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Don't ask, don't tell, don't cover

At this point, it appears that Democrats who are fighting to survive in red zip codes are going to make it to Election Day without a clear resolution of the "don't ask, don't tell" standoff. That's the last thing they needed -- a final wave of ads talking about a hot-button cultural issue. Meanwhile, supporters of repeal are not happy, for obvious reasons. Yet many Democrats who understand the politics of the situation in the tightly contested states probably realize that they have dodged a bullet.

To say that military people are tense -- on both sides of the issue -- is an understatement. In particular, no one knows how many officers from more culturally and religious conservative parts of America will choose to leave the armed forces, rather than live with the policies that will flow out of DADT (whatever the precise nature of those policies). No one knows how this would affect recruiting in red zip codes.

I, of course, remain interested in how this will change one of the most controversial groups of professionals in the ranks of the military -- the chaplains.

On the theological left, chaplains say there will be no change -- unless so-called "fundamentalists" choose to flee, which means that the changes will be good.

Religious traditionalists in several different camps -- Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic -- are predicting that troubled times are ahead, with some of these ministers differing on just how big the explosion will be. How many chaplains will be affected? Here's a hint, coming from the left:

In American Fascists, author Chris Hedges warns of the growing power of fundamentalist Christian evangelicals in the US military, noting that the Christian Right sees the military as a key target. ...

Some may challenge Hedges' estimate that "radical Christians" hold half of the armed forces' chaplaincies. A New York Times investigation in 2005 determined that the numbers of evangelical and Pentecostal chaplains in the Air Force had grown while, perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of mainline Christian and Roman Catholic chaplains had declined.

The number of liberal Protestant chaplains has been affected by several factors, including the statistical decline of those churches, the aging of their clergy, the declining number of clergy who (after Vietnam and the '60s) want to have anything to do with the military and the rising number of second-career ministers who at the time of their ordination are too old (or too out of shape) to meet the military's guidelines for chaplains. Thus, the number of chaplains who -- doctrinally speaking -- are likely to thrive in the post-DADT military is declining.

The number of Catholic priests is declining, period, to no one's surprise. This affects one of the largest flocks in the American military and, of course, some Catholic bishops are going to openly oppose repeal, while many try to remain silent and out of the line of fire.

I tried to deal with some of that in my Scripps Howard News Service column this week. This was a really hard one to cut down to my usual op-ed page length. I have had lots of feedback on this column, including notes from chaplains involved in this tense situation. Here's how the column opens:

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."

There are at least two strong camps in this debate. Here is what that sounds like in real life:

"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."

How many may have to choose to "find somewhere else"? At this point, one has to start doing some math.

Everyone agrees that the Southern Baptist Convention has an unusually high number of chaplains, primarily because so many Southern Baptists want to do this work. Then there are about 300 Catholic chaplains -- about half the number needed. Then there is a flock of evangelical/Pentecostal chaplains from a wide variety of sources, including evangelical and charismatic parishes in otherwise mainline Protestant denominations (think charismatic Anglicans, Missouri-Synod Lutherans, evangelical United Methodists, etc.).

Remember, it's voices on the LEFT who have argued that "fundamentalists" and "radicals" make up 50 percent or more of America's military chaplains, those active and on reserved status. And then come the Eastern Orthodox, the Catholics, the Orthodox Jews, the Muslims, etc.

And what happens if the conservatives are right and that any advocacy of traditional doctrines by chaplains is labeled "hate speech," with offenders either being punished or simply denied the ability to advance in rank? If you read the views of theological liberals, there will be no problems after repeal, unless there are problems. No one is talking about "hate speech," except for those who believe that conservatives are already guilty of "hate speech." In other words:

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."

This is a story, right? Over at USA Today, veteran scribe Cathy Lynn Grossman is following these trends carefully at her weblog, which I would assume means she is building connections for further coverage on dead-tree pulp.

As you would expect, editors at the conservative Baptist Press know that this is a story. Ditto for the professionals on the left side of the Baptist spectrum, at Associated Baptist Press.

But who else is covering this drama closely? Please let us know. This is a story. Period.

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