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Социология религии. Социолого-религиоведческий портал

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Sociology of Religion, Volume 78, Issue 4, 8 January 2018, Pages 437–455,https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srx025
05 July 2017


This article contributes to Bender et al’s efforts to explore religion “on the edge” by analyzing how religion and spirituality are present in one set of public institutions—airports (2013). I ask how airport chaplains articulate the professional mandate or basis on which they do their work. Rather than making legal or economic arguments, common in the literature about professional mandates, airport chaplains emphasize the moral demand they perceive for their work. They speak of the need to be present, to see and be attentive to grief, and to serve as a last resort. As a case, airport chaplains raise questions about Andrew Abbott’s (1988) approach to the professions by defining as “work” actions within airports that other professionals do not. Rather than being in competition with other professional groups for the right to do this “work,” they are working to become a companion profession, one that comes alongside.


In 2013, the San Francisco International Airport installed a “cleansing station” on the ground floor of a parking garage so Muslim cab drivers would have a place to wash, as required by Islamic law, before they pray (Matier and Ross 2013). All but three of the 20 largest airports in the United States have a chapel or meditation room inside the airport for travelers and staff (Cadge forthcoming). And numerous court cases—most notably about Hare Krishna’s—have set guidelines about the distribution of religious literature in airports.

While social scientists do not typically think about airports as religious or spiritual sites, these and other examples suggest that spirituality and religion are—at least sometimes—present in airports, perhaps geographically and institutionally on the edge (Bender et al. 2013). This article builds on the third “edge”—“religion outside of congregations”—Bender et al. write about in their edited volume by the same name. “We argue,” they write, “for looking ‘beyond’ the congregation as a way to open up sociological approaches to the organization, scope, and development of religion in society” (8). This article expands the secular spaces that Bender et al. consider in their edited volume to include American airports with particular attention to airport chaplains, the religious professionals most consistently present. I ask how airport chaplains as religious professionals in explicitly secular institutions articulate their professional mandate or the basis on which they do their work and how they describe themselves enacting these mandates in the day to day.

Chaplains, today described as professionals that work with people around spiritual, religious, and broad existential questions in a range of sectors, present several challenges to current scholarly approaches to professional mandate and jurisdiction. Chaplains are required by law in the military, federal prisons, and the Veterans Administration (VA) as part of the first amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion (Sullivan 2014). While chaplains have long existed in many other American institutions including healthcare organizations, colleges and universities, and many workplaces, they are not legally mandated to be there. Despite this lack of legal mandate, more than half of the largest American airports have chaplains. Some are volunteers or are paid by local religious groups, while others are paid by airport chaplaincy groups incorporated as legal non-profits. They serve airport staff and travelers alike.

While the literature about professional mandates largely emphasizes the economic, legal, and rhetorical strategies professionals use to make their case or articulate the basis on which they do their work, airport chaplains emphasize the moral demand for their work. They base their work on the need to be present to others in the airport, be aware of and attentive to grief, and serve as a last resort for their own sakes rather than as a way to help the airlines or airports be more functional. Chaplains see “work” around these issues in ways that other professionals do not. Their perspective, in other words, raises questions not about who will do particular work as expected in current approaches to the professions, but in what counts as work and needs to be done. Rather than competing with other professionals in the airport, as Andrew Abbott’s approach to professional jurisdiction would suggest, airport chaplains seek to come alongside other professionals as a companion profession as they articulate the mandate for their work and do it in the day to day (1988). Such insights expand Bender et al.’s third edge by expanding the spaces where sociologists of religion see religion and spirituality and beginning to theorize how religious professionals that work in such spaces situate their work. In conversation with existing research about chaplains, these findings point to commonalities and differences in the mandates that undergird chaplains’ work and offer opportunities to further theorize across diverse institutional settings (Hicks 2010; Cadge 2012; Hansen 2012; Sullivan 2014; Miller and Ngunjiri 2015).



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