The Real Policy is "Don't Talk About It"

Despite public and military support for overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the legislation which bans openly gay service members, political, military and religious leaders cite a variety of objections to changing the law.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) worries that allowing gays to serve openly would impact troop "morale;" Marine Corp Commandant Gen. James Amos says that a policy change may affect "unit cohesion" and "combat effectiveness." Among the religious leaders opposed to overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell is Catholic Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy J. Broglio, who fears that chaplains would be forced to compromise their principles in accepting "objectively disordered" homosexuality, adding that he "can never condone -even silently -homosexual behavior."

What beliefs are behind banning gays in the military? What's the role of religion in this debate?

If we consult the world's scriptures, almost without exception homosexuality is condemned. The "unnaturalness" of same-sex attraction linked it to sin and God's disapproval. At the same time, the "naturalness" of having multiple wives was linked to God's approval. Clearly, neither one was natural or unnatural. They were socially condemned or approved of, and society's norms change. It is really up to us to formulate our own values. Using God as an authority is an excuse. We don't invoke God to approve of premarital sex and birth control. We take responsibility.

There will always be a cutting edge and a rear guard in every social change. Anyone who has worked in civil rights or the women's movement is well aware of that. A hundred years ago one could hear sermons from the pulpit that condemned a woman's right to vote using scriptural references. But one of the great advantages of becoming liberated form religious dogma (a very different thing from honoring religious faith and seeking) is that equality has increased. I have always found it suspicious that the world's scriptures enforce a sense of high and low birth, on the basis of race, gender, or any other measure. It's not cynicism to note that somehow the priestly class or caste comes out on top. Religion has hidden levels of power struggle and social antagonism.

The rise of women parallels the rise of gay rights, but the latter is more sensitive psychologically. Enlightened or not, we harbor deep insecurity about our sexual identity. One of the easiest ways to escape your own worries is to project them on others. Our slurs against gay people share the same mechanism. "I feel more like a real man if you are less of a man. I am more feminine if you are less feminine." So it comes as no surprise that those people who are most secure in their own sexuality are the most tolerant -- and least threatened -- by other sexual orientations.

As it stands, the prejudice against gay people is steadily if slowly lifting. Does religion help or hinder their bid for equality? The answer is obvious when you look at the intractable doctrine of sin. Faiths like Islam and Catholicism, insofar as they believe that God has named what is sinful and what is not, will remain out of step with the modern world, and with enlightened humanity in general. The best friend that civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights have ever had is secularism. Yet if we look deeper, God must surely love all human beings equally, and when the oppressed look for solace, they can find it in spirituality that is liberated from prejudice. That kind of spirituality expresses the truly spiritual side of our aspirations to experience the divine and express it in ourselves. Published in the Washington Post/On Faith