military chaplains

Military chaplains on Sexual Revolution front lines

It was in 1775 that General George Washington authorized chaplains in the Continental Army. "Purity of Morals," he wrote, three years later, provided the "only sure foundation of publick happiness in any Country" and thus was "highly conducive to order, subordination and success in an Army." "Purity of Morals" might have provided unity during the American Revolution, but chaplains face more divisive issues decades after the Sexual Revolution.

"No Catholic priest or deacon may be forced by any authority to witness or bless the union of couples of the same gender," wrote Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy Broglio, in guidelines released last month (.pdf). "No Catholic priest or deacon can be obliged to assist at a 'Strong Bonds' or other 'Marriage Retreat,' if that gathering is also open to couples of the same gender. A priest who is asked to counsel non-Catholic parties in a same-gendered relationship will direct them to a chaplain who is able to assist."

The archbishop's missive followed a remarkably similar memorandum from Southern Baptist Convention leaders, including former U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains Douglas Carver, a retired two-star general. It stressed that Southern Baptist chaplains must teach that "all forms of sexual immorality," including adultery, homosexuality and pornography, are "equally destructive to healthy marital relations."

However, the document's main purpose was to offer guidance on issues emerging after Pentagon decisions to embrace same-sex marriage and to allow gays and lesbians to openly serve in the armed forces.

Southern Baptist chaplains, stressed the guidelines, could not "conduct or attend" same-sex union rites or join in counseling sessions or retreats that "give the appearance of accepting ... sexual wrongdoing." The document also drew a stark line between the work of SBC chaplains and those representing liberal traditions, saying they should not lead worship services with any clergyperson who "personally practices or affirms a homosexual lifestyle or such conduct."

While one Army manual says chaplains are not obligated to perform duties "contrary to their faith traditions, tenets and beliefs," other regulations stress that all chaplains must be willing to provide "religious support" for all personnel in their care.

The "Chaplain Activities in the United States Army" volume notes, for example, that while chaplains "remain fully accountable to the code of ethics and ecclesiastical standards of their endorsing faith group" this does not relieve them from their duty to provide "adequate religious support to accomplish the mission."

Thus, it's significant that Army materials promoting the chaplain-led "Strong Bonds" program indicate that its mission is to help all soldiers -- singles, unmarried couples and families -- thrive in the "turbulence of the military environment."

It will be impossible for doctrinally conservative clergy to avoid same-gender couples and families in that context. Thus, it's time for some chaplains to quit, according to a manifesto from the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers entitled, "Didn't Southern Baptists Just Resign as Military Chaplains?"

"The SBC policy is encouraging because it is an honest representation of the previous unwritten anti-gay stance of the SBC, ... but is discouraging in that it does not take full responsibility and resign explicitly from a military chaplaincy they clearly do not wish to partake in," said the analysis.

"The policy as written may potentially be copied by other endorsing agencies who share the same view of scripture. If other agencies follow suit, potentially 50 percent of military chaplains may be affected."

Clearly, the nation's two largest churches do play crucial roles in the chaplaincy program. A mere 234 priests serve the 25 percent of all military personnel who are Catholics. The Southern Baptist Convention has more than 1,500 approved chaplains, more than any other faith group.

America's military leaders will have to decide if doctrinally conservative chaplains will be allowed to honor their religious vows or not, said the Rev. Russell Moore, leader of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a forum last week.

The current trend, he said, is to view chaplains as "carriers of the American civil religion, in a way that seeks to counsel and to do some religious duties but not to actually be Roman Catholics or Evangelicals or Latter-day Saints or Muslims or what have you. I think that is troubling. ... I believe in religious pluralism in the public square where everyone comes as he or she is into the public square for more dialogue and not less."

Gagging the military chaplains 2.0

Every now and then, bishops write letters for their priests to read to the faithful during Mass. In 1996 the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services sent a letter to its chaplains instructing them to urge their flocks to back the "Project Life Postcard Campaign" in support of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

Father Vincent Rigdon wanted to follow this order in rites at Andrews Air Force Base. But there was a problem. Pentagon officials had issued a gag order against chaplains preaching sermons that mentioned this anti-abortion effort.

The standoff ended up in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which in 1997 backed Rigdon and an Orthodox Jewish chaplain.

"What we have here," concluded Judge Stanley Sporkin, "is the government's attempt to override the Constitution and the laws of the land by a directive that clearly interferes with military chaplains' free exercise and free speech rights, as well as those of their congregants. On its face, this is a drastic act. ...

