In his Aug. 25 column “Chaplains in no-win situation on ‘don’t ask,’ ” retired Army Reserve chaplain and Orthodox priest Alexander F.C. Webster claims that rescinding the military’s discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy will “shred the social and moral fabric of our armed forces,” subject straight servicemembers to a threatening lack of privacy, and lead to “a universal vulgarity and coarsening of military decency.” He further states that this will also test the mettle of the Chaplain Corps in each of the military services. These claims merit closer scrutiny.
Most of the arguments against rescinding the policy are well-known, as Father Webster suggests. They are well-known because they are old, well-worn, and have often been used to discriminate against other groups who sought equality of treatment in the military — for example, African-Americans, other minorities and women. In each case, it took some time and effort to institute just policies and make them work; and it will in this case, too. But this needs to be done, and now is the time.
Father Webster states that instituting 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.” These assertions are way high and far to the right.
No one is looking for approval or celebration of “the gay lifestyle.” (First of all, this lifestyle terminology is offensive and inaccurate.) But all who are in the military should have an equal right to serve without having to deny their sexual orientation, a foundational part of who they are as human beings. And every servicemember should be required to respect others who wear the uniform and serve honorably.
Affirmative action to recruit homosexuals is a nonstarter because it would be totally unnecessary. But terms like “affirmative action” and “politically correct” are effective bait to use when fishing for an angry response. Those whose privileged place, cherished positions, or power are threatened conveniently use these terms when opposing equality for others.
Once gay and lesbian servicemembers are free to acknowledge their sexual orientation, is homosexual activity going to become rampant in the services? Are their straight comrades going to become prey to their sexual advances? This is unlikely for two reasons: 1) the professionalism of gay and lesbian troops; and 2) the services already have regulations in place to deal with sexual harassment.
The Chaplain Corps’ response to this issue is critical. Father Webster is correct in stating that the military chaplaincy today is dominated by chaplains from conservative Christian denominations. This brand has become almost an established religion in today’s military. But this is not the only point of view that should be heard and respected. There are a number of other religious groups in the services who view open service for gay and lesbian personnel much differently.
Father Webster articulated well the fears that conservative chaplains and their denominations have raised about being subject to organizational discrimination if “don’t ask, don’t tell” is revoked. But while they worry about being discriminated against, they openly discriminate against some of the very people they are pledged to serve and serve with. If the hate speech currently uttered by some conservative chaplains and their denominations is any indication of how they will respond in the future, we can expect this discrimination to continue.
To say that conservative chaplains’ ministries will be threatened if “don’t ask, don’t tell” is no longer official policy is somewhat disingenuous. These chaplains, like every other chaplain, will continue to have the same rights they’ve always had to preach, teach, counsel, marry and conduct religious matters according to the tenets of their faith. They will also continue to have the responsibility to refer servicemembers to other chaplains when their own theology or conscience will not allow them to perform the services to which a servicemember is entitled. That is what chaplains have always been expected to do, and that will not change. Any chaplain who can’t fulfill this expectation should find somewhere else to do ministry.
I doubt that many chaplains will want to leave the service over this issue, or that denominations will want to remove their chaplains from what they regard as a prime mission field. And if they choose to do so for the reasons stated, the services will be the better for it.
This current struggle will, indeed, test the mettle of the services and their Chaplain Corps. The real question here is whether justice will be done, and whether chaplains will be part of the solution or continue to be part of the problem.
Rev. John F. Gundlach, a minister in the United Church of Christ, served 23 years on active duty as a Navy chaplain. While on the staff of the Navy Chief of Chaplains he was director of manpower, community management and recruiting for the Navy Chaplain Corps and served on the Personnel Advisory Group of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board. He retired as a captain in 1997 following an assignment as district chaplain, Naval District Washington. He is currently on the national staff of his denomination and is a member of The Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, a group of retired and active-duty chaplains, military officers senior enlisted personnel and civilians working for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”