Don’t ask, don’t tell (about the chaplains)

If you are interested in church-state separation issues, and you happened to pick up one of the big American newspapers this morning, that sound you are probably hearing is the theme from “Jaws.” Here’s the top of the A1 report from the Washington Post:

President Obama has endorsed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise between lawmakers and the Defense Department, the White House announced Monday, an agreement that may sidestep a key obstacle to repealing the military’s policy banning gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces.

The compromise was finalized in meetings Monday at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers will now, within days, vote on amendments that would repeal the Clinton-era policy, with a provision ensuring that any change would not take effect until after the Pentagon completes a study about its impact on troops. That study is due to Congress by Dec. 1. …

While gay rights advocates hailed the move as a “dramatic breakthrough,” it remained uncertain whether the deal would secure enough votes to pass both houses of Congress. Republicans have vowed to maintain “don’t ask, don’t tell,” while conservative Democrats have said they would oppose a repeal unless military leaders made it clear that they approved of such a change.

In political terms, this means that everyone gets to vote before the November elections — which are expected to cut into the Democratic Party’s huge majorities on the Hill — yet the Pentagon would complete its study and announce the results after the voting is done. In other words, Bible Belt Democrats and others in red zip codes have to face the maximum amount of pressure in the campaigns. GOP leaders have to love that.

At this stage, the reporting is totally about politics — of course. Up is up. Down is down. The forces of journalistic gravity remain in effect. It’s much too early for the religion ghosts to make it into print (think about the patterns in the health-care reform news coverage).

In the Los Angeles Times report, the one conservative cultural voice that is featured in the story is from a completely predictable source and the topic, of course, is the nature of the political horse race that surrounds the bill. The reporters probably had this group’s telephone number on speed dial.

… Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, criticized the agreement as a backroom deal that “disregards the views of our troops and uses the military to advance the political agenda of a radical special interest group.”

“This rushed deal is a tacit admission that after the November election, the Democrats are likely to lose a working liberal majority,” Perkins said. “They want to get what they can now, and also far enough away from the election that it won’t be prominent in the mind of voters.”

So what is the faith-based issue that is almost certain to surface in the weeks between now and the election? Why, a clash between gay rights and religious liberty claims by traditional believers, of course. The story has already been developing, but has received minimal mainstream media coverage (click here for a short Religion News Service story). As you would expect, niche media (Baptist Press, for example) covered the story from day one.

First, it helps to know that there have been growing tensions in the past decade between conservative military chaplains (most of them evangelical Protestants, due to the basic math of who is in the military) and chaplains who are from more liturgical or liberal Protestant groups and, to a lesser degree, the Catholic Church.

This surfaced in 2005 as reports that conservatives were claiming that they faced discrimination when it came time for promotions. A year later, this conflict grew more specific — with some chaplains saying that they were being punished or shunned if and when they protested policies requiring them to pray publicly in doctrinally neutral language, meaning language that did not include references to Jesus or to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

While the conflicts focused on predictable flocks — Southern Baptists vs. Episcopalians, for example — others were affected. Many Eastern Orthodox bishops, for example, would never approve of their priests NOT praying in the name of the Holy Trinity. That simply isn’t a doctrinal option, even in a ecumenical or interfaith setting. Can these priests continue to serve as chaplains?

As you can see, there is no easy way out of this church-state maze. Either non-Christians or liberal Christians must, on occasion, hear explicitly Christian prayers, or military personal from more conservative traditions have to live without any potential by chaplains who share their faith.

The ideal military chaplain, these days, is one who is willing to serve as a kind of doctrinal Swiss Army knife, pulling out various rites and prayers and beliefs when the need arises. This is easier for some chaplains than others. How easy will this be for Muslims?

Meanwhile, how does a liberal clergyperson handle ministry to soldiers whose beliefs she or he considers intolerant? Does a traditional Catholic turn to an Episcopal woman in a collar for a blessing before heading into combat? How does a traditional shepherd handle battlefield counseling for openly gay soldiers whose beliefs and challenges (someone experiencing stress in a same-sex marriage, for example) directly violate the doctrines and traditions that the pastor or priest vowed to defend when being ordained?