"The chaplains in this case seek to preach only what they would tell their non-military congregants. There is no need for heavy-handed censorship."

That settled that, for a decade or so.

However, debates about military chaplains have a way of living on -- in part because chaplains work in a church-state minefield that requires them to answer to the government, as well as to God.

Thus, the Pentagon powers that be flinched again when the current leader of the military services archdiocese sent a pastoral letter to his chaplains to be read -- from pulpits -- during Masses on Jan. 29.

In it, Archbishop Timothy Broglio joined with most of America's Catholic bishops in blasting new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rules that will require the vast majority of religious institutions to include free coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptives in their health-insurance plans. This would include sterilizations and the abortifacient drugs known as "morning-after pills."

This Obama administration move, he argued, "strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty for all citizens of any faith. The federal government, which claims to be 'of, by, and for the people,' has just dealt a heavy blow to almost a quarter of those people -- the Catholic population -- and to the millions more who are served by the Catholic faithful. It is a blow to a freedom that you have fought to defend and for which you have seen your buddies fall in battle."

However, it was another passage that seems to have triggered alarms at the Army office of the Chief of Chaplains.

"We cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law," stressed Broglio. "People of faith cannot be made second-class citizens. ... In generations past, the Church has always been able to count on the faithful to stand up and protect her sacred rights and duties. I hope and trust she can count on this generation of Catholics to do the same."

Soon after this letter was distributed, the Army chaplaincy office emailed senior chaplains asking them not to read it during Mass. Instead of obeying their archbishop, priests were told they could briefly mention the letter and place copies at chapel exits. Only Army leaders objected to Broglio's message.

The archbishop then talked with Secretary of the Army John McHugh, who -- according to the military services archdiocese -- backed away from the gag order. In turn, Broglio agreed that the "we cannot -- we will not -- comply" reference, with its hint at civil disobedience, would be removed from the text if and when it was read by Army chaplains. The line remained in printed copies.

The controversy simmered all week, with leaders on both sides backing away from further conflict.

By Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was hinting that the Obama administration might be willing to work with religious groups to see "if the implementation of the policy can be done in a way that allays some of those concerns."

Also, Carney said he didn't know if President Obama had prayed about the HHS rules controversy, but "he did consult with some religious leaders about it. ... When you seek to find the appropriate balance ... you have to weigh all of these factors, including the need to provide services to women and, obviously, the issue of religious belief."

Don't ask, don't tell the chaplains

The setting: The office of a priest who serves as a military chaplain. The time: This hypothetical encounter occurs soon after the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that forbids gays, lesbians and bisexuals to openly serve in America's armed forces.

The scene: An officer requests counseling about tensions with her same-sex partner as they prepare for marriage. The priest says this would be inappropriate, since his church teaches that sex outside of marriage is sin and that the sacrament of marriage is reserved for unions of a man and a woman.

The priest offers to refer her to a chaplain at another base who represents a church that performs same-sex rites. The officer accepts, but is less than pleased at the inconvenience.

What happens next? That question is driving the tense church-state debates that continue behind the scenes of the political drama that surrounds "don't ask, don't tell."

"If the government normalizes homosexual behavior in the armed forces, many (if not most) chaplains will confront a profoundly difficult moral choice: whether they are to obey God or to obey men," stated a September letter from 60-plus retired chaplains to President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," they argued, will cripple the ability of many chaplains to provide counseling. "Service members seeking guidance regarding homosexual relationships will place chaplains in an untenable position. If chaplains answer such questions according to the tenets of their faith, stating that homosexual relationships are sinful and harmful, then they run the risk of career-ending accusations of insubordination and discrimination. And if chaplains simply decline to provide counseling at all on that issue, they may still face discipline for discrimination."

These complaints are "somewhat disingenuous," according to the Rev. John F. Gundlach, a retired Navy chaplain from the United Church of Christ, the progressive Protestant denomination into which Obama was baptized.

"These chaplains ... will continue to have the same rights they've always had to preach, teach, counsel, marry and conduct religious matters according to the tenets of their faith. They will also continue to have the responsibility to refer servicemembers to other chaplains when their own theology or conscience will not allow them to perform the services to which a servicemember is entitled," stressed Gundlach, writing in Stars and Stripes. "Any chaplain who can't fulfill this expectation should find somewhere else to do ministry."

The urgency of these debates will only increase after this week's Pentagon statement instructing its recruiters to accept openly gay applicants, a shift driven by a federal court decision barring the military from expelling openly gay soldiers.

