Denominational executives and endorsers have become mission distracters, and are undermining the quality of care chaplains are sworn to provide for our service members. Those same religious leaders who opposed the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT), and who supported the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), have now engineered an artificial "crisis "in the military chaplaincy, one which threatens to subvert good order and discipline. They have employed a strategic diversion designed to derail the peaceful and successful implementation of open service.
A quick Internet search of the terms "military chaplains" and "wedding" brings up such articles as, "Southern Baptists Say No to Gay Weddings for Military Chaplains", "SBC Chaplains Won't Perform Gay Weddings." One would think the supporters of marriage equality in the military were demanding chaplains be forced to conduct same-gender marriages, even if to do so would be against the tenets of their faith traditions. Nothing could be further from the truth.
After the repeal of DADT, and during the implementation of open service, the Pentagon announced that chaplains who were welcoming and affirming of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) service members would be allowed to conduct same gender weddings on military installations. Immediately, denominational leaders opposed to repeal launched a carefully orchestrated smokescreen. Ominous and fearful warnings were broadcast, from conservative media, lobbyists and pulpits around the country, that chaplains were being forced to conduct same gender weddings and relationship counseling. Of course, such fear tactics were intended to rile up religious conservatives, and to a large degree, the deception has been successful. Most Americans cherish their 1st Amendment Right of religious liberty, and will protect it at all costs. And, well they should! No clergy, in or out of uniform, should be compelled to conduct a religious rite that is against his or her sincerely held beliefs.
So, what is really going on? This "crisis" in the chaplaincy is a self-inflicted wound caused by recently published "Guidelines" the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention(NAMB) imposed on the military chaplains they endorse. It is a subversive strategy designed to disrupt, derail and dismantle the successful implementation of open service. NAMB's mandate prohibits endorsed and commissioned chaplains from:
1. Attending a wedding ceremony of a same-gender couple, either on or off a military installation.
2. Performing supportive pastoral counseling of a same-gender married couple.
3. Assisting or supporting contractors or volunteers leading same-gender relational events.
4. Offering any kind of relationship training, on or off a military installation that would give the appearance of accepting the "homosexual lifestyle or sexual wrongdoing."
5. Participating in jointly led worship services "with a chaplain, contractor or volunteer who personally practices a homosexual lifestyle or affirms a homosexual lifestyle or such conduct."
Such religious restrictions fly in the face of a chaplain's military obligations. For example, applying these "Guidelines", a Southern Baptist endorsed chaplain may not be able:
1. To follow a Commander's orders if those orders are perceived to violate NAMB's mandatory "Guidelines."
2. To follow their sworn duty as military officers;
3. To treat all equally;
4. To refrain from bias and discrimination embedded in endorser regulations;
5. To respect the First Amendment, due to denominational directives establishing their religious beliefs within the military.
The present situation is a classic example of the fragile tension between the "establishment" and "free exercise" clauses of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. After the repeal of DADT and the finding by the United States Supreme Court that section three of DOMA was unconstitutional, and before these "Guidelines" were imposed, Southern Baptist chaplains and those who share similar beliefs, were able to successfully fulfill their duty to "perform or provide" for all service members. They had been doing so for decades. However, these newly minted "Guidelines" present a real dilemma for chaplains of conscience and integrity.
For example, consider one of the most odious of these prohibitions. Southern Baptist chaplains cannot participate in joint religious services with anyone who is LGB, or is affirming of LGB service members and their families. This means Southern Baptist chaplains may not participate in worship with other chaplains, contractors or volunteers who are endorsed by the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, Unitarian Universalists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Disciples of Christ and other major faith groups-even other Baptists! What about chaplain assistants, music directors, organists, members of the chapel choir, youth of the chapel, wedding coordinators and others in the pluralistic and multi-cultural military community? Will they be excluded as well? If they are LGB, or LGB affirming, will the Southern Baptist chaplains refuse to participate in any religious service or ceremony with them?
Some have proposed an ominous solution to this present situation. They suggest merely doing away with the military chaplaincy. This would eliminate the tension between the "establishment" and "free exercise" clause. Service members stationed in the continental United States could go off installation and attend worship services in the surrounding civilian community. For those deployed overseas, the military could either use private contractors or allow faith groups, at their own expense, to send civilian clergy to provide for the religious needs of service members. Many denominations are already doing that with established churches and missions adjacent to military installations. Not only would this solve the "crisis", but it would also have a positive impact on the military budget by reducing over 3000 officers and their supporting staffs, as well as eliminating the expense of maintaining chapels and office facilities.
Because I recognize the important Constitutional role chaplains play, not only in the lives of service members and their families, but also as key members of a commander's special staff, I oppose this "solution." Chaplains provide critical input to military leaders regarding unit morale. As many seasoned officers and NCOs say, "If you want to know how your troops are doing, ask the chaplain." Chaplains also provide a means for service members to seek confidential counseling from someone who shares their lives, including hardship separations from friends and family members, and the harsh conditions associated with combat duty and overseas deployments. Chaplains are trained and ready to go into harms way with service members, unarmed but always present, even when facing enemy fire. Chaplains understand best the stressors that often lead to PTSD, family tensions and suicidal thoughts. They walk the walk and talk the talk with their troops day in and day out, in peace time and war, at home and abroad.
In order to resolve this "crisis", NAMB should revisit their hastily crafted and unduly harsh "Guidelines" with an eye toward modifying the prohibitions in a way that will allow all chaplains to fulfill their duty to "perform or provide." Other Christians such as the Disciples of Christ have seen the light and have found the proper balance between the tenets of their faith and the fulfillment of their military obligations. A failure to modify these "Guidelines" by the NAMB will surely lead to Constitutional challenges. At worst, this could result in the "solution" of simply doing away with military chaplains altogether. This artificial "crisis" would then turn into a real tragedy, not just for the institution of the military chaplaincy, but for America's service members and families chaplains are there to support.