ and ‘bottom-up’ regulatory formation in which the chaplain now operates.  In the most recent Supreme Court case considering the legality of government endorsed chaplaincy, Nicholson v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (2008), the court rejected the FFRF’s claim that the funding of VA hospital chaplains constitutes an endorsement of religion by arguing that chaplains serve in a clinical capacity that produces secular results. Framing the role of chaplains around their clinical responsibilities rather than their ‘sacramental’ presence, the Supreme Court relied on a clear distinction between religion and spirituality. (39) The decision focused on the chaplain’s role as efficacious to the patient’s spiritual health, avoiding altogether the FFRF’s argument that protecting and promoting ‘spirituality’ constitutes a religious establishment. While the FFRF considered the employing of VA chaplains a means of sacralizing healthcare, the courts justified chaplaincy by secularizing its function and effects. (39) In light of the court’s decision, Sullivan raises a sarcastic but important question that highlights the implications of tying chaplaincy to utilitarian health outcomes: “One might ask if it would not be a rational extension of such a position to charge atheists higher insurance rates.” (43)

Nicholson is but one example of a broader trend Sullivan sees in the chaplain’s development as a facilitator of spirituality across ‘religious’ identities. (32) Alongside tracing out the legal history, Sullivan looks at documents within particular institutional contexts (e.g., VA spiritual assessment guidelines, US military spiritual fitness tests), as well as ethnographic data compiled by her and others, to investigate how the chaplain’s role is understood today at the level of the institution and the individual chaplain. The army’s concern with soldiers’ spiritual fitness, for example, reveals how spirituality has increasingly been conceived in terms of its utilitarian value. The chaplain aids the military in developing spiritual fitness among soldiers while also acting as a kind of religious expert in informing soldiers on the religious particularities of their enemy. (an emphasis which has been accentuated by the “War on Terror”) Military chaplains occupy an especially complicated position, wrestling with the ambiguities of war and their contribution to it. In this sense, Sullivan is sympathetic to the personal dilemmas faced by military and other chaplains. At times, she even commends chaplains’ “ministry of presence” for resisting the modern obsession with utility, even while having to negotiate their presence under modernity’s concern with the endgame. (176-85)

Sullivan is both sympathetic to the work of chaplains and critical of how the Supreme Court has defended their role as neutral and universal. Sullivan is especially critical of what she calls the dominant ‘legal anthropology’ of the day — that is, how the court has begun to articulate and defend an essential spirituality. This has been challenged by groups like Freedom From Religion Foundation as well as Christian and Muslim chaplains who do not want to work under the prescribed spirituality of the courts. (159-60) Despite these challenges, the non-coercive, nonsectarian role of chaplaincy continues to be defended. Sullivan creatively argues that the language of ‘spirituality’, though it operates a lot like the language of Protestant ‘nonsectarianism’, has allowed the Supreme Court to open up a qualified place for religion in the public sphere even as a few judges have decried the anti-Catholic legacy of nonsectarianism. Importantly, Sullivan examines the court’s insistence on neutrality in relation to the necessary credentialing component of the chaplain’s qualification. Her careful rendering of this tension between the court’s universal language of spirituality and the chaplain’s necessary and credentialed ‘religious’ particularity positions chaplaincy as a focal point in the working out of what Sullivan calls the “new jurisprudence” on religion. (140)

The Ministry of Presence is an important contribution to ongoing scholarly discussions in religious studies, American history, politics, and legal studies. The reader is indebted to the depth and nuance of Sullivan’s legal knowledge as well as her willingness to engage recent historiographical and theoretical trends in the study of religion in the United States. In contrast to John Lardas Modern’s recent work on spirituality as a site of negotiation between religion and the rationalism of modern science, Sullivan shifts our attention to how the language of spirituality in the legal setting has conditioned religious life in the United States at least as much as “genealogy of spiritual experimentation in the US.” (32) The language of spirituality, according to Sullivan, has not only made a place for chaplains but has enabled and produced a variety of spiritual practices that the courts have increasingly defined as a natural aspect of human life. Sullivan’s most recent work provides a compelling window into the world of the chaplain and the laws that shape it. But more importantly, Sullivan has contributed much to our understanding of the many ways religion continues to influence ‘secular’ legal trajectories, and vice versa.

Kolby Knight is a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He studies nineteenth-century American religious history, with particular interest in how ideas about Catholicism and Catholics themselves have influenced religious and legal discourses in the United States.

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