Later by phone, Mitchell tells me that, in relations with all his Protestant colleagues, he emphasizes their common faith in Christ and takes them with total seriousness as ministers of the gospel. He admits that Catholic chaplains have fared better in the Navy than their evangelical counterparts. But, thinks Mitchell, Navy discrimination is not the reason.
"The slots in the chaplain corps for different faith groups are, to a large extent," he says, "assigned not on the basis of how many people write their name down in the dog-tag information as Catholic or Presbyterian or Jewish or Muslim but on the attendance records of chapels. It's like medical clinics. You have certain numbers of patients who come in for gynecological conditions, a certain number with heart problems, so the medical corps recruits and retains doctors in specialties based on those statistics. Now, we've got so many people showing up on weekends for church in this group or that, and we need to recruit and retain chaplains to take care of them.
"And the litigants in the lawsuit against the Navy are forever quoting the numbers from the dog tags," Mitchell continues. "What they don't give are numbers indicating what happens at our chapels on a Sunday morning."
In numbers originating from the dog tags, thinks Mitchell, "If you lump all the Baptists together, they would equal roughly the number of Catholics. The military's religious population is approximately 30 percent Baptist and 30 percent Catholic. The final 40 percent breaks down into all the other different groups. There are a lot of churches that are moving toward nondenominationalism, but in theology and practice they are Baptists."
But despite the roughly equal size of the Catholic and Baptist contingents in the Navy, Catholics participate in religious services at the base chapels far more than Baptists. Mitchell finds a major reason for that in the fundamental difference between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. And "soul competency" is a crucial notion in this difference.
Mitchell says that soul competency came to his attention after reading Yale University professor Harold Bloom's 1993 book The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. "The Chaplain Corps -- we had more money in the early '90s -- bought it for all of us to read," he says. "The book takes several typically American religions -- the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Baptists, among others -- and looks at them in the context of Christian history. And this was very interesting for me to read, because I was encountering evangelical Protestantism for the first time then. The kind of Protestants I had grown up with were mostly Episcopalians and Methodists and Presbyterians, what we call 'mainline churches' where I come from."
Mitchell continues: "Among the Baptists, especially, Bloom points out a crucial role for the concept -- they probably wouldn't call it a doctrine -- of soul competency, namely, that the scriptures mean what they mean for me and that I am capable of interpreting them without any outside help. So the Bible, or something in the Bible, can legitimately mean one thing for you and another thing for me."
The Catholic Church traditionally has considered this tendency to be far too relativistic. But due to soul competency's emphasis on a direct relation of Christians to God and the Bible, without intermediaries, Baptist theologians see it as firmly rooted in the trajectory of Martin Luther's "priesthood of all believers." As such, the concept deemphasizes the regulatory role of ecclesiastical bodies and officials in Christian thought and elevates unique, individual faith.
Father Mitchell sees soul competency's influence in the recent proliferation of independent churches. "It's not fashionable in certain quarters to have a denominational label nowadays," he says. "Evangelicals, especially, are very focused on the local church, thinking of themselves as belonging to that Valley Stream Baptist in Kentucky, or wherever they're from. And if they move someplace else, they may or may not find another church like it to attend. It depends on whether or not they're comfortable at the churches they try. That's the exact opposite of Catholics, who will go to the nearest Mass, generally, wherever it is."
Thus, when Catholics come from other parts of the country to serve the Navy and Marine Corps in California, they are much likelier to be satisfied with the Catholic service offered on base than a Baptist is with the Protestant service commonly offered in the same chapel. "If they go to church, and I assume they do," says Mitchell, "the evangelicals go to town, because they're looking for what they consider to be a real church. They don't want to go to a general Protestant service on base, whose nature depends on the chaplain's denomination. In fact, many Protestant chaplains have a weekend job where they help out at a church in town."
Chaplain Marks speaks of the phenomenon in a similar way, but, as expected, he is more appreciative. "Sure, that happens all the time," he says. "We have Southern Baptist, American Baptist churches, and other denominations off base, and people go where they feel most comfortable. So if you know there's a church out there that has a style of worship similar to what you've been to, yes, we encourage you to go there. Then again, some people like the chapels on base better than the outside churches."
When it comes to independent churches, "We say that God occasionally will inspire somebody without any special background to plant a church," says Marks. "They just decide to open up the doors in their homes or in a storefront, and they attract more and more members due to the approach and the gifts and talents they bring to the ministry. So it grows and grows, and then you've got an independent church out there. A more direct relationship to God might inspire someone to start a church in that way. That's how Martin Luther started."
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Chaplain Mitchell thinks that "a vast majority of the Protestants go to these neighborhood churches, unless you're in Japan or Iceland or someplace like that. Even in Japan, you go outside the base gate, and there are all of these storefront American Protestant churches, some of them founded by retired chaplains who marry local girls. In Seoul there are several large American churches, and they cater to the military population. They deliver what the sailors and Marines want."