Military chaplains are already being asked to serve as doctrinal Swiss Army knifes, performing rites and prayers for personnel from a variety of flocks when the need arises. This kind of pluralism is easy for chaplains from some traditions, but not others.

Meanwhile, it's hard for chaplains to refer troubled soldiers to clergy in foxholes 30 miles away. It's impossible to have a variety of chaplains -- Southern Baptists and Wiccans, Catholic priests and rabbis -- serving on every base, let alone in submarines.

There is no easy way out of this church-state maze.

If "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed, "no restrictions or limitations on the teaching of Catholic morality can be accepted," noted Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military Services. While Catholic chaplains must always show compassion, they "can never condone -- even silently -- homosexual behavior."

A letter from Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America to the chaplains board was even more blunt: "If our chaplains were in any way ... prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as 'prejudice' or the denunciation of homosexuality as 'hate language,' or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service."

So be it, said Gundlach. While these chaplains "worry about being discriminated against, they openly discriminate against some of the very people they are pledged to serve and serve with. If the hate speech currently uttered by some conservative chaplains and their denominations is any indication of how they will respond in the future, we can expect this discrimination to continue."

These chaplains need to resign, he said. The armed services "will be the better for it."

Soulforce preaches to the Navy

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- All the Rev. Mel White, Jacob Reitan and the rest of their Soulforce team wanted to do was talk to people. That was the good news. The bad news was that they wanted to talk about God, politics and homosexuality, although not necessarily in that order. It also didn't help that the people they wanted to talk to were midshipmen on the U.S. Naval Academy campus -- on a football-weekend Friday, no less.

"Free speech is free speech," said White, who, before going public as a gay activist, was a ghostwriter for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other evangelical leaders. White is one of the founders of Soulforce, which is based in Lynchburg, Va.

"If people don't want to talk, all they have to do is say so and walk away."

Soulforce activists drifted around the academy campus in small clusters last weekend, their bright pastel t-shirts standing out among the blue uniforms and gray Chesapeake Bay mists. They attracted packs of journalists.

The 40 or so protestors -- mostly college students from nearby -- offered this greeting: "We're here to talk about the military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy. What do you think about that?"

Most midshipmen declined to talk. Capt. Helen Dunn, deputy superintendent at the academy, had issued this memo: "Members of this group may attempt to gain access to the Yard and approach you for discussions. We ask that you carry out your normal routine, ... stay clear of our security personnel and the protestors, and to politely refer questions from media or the demonstrators to the Public Affairs Office."

These are tense days at America's military academies, which are emerging as bitter battlefields in church-state wars.

At the Air Force Academy, the hot issue is salvation. Evangelicals have been accused of going overboard as they interact with non-Christians and non-believers. Evangelical chaplains have even been attacked for delivering evangelistic messages in voluntary chapel services and other optional events. A circle of conservative lawmakers recently wrote to President Bush urging him to issue an executive order guaranteeing the free-speech rights of chaplains.

Right now, the hot issue at the Naval Academy is sexuality. Activists are trying to break what they believe is a faith-based chokehold on military policies affecting the careers and relationships of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans-gendered persons.

At the Air Force Academy, it's hard to speak up in favor of conservative religious doctrines.

At the Naval Academy, it's hard to speak up in opposition to them.

In both cases, believers -- on left and right -- are trying to proclaim what they believe is true. They are trying to change hearts and minds through the power of words and public witness. The problem, of course, is that one person's free speech is another's evangelism, public protest or, heaven forbid, even proselytizing.

At some point, said White, government officials must realize that people have a right to dialogue and debate. People have the right to talk and the right not to listen.

"It's like all the people who want to censor television. You keep trying to tell people like that, 'Don't censor us. Just change the channel,' " he said, while greeting visitors outside the academy bookstore. "That's what this is all about, too. We just want to talk to people and let them know what we think. What's so scary about that?"

At first, Naval Academy officials threatened to have the demonstrators arrested if they came on campus. Then both sides agreed to a shaky compromise that allowed the activists the same rights as other visitors, other than the right to talk with midshipmen. Most members of the Soulforce team went right ahead and talked, said Reitan, leader of the group's "Equality Ride" program.

In the months ahead, Soulforce teams will be traveling to a dozen or more other campuses -- including the other military academies and an array of conservative religious colleges and universities from coast to coast.

"Hopefully, people at the campuses we stop at in the future will be willing to set up forums and create other kinds of settings in which we can discuss these issues in a more adult, academic manner," said Reitan. "But we have decided that we're not going to let our free speech to be edited during any of our future stops."