Return of (part of) the chaplain debates

It seems that we are going to see more mainstream coverage of those debates about religious liberty, military chaplains and Don't Ask, Don't Tell." So let's back up and note a few basic fact, some of which were handled quite well in that CNN.com report that I praised the other day in the post called, "Chaplain questions older than DADT." As that title implied, I wanted to note that church-state questions about military chaplains are not new.

The military powers that be have been arguing for a long time about doctrinal and legal issues linked to public prayers, God talk, preaching, evangelism/proselytism and a variety of subjects. Tensions between the traditionalist camp and what the oldline-Universalist-progressive camp are not new. It's much harder for an evangelical, charismatic of Anglo-Catholic Episcopal priest to lead a wide variety of vague rites that mesh with various other traditions than for a liberal Episcopal priest to do that same. It's easier for a Reform rabbi to function in a state-funded religious environment than it is for a Southern Baptist, a Missouri-Synod Lutheran or an Eastern Orthodox priest (to name a few examples).

These hot-button issues almost always revolve around public expressions of doctrine, as opposed to silent, private beliefs.

When looking at DADT, however, the current state of things clearly affects the left as well as the right. As mentioned in the GetReligion comments pages, clergy in religious groups that favor DADT repeal have had their hands tied in public ministries to gays and lesbians in the military.

However, the must crucial question is not whether many doctrinal traditionalists will have to leave the military if DADT is repealed. The real question is whether many will leave rather than face punishment for public or even one-on-one expressions of their religious beliefs. Thus, it was important that the CNN.com story included this crucial slice of the Pentagon DADT report:

Despite the fact they would not pull their endorsements for chaplains, "A significant portion of the respondents did suggest that a change in policies resulting in chaplains' free exercise of religion or free speech rights being curtailed would lead them to withdraw their endorsement," the report said.

Or, as Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America put it in a letter to the chaplains board:

"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 there is much more to this story than what happens if DADT is repealed. The question is how DADT repeal (or the continuation of the policy) will affect the ministry of military chaplains -- liberal and conservative -- and the rights of the soldiers that they serve -- liberal and conservative.

This brings us to the new story on these issues in the Washington Post, which adds some useful information on the point of view of liberal clergy, such as:

The Rev. Dennis Camp, a retired Army colonel, said it pained him when gay soldiers came to him to complain of the burden they felt from keeping their sexuality a secret. They could not display pictures of their loved ones or talk freely about their personal lives, he recalled. But he could not encourage them to be honest about their orientation, he said.

"They were forced by the situation, the system, to be dishonest, and that took its toll on them. And me," said Camp, a United Methodist minister who retired in 1996 after 27 years of service. "It was horrible. Right from the beginning I was saying, 'This is bad. This is wrong. It really has no place in our military community.' "

Yet in the paragraphs immediately before these lines, the Post framed the debate in the following manner:

The authors of the report noted that only three out of the 145 chaplains who participated in focus groups suggested that they would quit or retire if the law was changed. Many chaplains expressed opposition to repeal, while many others said they would not object, according to the report.

"In the course of our review, we heard some chaplains condemn in the strongest possible terms homosexuality as a sin and an abomination, and inform us that they would refuse to in any way support, comfort, or assist someone they knew to be homosexual," the report stated. "In equally strong terms, other chaplains, including those who also believe homosexuality is a sin, informed us that 'we are all sinners,' and that it is a chaplain's duty to care for all Service members."

Once again, repeal is not the ultimate issue for the leaders of traditional religious groups. The issue is hidden in that phrase "care for all Service members." Does "care" equal acceptance of homosexual activity? For example, I cannot imagine many traditional clergy actually saying that they would "refuse to in any way support, comfort, or assist someone they knew to be homosexual."

Really? Did the Pentagon offer any direct quotes from chaplains expressing those views, or is that an official bureaucratic interpretation of what women and men said in these interviews? What is the legal content of those words "support," "comfort" and "assist"?

The Post report does offer the following information from someone who is worried about protecting the rights of clergy who advocate traditional views on sexuality issues.

Many conservatives worry that lifting the policy would muzzle chaplains whose religions require them to preach against homosexuality. The Rev. Douglas E. Lee, a retired Presbyterian Air Force chaplain and brigadier general who now counsels and credentials chaplains, said chaplains generally point out their views on homosexuality before counseling a service member on that issue. He worried that military policies may prohibit even that level of conversation if "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed, even though Pentagon officials have not recommended any change to the policy governing chaplains' behavior.

"There's a strong possibility that a chaplain wouldn't be allowed to proclaim what their own faith believes, and not give people the information they need to be a good Christian or a good Muslim or what have you," he said. "If there's no protection for the chaplain to be able to speak according to his faith group, that might affect the number of chaplains we recruit or our ability to do our duty for the troops."

Once again, note the following inserted -- but valid -- commentary noting that Lee made these comments, "even though Pentagon officials have not recommended any change to the policy governing chaplains' behavior."

That's true, although the Pentagon would find itself involved in court cases challenging those policies. Where are the crucial decisions being made, these days, on these kinds of moral and cultural issues?

Meanwhile, the CNN.com report was much stronger in this regard, since it noted that the current policies that guide the work of military chaplains already contain the very tensions about the public and one-on-one expressions of doctrine that are now being linked to the DADT debate. Again, here is that section of the CNN.com story:

"Existing regulations state that chaplains 'will not be required to perform a religious role ... in worship services, command ceremonies, or other events, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices of their faith.' At the same time, regulations state that 'Chaplains care for all Service members, including those who claim no religious faith, facilitate the religious requirements of personnel of all faiths, provide faith-specific ministries, and advise the command.' "

Once again, define the word "care."

In other words, these doctrinal tensions are not new. The DADT debates are merely the latest chapter in a larger church-state story, once in which voices on the left and right must be reported accurately.

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