DADT and last rites; chaplaincy questions (again)

In the wake of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, a few mainstream journalists are still trying to get a handle on what happens next with issues of religious liberty in the U.S. military. For example, I had a conversation with a national-level religion reporter or two the other day and the conversations started with the following kind of statement: "You know, we can't find religious leaders who are going to pull their chaplains if 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is repealed. There really isn't a story there."

Of course not. That was never the issue.

The issue has always been what, if anything, happens to culturally conservative chaplains -- most Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Southern Baptists, Muslims, evangelical and high-church Anglicans, Pentecostals, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc. -- after repeal. I have not seen a single statement saying that mere repeal would cause an exodus. Note carefully what two prominent leaders actually said, in letters to military leaders about this issue (as quoted in my Scripps Howard column on this topic):

If "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is repealed, "no restrictions or limitations on the teaching of Catholic morality can be accepted," noted Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military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."

Obviously, the flip side of this coin applies for the left, with many Lutherans, Presbyterians, mainstream Episcopalians, United Church of Christ clergy, American Baptists, Reform Jews and others having every right to express the pro-gay rights views that have been adopted by their church establishments (if not all of their congregations).

So while most of the mainstream press coverage (sample Washington Post report here) moves on to the next round of DADT politics (look for hearings on many implementation issues, including treatment of chaplains, in the new House of Representatives) it helps for religion-beat reporters to realize that the chaplaincy issue has not been settled.

As I stated not that long ago, it's crucial to realize that the debates about the rights and responsibilities of military chaplains are decades old and certainly did not start with DADT. For years, most of the controversy came from secularists who -- with good cause -- feared the creation of a state-mandated, even if lowest-common-denominator religion funded with tax dollars.

For example: How many Wiccans are in the military? Quite a few. Where do they serve? Now, how many Wiccan chaplains are there? Maybe one? Where do they serve? One location, if any. How has that worked out? Not very well.

How many Wiccans feel comfortable with a Pentecostal pastor, a Muslim imam, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an evangelical Lutheran or anyone from another faith leading their rites (if they are allowed to do so under their own vows)? Now, many forms of pagan faith do not have formal ordination procedures (while some do). Who approves the appointment of a layperson as a chaplain? How do a small circle of pagan chaplains serve believers on bases spread out around the world?

This is an extreme example, in terms of the numbers, but the principles are what matter. Some chaplains simply cannot serve as substitutes for others. Some can. Some cannot. A liberal Episcopalian might make a grand substitute for a liberal United Methodist. She would make a poor substitute for a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an Eastern Orthodox priest or an imam, a Southern Baptist pastor, etc., etc.

Yet that is the policy and church-state experts on the left and the right are going to have their own reasons for feeling tense. Here are the facts, as stated in that excellent CNN.com report that I recently praised:

"Some feared repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell might limit their individual freedom of expression and free exercise of religion, or require them to change their personal beliefs about the morality of homosexuality," the report says. "The views expressed to us in these terms cannot be downplayed or dismissed." But, it said, "Service members will not be required to change their personal views and religious beliefs; they must, however, continue to respect and serve with others who hold different views and beliefs."

The same holds true for the military's chaplain service, the report says. "Chaplains, in the context of their religious ministry, are not required to take actions inconsistent with their religious beliefs, but must still care for all Service members," it says.

As I said before, the key is how military leaders and lawyers for activist groups choose to define the word "care."

Care could mean someone saying, "Under my ordination vows, I honestly have a conflict of interest in offering the help that you are requesting or affirming key details of your beliefs. However, I will do everything I can to get you in contact with a clergy person representing your faith or a chaplain who is acceptable to you." That is painful and awkward, obviously, but people of good will could make it work. Then again, improper "care" could mean an openly gay Catholic turning in his or her priest who advocates the teachings of the church in a sermon, a chat over coffee or even, heaven forbid, during confession.

Let me stress that the codes guiding the chaplains have long stated that they are allowed freedom of conscience AND they are expected to care for all. The tensions have been there for some time, on the doctrinal left and the right. It is hard to have the state govern the acts and consciences of women and men -- on the left and on the right -- who have taken vows to a higher power. The conflicts have been real -- before DADT.

So what does this look like in practice? Over at USA Today, veteran religion Cathy Lynn Grossman offered these scenarios at the Faith & Reason weblog:

If your loved one in uniform were wounded or dying, would you be all right with a chaplain at his or her side who withheld comforting prayers because your loved one is gay?

What if the chaplain's view was that the most loving thing he could do would be to offer the evangelical vision of Christian truth that the chaplain believes is the only path to heaven?

That's a perfect statement of half of the equation.

First, I cannot imagine any chaplain withholding prayers of comfort to a soldier in that circumstance. Notice that Grossman assumed that the gay soldier is not an evangelical of some kind. It is also assumed that the gay soldier is sexually active, as opposed to a celibate gay who affirms centuries of traditional Christian doctrines on faith and marriage. There are all kinds of variations here.

But let's assume that this is a gay soldier who is secular or from a progressive flock that fully affirms homosexuality in all expressions. Then let's assume that her chaplain is an outspoken Southern Baptist. The potential is there for the chaplain to voice offensive doctrines, right? And another chaplain may be miles away. Or the chaplain may be an Orthodox or Catholic priest who can offer words of comfort, but perhaps not the precise words of comfort sought by the soldier and his or her companion or companions (in the sense of friends who are with them at that moment).

Was proper "care" given? Is "care," in this case, defined by the military or the body that ordained the chaplain? Or is "care" defined by the family of the fallen?

Now, the dying soldier is Hindu or a member of another polytheistic faith and the chaplain is Muslim.

Now, the dying soldier is a traditional Roman Catholic and the chaplain is Southern Baptist, a female Episcopal priest, a Reform rabbi, a Unitarian, a Pentecostal pastor (who rejects Catholicism), etc. etc. Who says the last rites and offers a final blessing or the Eucharist?

Now, the dying soldier is a Southern Baptist and the chaplain is a Mormon.

Now, the dying soldier is a Muslim and the chaplain is Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Wiccan, etc. etc.

Grossman's scenario is perfectly valid and raises questions that should trouble all people of good will. But the variations on this scenario go on and on, don't they?

That's the story. The concerns on left and right are valid.

What are the options? They are three:

(1) Find some way to end the chaplaincy program (under the assumption that if equal access is not possible, then closing down the chaplaincy program is the only legal option that is fair to all).

(2) Allow clergy to serve without violating their ordination vows (with the knowledge that, even when working with people of good will, this imperfect system will cause tensions and accusations of "hate speech").

(3) The establishment of state-mandated and government-funded religious rites and rules of conduct of chaplains, mandating that expressions of the beliefs of many clergy are acceptable and that expressions of opposing beliefs are not acceptable. Some chaplains would argue that option (3) is already in place, but it is inconsistently enforced.

So what is the next wrinkle in the story? Congressional debates about freedom of conscience and the meaning of the word "care." Stay tuned.

TOP PHOTO: Image from the U.S. Air Force website.

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