Truth is, it is often impossible for a military chaplain to refer a troubled soldier to a chaplain whose foxhole is 20 or 30 miles away. There is no way to have a full range of chaplains — from Pentecostal to Wiccan, from Reform Judaism to strict forms of Islam — available in every base, let alone in every submarine. You can see why military chaplains have long been the subject of church-state conflicts, for the perfectly logical reason that these pastors work for, and answer to, both the church and the state.

Sure enough, more than 40 retired military chaplains — speaking out would be too risky for active chaplains — have issued a letter (.pdf) warning that repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” will lead to even more conflict in their ranks, with further limits on their religious liberty and ability to minister in good conscience without violating their ordination vows. And, as you would expect, voices on the left side of the debate have responded by saying these chaplains are being illogical and intolerant.

In other words, there is a story in there.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Paul of Alexandria

    And meanwhile, there is absolutely no discussion of – much less analysis of – the secular reasons for not allowing homosexuals to openly serve in the military. For pretty much the same reasons that disallow women to serve in combat positions, it is simply a very bad idea. See This article in American Thinker.

  • dalea

    Part of the political calculus is that liberal Democrats are under enormous pressure to pass a repeal of DADT. I know that in my district, we have been pressuring one of the most liberal members of congress with threats to vote Green and quit giving to the DNCC. So, there are political pressures on all sides.

  • tmatt

    Yes, dalea, that is part of the story.

    The role and the beliefs of the religious left — especially those in the military chaplaincy — would be the component of the story that is most relevant to the church-state story at hand. The closer they are to the top of the leadership pyramid they are, the more important.

  • Jerry

    The required adherence to the The Covenant and The Code of Ethics for Chaplains of the Armed Forces will be an issue for some so presumably they would not or should not become chaplains if they cannot adhere to this part of that Code:

    I will seek to provide for pastoral care and ministry to persons of religious bodies other than my own within my area of responsibility with the same investment of myself as I give to members of my own religious body… I will respect the beliefs and traditions of my colleagues and those to whom I minister. When conducting services of worship that include persons of other than my religious body, I will draw upon those beliefs, principles, and practices that we have in common.

    So it sounds to me that some do not support that statement but want to be chaplains in spite of agreeing to adhere to that requirement to draw on common beliefs.

    This code of ethics, should, of course, be part of the media reporting on this issue.

  • Ray Ingles

    Perhaps coincidentally, Doonesbury did a series about military chaplains dealing with multiple faiths last week.

  • tmatt


    Saw that. I spent the whole week waiting for DADT to show up, but it didn’t. I guess the ordination of women was enough doctrine for one week in Doonesbury-ville.


    I assume that this means that people of doctrinally specific faiths should not enter the Armed Services.

    So it is your understanding, then, that an imam would then need to limit his prayers and counsel to materials acceptable to Jews? What IS the traditional Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox, soldier supposed to do when faced with a female Episcopal chaplain?

    This is my point: The conflict cannot be wished away. Journalists must realize that this is a problem with no easy solution, for those on the left or right. Simply saying, “OK the left wins” does not help the military, either, in the long run. The military needs chaplains who are Missouri-Synod Lutheran, Southern Baptist, Orthodox, Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, Pentecostal, etc.

  • Jerry

    Terry, I’m saying the opposite. A chaplain needs to be willing to follow the Code of Ethics specifically being ecumenical in his or her approach. And unless I’m wrong, a chaplain has to explicitly agree to follow that Code. So anyone who cannot follow it should not be a Chaplain.

    It should be noted that there is explicit permission for a chaplain to conduct services in accordance with his doctrine to people who follow that doctrine while conducting ecumenical services for groups of people with mixed beliefs.

    From a soldier’s perspective, you are probably correct. A potential soldier who insists that the military should be organized according to his beliefs needs to be aware that the military cannot be organized that way and be effective in its primary purpose of protecting America.

