Toady we welcome a guest post from Jaqueline E. Whitt, author of Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War. During the second half of the twentieth century, the American military chaplaincy underwent a profound transformation. Broad-based and ecumenical in the World War II era, the chaplaincy emerged from the Vietnam War as generally conservative and evangelical. Before and after the Vietnam War, the chaplaincy tended to mirror broader social, political, military, and religious trends. During the Vietnam War, however, chaplains’ experiences and interpretations of war placed them on the margins of both military and religious cultures. Because chaplains lived and worked amid many communities—religious and secular, military and civilian, denominational and ecumenical—they often found themselves mediating heated struggles over the conflict, on the home front as well as on the front lines.
In today’s post, Whitt discusses how the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has affected military chaplains two years after the legislation was repealed.
A smattering of news stories about military chaplains and same-sex marriage caught my eye in the last few months. I found them interesting in part because they appeared more than two years after the official repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and represented ongoing conversations about the intersections of religion and military policy—but also because they pointed to the diversity with which religious groups have responded to policy changes with the Department of Defense.
As the movement for the repeal of DADT gained political momentum, dozens of retired military chaplains and civilian religious organizations expressed grave concerns that a repeal of DADT would coerce military chaplains into performing services contrary to the dictates of their religious confession or would effectively silence their protected religious speech about the sinfulness of homosexuality. There were warnings of mass resignations or a mass exodus from the military chaplaincy by evangelical chaplains (who fill most chaplain billets). Ultimately, few chaplains have actually resigned their military commissions as a result of their opposition to the repeal of DADT or the ruling of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. In fact, the only evidence I have found of a chaplain changing his status as a result of the law, is a Southern Baptist chaplain severing ties with his religious endorsing agency, which made him ineligible to continue service as a chaplain. More than two years in, though there have been some reports of conservative chaplains finding new regulations challenging, it seems that the rule of law, professionalism, and military order have won the day.
Consistent with military regulations and guidelines before the law’s repeal, military chaplains are not required to perform services that are contrary to the dictates or conscience of their religious affiliations, but they must commit to helping service members who seek such services or support find someone who can. Chaplains have often referred to this commitment to “cooperation without compromise” as a foundational piece of their professional identity.
Even so, there have been a variety of responses to the changing environment within the DOD with regard to human sexuality and the role of military chaplains.
As one might expect, religious groups—such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church—with strong and clear doctrinal stances on the question of homosexuality and marriage have issued strict guidelines that their chaplains not participate in services involving same-sex couples or appear to endorse gay unions in any way. Then, there are a large number of chaplains and endorsing agencies—even among those with an evangelical bent—that have taken a more moderate stance on the issues, allowing for more flexibility and local judgment on the part of military chaplains. For example, Lutheran chaplains affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America are found on both sides of the issue, as are Episcopal chaplains who may bless same-sex unions but may not perform marriages. Then, on the other side of the spectrum politically and theologically, liberal denominations are acting to endorse more military chaplains and provide broader support to military members than they have since the Vietnam War. The Unitarian Universalist church and the United Church of Christ have publicly recognized that changing attitudes and policies within the DOD have opened up new opportunities for their churches.
Of course, there are still gray areas and tensions and particulars that must be worked out—marriage retreats and counseling are one topic of special concern—but this is to be expected in a pluralistic environment where a broad range of religious practices and beliefs are included in the conversation. Because the conversations will invariably touch on issues of First Amendment protections and freedoms, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law, and the issue of discrimination on the grounds of religious belief and/or sexual orientation, the conversations are likely to be impassioned, complex, and messy. But they must happen, and they should involve religious leaders and organizations, as well as military leaders and special interest groups.
Ultimately, the issues will need to be resolved primarily through the clarification of military regulations that govern chaplains’ responsibilities and through the work of commanders to create and sustain a positive climate in which all military service members can live and work.
*The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent official statements of the United States Department of Defense, United States Air Force, Air University, or the Air War College. Similarly, links to external sites are provided as sources and do not imply endorsement of the positions or information therein.
Jacqueline E. Whitt is assistant professor of strategy at Air War College. Her bookBringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War is now available.