Why Are We Paying For Police Chaplains?

line of police cars
Image by Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay

In the community where you live, who pays for the police department? You do, right? Your tax dollars support your city police and/or county sheriff, right? Law enforcement is a well-recognized function of the state. Even the most conservative anti-big-government sort values it to some degree. So how do you feel about your tax dollars going to pay for police chaplains?

If you've ever wondered what a police chaplain does, you might be interested in this article from the Faith News Network. I have no idea how representative it is, but it does describe the day-to-day life of one police chaplain in quite a bit of detail. I suspect that at least some of it generalizes to other police chaplains.

While reading the article, I wondered how I would feel if I realized that a police officer with whom I was interacting was a chaplain. I imagined such an officer coming to give me bad news. Would it bother me even a little that they were a chaplain? I decided that it would make me feel at least a bit uncomfortable. Why? The blurring of police power with religion seems like a dangerous mixture to this atheist.

As this thought faded, I realized that the real issue was that I would be paying for such an individual. As a taxpaying citizen, I would be helping to pay the salary of a police chaplain. In fact, it strikes me as likely that I am currently helping to pay the salary of at least one police chaplain! I don't mind supporting local law enforcement, but I would like my support to be reality-based. I'd rather buy bullets than prayers. I'd rather buy fuel for their cars than sponsor superstition.

Remember the cries of "defund the police" that emerged after countless murders of Black men? Most of those supporting this cause were not seeking to abolish law enforcement. They recognized that we have demanded far too much from police officers. They are not social workers. It is not fair to expect them to do their jobs and the job of a social worker. Some of the funds going to law enforcement should be shifted to other professionals. These other professionals have training police officers don't have. It is reasonable to think they'd be more effective in certain roles.

Part of what a police chaplain does, I expect, involves providing support to those who need it. This seems valuable, but I've never understood why it needs to be draped in religion. Secular mental health professionals provide support without religion. They have completed training a chaplain has not. I wouldn't mind paying for secular mental health services. I wouldn't even mind paying for these professionals to work with police officers. I am not interested in subsidizing religion by paying police chaplains. That is not an appropriate use of tax dollars.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2008. It was revised and expanded in 2022.