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Guest column

Chaplains in no-win situation on ‘don’t ask’

President Barack Obama’s initiative to rescind the “don’t ask, don’t tell” statute of 1993 will, if Congress yields to him later this year, shred the social and moral fabric of our armed forces. The experiment will also test the mettle of the chaplain corps in each of the military services — Army, Air Force and Navy (including the Marine Corps and Coast Guard). Fortunately for the nation and its military defense, many chaplains and their civilian faith group leaders are beginning, at last, to push back on the issue.

Having taken numerous showers in open bays during 12-month-long deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq while serving on active duty as a U.S. Army chaplain since August 2005, I know firsthand how expendable the personal privacy of heterosexual males (and females, I presume) would be in a new homosexual-affirming military. It’s quite obvious to most Americans why we do not permit male and female soldiers to shower together or to sleep in co-ed pairs in close quarters. That same principle applies to the homosexual parallel. It’s not a matter of “gay rights,” as if a willed sexual behavior has the same moral and legal standing as race, ethnicity or chromosomal sexual identity. What’s at stake instead is the moral imperative to honor the dignity, privacy preferences and needs of the vast majority of servicemembers.

If the president ultimately has his way, “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be renamed “don’t ask, don’t tell — or don’t shower!” Perhaps the co-ed military shower scene in the campy 1997 sci-fi film “Starship Troopers” was more prescient than preposterous. A universal vulgarity and coarsening of military decency may soon await our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, and brothers and sisters in uniform.

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The pragmatic arguments against the president’s proposal concerning unit morale, cohesion and readiness are well-known. Not so the following slippery slope. A “nondiscrimination” policy would surely mutate into approval and celebration of the “gay” lifestyle, followed by “affirmative action” recruitment of homosexuals, politically correct ideological indoctrination throughout the armed forces including family members, and, finally, active discrimination against — and persecution of — those who dare to express a dissenting opinion.

The latter scenario figures prominently in a remarkable open letter to Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates co-signed on April 28 by 41 retired U.S. military chaplains including two brigadier generals (James Hutchens and Douglas Lee). Those Protestant former chaplains (soon to be joined by additional Roman Catholic and Orthodox signatories, including me) argue that the normalization of homosexual behavior in the U.S. armed forces would pose a profound dilemma to chaplains similar to that which the earliest Christians faced in the pagan Roman Empire: whether to obey God or men.

Specifically, chaplains from the morally conservative faith groups and denominations — significantly, the vast majority at present — might be cowed into silence on the issue to preserve their chosen vocations or to avoid clashing with official policies or the commander in chief himself. Their preaching, teaching, counseling, worship leadership and pastoral care — so vital to the free exercise of religion by our troops, especially in wartime — would suffer immeasurably, and their particular contributions to a genuinely pluralistic religious mix would be needlessly lost. Chaplains who balk at performing homosexual “weddings,” sharing pulpits with openly homosexual clergy, including homosexual pairs in married couple retreats, or hiring “gay” civilian workers to engage in youth ministry might be subject routinely to the potentially career-ending consequences of a discrimination complaint. Anyone who has served as a senior military officer knows how easy it is to punish chaplains or other subordinate officers who are deemed inadequate as “team players” through a negative or even lukewarm efficiency report, or by undesirable assignments designed to thwart their career progression.

Confronted with such a dim future, many chaplains might retire early, resign their commissions in protest, or decline to serve in the first place. More drastically, the bishops, boards or other religious judicatories whose approval is indispensable for clergy to be commissioned as officers might withdraw their official endorsements and pull their chaplains from military service.

In a recent letter to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, my own bishop, Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen) of the Orthodox Church in America, has promised to do precisely that, if any of the two dozen priests under his care “were in any way forced to minister the sacraments” to active, unrepentant homosexuals, or “forced to teach that such behavior is good or acceptable, or prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive,” or regarded as purveyors of “prejudice” or “hate language.” It’s at once inspiring and reassuring as a retired chaplain to know that Metropolitan Jonah has, in the peculiar parlance of troops in combat, “got our back.”

Nor is Metropolitan Jonah alone on this issue. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resounding resolution of support for “don’t ask, don’t tell” in June. Meanwhile the 800-member Rabbinical Alliance of America has called for a filibuster by U.S. senators opposed to change in the law. And Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Roman Catholic Military Archdiocese issued a pro-“don’t ask, don’t tell” statement in June that urges the U.S. military to “develop strong prohibitions against any immoral activity that would jeopardize morale, good morals, unit cohesion and every other factor that weakens the mission.”

The battle lines over active homosexuality in the U.S. armed forces are clearly drawn. Supporters of traditional sexual morality have now begun to field an army against the advocates of radical social engineering. Many Americans may not recall that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a compromise between full acceptance of homosexuality in the military and perpetuation of the traditional strictures against even the mere presence of homosexuals in uniform, whether sexually active or celibate.

This time, however, there can be no compromise. Despite the widely reported insistence of Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the issue is not already settled. Now is the time for citizens to impress upon our representatives and senators in Congress — the final legislative arbiters — the dire consequences of the elimination of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for our military and our nation.

Father Alexander F.C. Webster, Ph.D., an archpriest in the Orthodox Church in America, retired in June as an Army Reserve chaplain at the rank of colonel after more than 24 years of military service. He is a traveling professor with University of Maryland University College (Asia Division) and the author or co-author of four books on topics of social ethics, including “The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West” (2004).

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