    The third party to this is, of course, the military hierarchy who’s interest is or should be in making reasonable and practical accommodations as possible.

  • tmatt


    Organized according to his beliefs?

    Are you familiar at all with the concept of Equal Access?

    Having chaplains AT ALL is problematic in the military for all of the reasons you are making clear (and that I accept the problems exist).

    But saying that certain faiths can take part and others cannot, unless they willingly violate their doctrines, is a church-state issue in and of itself. That’s called entanglement.

    And your take in the Islam question?

  • Julia

    I think Jerry meant that a chaplain can conduct services for his own faith group that is explicitly tailored to that group, AND also conduct inter-faith gatherings for others.

  • Ray Ingles

    But saying that certain faiths can take part and others cannot, unless they willingly violate their doctrines, is a church-state issue in and of itself. That’s called entanglement.

    I think that’s overstating the case a bit. There’s the notion of ‘conscientious objection’ protecting people who don’t want to violate their church’s doctrines. (And it only took a Supreme Court decision to extent that privilege to the non-religious.)

    That tends to apply more to conscripts, I admit. Still, anyone volunteering to join the military is presumably aware of their policies and deciding to accept them, though. At least, I’d assume so…

    How much adjusting of policies should be done by the military, anyway? I mean, if a Creativity Movement devotee wants to join the military, but only associate with and take orders from ‘Caucasian’ soldiers, should the military accommodate them?

  • tmatt


    Yes, that is what Jerry said. That would exclude clergy (and those to whom they minister) who are not, by doctrine, allowed to take part in interfaith services and pray prayers that have been stripped of Christian doctrine. You see that?

    Meanwhile, you see imams leading interfaith services that include Jews and Christians, right?

    You see Wiccan believers happily taking part in services led by Southern Baptists (and vice versa). Right?

  • tmatt


    Sorry, no conscientious objection for chaplains who are government employees. That’s the problem.

    Next: So those from traditional Christian faiths that cannot take part in interfaith services should simply decline to serve in the military? That is going to help a lot with recruiting, in red zip codes, especially.

    Under the concepts of Equal Access would leave the government with one legal option (which some brave church-state advocates might privately advocate) — no military chaplains at all. No clergy paid with tax dollars, no clergy having to work inside doctrinal lines drawn by politicians.

    What if religious groups, at their own expense, provided the chaplains? Well, the government would want to screen and approve those it allows into these settings. Correct?


    That’s all of the arguing on this line folks.

    Back to journalism. What I am trying to get you to see is that the conflict is there and must be covered, with both sides treated fairly and their views reported accurately. It’s hard to do that if you cannot admit that the religious liberty issue exists in the first place.

  • Ray Ingles

    What I am trying to get you to see is that the conflict is there and must be covered…

    …but I (and apparently others) think you’re framing the conflict badly.

    Sorry, no conscientious objection for chaplains who are government employees.

    But… they can be soldiers and not chaplains, though, right? In the same way that conscientious objectors can serve roles in the military, just not roles where they’re expected to shoot others.

    In other words, if their religion does not allow them to fulfill the duties of military chaplain (like how conscientious objectors cannot fulfill aggressive military roles due to their beliefs) they can still serve other roles in the military (just the way conscientious objectors can).

    A key difference being that one has to volunteer to be a chaplain. They’re not being conscripted to be chaplains…

  • Crimson Wife

    My DH spent 5 years on active duty in the Army. The problem isn’t so much with traditionalist-minded Catholics having to deal with female Episcopalian chaplains but rather encountering Evangelical chaplains vocally espousing anti-Catholic views.

    A friend of our lost his leg in a chopper crash in Iraq and the Evangelical chaplain brought in to counsel him when he was critically wounded literally told him that he’d go to hell if he wasn’t “saved” by renouncing his Catholic faith and converting to Protestantism. Unbelievable!

