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Atheists Outnumber Southern Baptists in US Military

Yet Southern Baptists still provide by far the most chaplains.
Atheists Outnumber Southern Baptists in US Military
Image: US Navy / Flickr
Navy chaplain baptizes sailor aboard USS Carl Vinson.

Likely presidential candidate and former Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee recently urged Christians to stay out of the military until after the next election, saying they are no longer welcome.

“Why would they want to be in a military that would be openly hostile and not just simply bring some scorn to their faith, but would punish them for it?” Huckabee said in a recent interview.

In recent years, enough of his fellow Southern Baptists have left active duty that atheists now outnumber the denomination among soldiers.

According the latest Department of Defense statistics on religion, there were 12,360 Southern Baptists among the US military’s 1.3 million members on active duty as of December 2014. There were also 12,764 atheists—an advantage of 404 over Southern Baptists.

By contrast, Southern Baptists outnumbered atheists by about 10,000 in 2009, with 16,975 Southern Baptists and only 6,702 atheists on active duty.

The role of faith in the military has been controversial in recent years.

A Pentecostal chaplain faces discipline after complaints about his teaching on sexual ethics. That prompted a group called the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition to collect more than 100,000 signatures on a petition backing the chaplain.

The Washington Times recently predicted a mass exodus of Christians from the military.

And back in 2013, a series of since-discredited rumors alleged that the military would court martial Christians who tried to evangelize their fellow soldiers.

Still, Christian faith among soldiers seems alive and well.

About 7 out of 10 (69.8%) active-duty service members identified as Christian in 2014, according to the Defense Department. They range from 345,888 non-denominational Christians to two members of the European Free Churches.

Non-denominational Christians (26%), Nones (20.4%), and Roman Catholics (20.4%) are the largest groups in the military, followed by Baptists (9.3%), which is a separate category than Southern Baptists.

Among other religious groups, there are more Jews (4,728) than United Methodists (4,111); more Seventh-day Adventists (3,999) than Muslims (3,709); and a few more members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1,458) than Wiccans (1,432).

The Pentagon’s numbers show a slight decline in the percentage of Christians in the military over the past six years, from 71.2 percent in March 2009 to 69.8 percent in December 2014, but no mass exodus.

Roman Catholics (down from 285,763 to 246,968) and Nones (down from 281,710 to 267,479) both declined, while non-denominational Christians (up from 262,646 to 345,888) grew.

While the number of Southern Baptists declined overall, the number of Southern Baptist chaplains remained stable. As of December 2014, there were 437 Southern Baptists chaplains—the largest contingent by far among the US military’s 2,837 active duty chaplains. And that’s only down slightly from 2009, when there were 443 Southern Baptists among 2,930 active duty chaplains. After Southern Baptists, the next largest contingents of chaplains are other Baptists (222) and Catholics (205).

Despite the growth in the number of atheists, there remain no atheist or humanist chaplains. In 2014, former youth minister turned religion scholar Jason Heap sued the US Navy after they turned down his application to become a chaplain.

CT’s previous coverage of the military includes whether Wheaton College can require its ROTC program be run by a Christian, whether women should serve in combat, and how to treat veterans in your church.

[Image courtesy of US Navy - Flickr]

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