Don't ask, don't tell (about the chaplains)

If you are interested in church-state separation issues, and you happened to pick up one of the big American newspapers this morning, that sound you are probably hearing is the theme from "Jaws." Here's the top of the A1 report from the Washington Post:

President Obama has endorsed a "don't ask, don't tell" compromise between lawmakers and the Defense Department, the White House announced Monday, an agreement that may sidestep a key obstacle to repealing the military's policy banning gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces.

The compromise was finalized in meetings Monday at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers will now, within days, vote on amendments that would repeal the Clinton-era policy, with a provision ensuring that any change would not take effect until after the Pentagon completes a study about its impact on troops. That study is due to Congress by Dec. 1. ...

While gay rights advocates hailed the move as a "dramatic breakthrough," it remained uncertain whether the deal would secure enough votes to pass both houses of Congress. Republicans have vowed to maintain "don't ask, don't tell," while conservative Democrats have said they would oppose a repeal unless military leaders made it clear that they approved of such a change.

In political terms, this means that everyone gets to vote before the November elections -- which are expected to cut into the Democratic Party's huge majorities on the Hill -- yet the Pentagon would complete its study and announce the results after the voting is done. In other words, Bible Belt Democrats and others in red zip codes have to face the maximum amount of pressure in the campaigns. GOP leaders have to love that.

At this stage, the reporting is totally about politics -- of course. Up is up. Down is down. The forces of journalistic gravity remain in effect. It's much too early for the religion ghosts to make it into print (think about the patterns in the health-care reform news coverage).

In the Los Angeles Times report, the one conservative cultural voice that is featured in the story is from a completely predictable source and the topic, of course, is the nature of the political horse race that surrounds the bill. The reporters probably had this group's telephone number on speed dial.

... Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, criticized the agreement as a backroom deal that "disregards the views of our troops and uses the military to advance the political agenda of a radical special interest group."

"This rushed deal is a tacit admission that after the November election, the Democrats are likely to lose a working liberal majority," Perkins said. "They want to get what they can now, and also far enough away from the election that it won't be prominent in the mind of voters."

So what is the faith-based issue that is almost certain to surface in the weeks between now and the election? Why, a clash between gay rights and religious liberty claims by traditional believers, of course. The story has already been developing, but has received minimal mainstream media coverage (click here for a short Religion News Service story). As you would expect, niche media (Baptist Press, for example) covered the story from day one.

First, it helps to know that there have been growing tensions in the past decade between conservative military chaplains (most of them evangelical Protestants, due to the basic math of who is in the military) and chaplains who are from more liturgical or liberal Protestant groups and, to a lesser degree, the Catholic Church.

This surfaced in 2005 as reports that conservatives were claiming that they faced discrimination when it came time for promotions. A year later, this conflict grew more specific -- with some chaplains saying that they were being punished or shunned if and when they protested policies requiring them to pray publicly in doctrinally neutral language, meaning language that did not include references to Jesus or to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

While the conflicts focused on predictable flocks -- Southern Baptists vs. Episcopalians, for example -- others were affected. Many Eastern Orthodox bishops, for example, would never approve of their priests NOT praying in the name of the Holy Trinity. That simply isn't a doctrinal option, even in a ecumenical or interfaith setting. Can these priests continue to serve as chaplains?

As you can see, there is no easy way out of this church-state maze. Either non-Christians or liberal Christians must, on occasion, hear explicitly Christian prayers, or military personal from more conservative traditions have to live without any potential by chaplains who share their faith.

The ideal military chaplain, these days, is one who is willing to serve as a kind of doctrinal Swiss Army knife, pulling out various rites and prayers and beliefs when the need arises. This is easier for some chaplains than others. How easy will this be for Muslims?

Meanwhile, how does a liberal clergyperson handle ministry to soldiers whose beliefs she or he considers intolerant? Does a traditional Catholic turn to an Episcopal woman in a collar for a blessing before heading into combat? How does a traditional shepherd handle battlefield counseling for openly gay soldiers whose beliefs and challenges (someone experiencing stress in a same-sex marriage, for example) directly violate the doctrines and traditions that the pastor or priest vowed to defend when being ordained?

Truth is, it is often impossible for a military chaplain to refer a troubled soldier to a chaplain whose foxhole is 20 or 30 miles away. There is no way to have a full range of chaplains -- from Pentecostal to Wiccan, from Reform Judaism to strict forms of Islam -- available in every base, let alone in every submarine. You can see why military chaplains have long been the subject of church-state conflicts, for the perfectly logical reason that these pastors work for, and answer to, both the church and the state.

Sure enough, more than 40 retired military chaplains -- speaking out would be too risky for active chaplains -- have issued a letter (.pdf) warning that repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" will lead to even more conflict in their ranks, with further limits on their religious liberty and ability to minister in good conscience without violating their ordination vows. And, as you would expect, voices on the left side of the debate have responded by saying these chaplains are being illogical and intolerant.

In other words, there is a story in there.

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