  • tmatt


    Yes, the doctrinal Swiss Army knife approach produces lots of conflicts on both sides of the sanctuary aisle. You can see why it’s so hard to have only one or two chaplains have to handle a diverse set of soldiers.

    Trust me. All kinds of people have their horror stories to tell.

  • Julia

    Why would a Catholic priest have a problem with a colleague who is a woman Episcopal priest? Or a Catholic soldier have a problem receiving a blessing from a female Episcopal priest? Why would that be any different than a Catholic dealing with a female (or male) Methodist minister or rabbi?


    I had thought you were implying that a chaplain wouldn’t be able to provide services explicitly directed to his own faith group. It appears you were emphasizing that some ministers (or whatever the title might be) could not conduct an inter-faith prayer service – I understand that is a problem. But I’m unaware of any faiths that bar non-adherents from attending their religious services, as you also infer. I’ve never heard of any Mormon temples on military bases.

    The main problem is that for over 200 years this country has had a civic Protestant religious sensibility that allowed for prayer breakfasts, days of prayer and Billy Graham being a fixture at the White House. Catholics put up with it, but I don’t think the increasing numbers of Buddhists, Muslims and Wiccans will go along with the program.

    There’s also the question of what exactly chaplains are supposed to do. Are they primarily counselors and morale boosters? Or do they provide specific religious services which vary greatly among religions and can’t be inter-changeable.

    Perhaps it is time for chaplains to not be paid by the government. Get volunteer from the local communities and let churches pay for those who go out into the field.

  • tmatt


    You are saying that Catholic priests would have no problems with female Episcopal priests. Working with them, yes, outside sacramental services. The lines blur in worship and in situations that might be seen as confession or blessings.

    I never implied that ministers could not minister to their own. Of course, if performing doctrine-neutral interfaith services are a CONDITION of their employment, that would make it hard for them to be on the job for long — period. It’s hard to have, let’s say, Eastern Orthodox services for Eastern Orthodox soldiers if the priests are, as a condition of employment, asked to perform rites and duties that violate their vows. To you see the point now?

  • dalea

    One thing the stories do not make clear is that the situation is not that GL people will be joining the military. GL’s are there now and have always been in the military. Ending DADT will allow GL service members to live lives of openness and honesty rather than the endless subterfuges and dishonesty now required of serving GL’s. The stories ignore this context, instead treating the idea of openly GL members as something unheard of.

    The other difference I noticed came in the letter from the retired chaplains. The chaplains keep referring to ‘homosexual behavior’ while the other side treats GL people as having an identity. There is a noticeable divide here, one that should be addressed. But the reporters seem not to have noticed it.

    The Gay press has been covering DADT for years and has developed a narrative on the subject. Supporting the narrative are a number of facts that do not appear in the press reports. One is that the majority of discharges under DADT are women, something like 65/35. Almost all of the women report being harassed and threatened with outing by men seeking sex. This has been one of the major reasons for repealing DADT: it has a deleterious effect on military women. Translators who have completed the military courses are more likely to be Gay. From the little that we know about GLB military, they seem to be concentrated in highly technical areas. Which means each DADT discharge carries a heavy training cost with it. Beyond that, it is believed that Gay men are more likely to serve in the Navy and Marines but this is not really very clear. From large scale studies of GLBT we know that Gay men have served a slightly lower rate than the general public and Lesbians at a higher rate.

    Once DADA is repealed, people will come out. Probably surprise a lot of folks.

  • Chris

    For many reasons, the idea of having volunteer, civilian chaplains serve soldiers in a deployed setting would be unlikely to work. There is really no evidence that the present system isn’t effective and satisfying to the majority of soldiers and chaplains. Because a few chaplains and/or soldiers are not satisfied does not mean that the entire system is untenable. I suspect the retired military chaplains are warning more against the tendency to establish a “civil religion” in this matter, which is always a temptation for Congress, but also in the military. Within the military, having a set of shared values may be the greatest virtue, and I think the chaplains help protect against this being translated into the establishment of a military “religion”.

    To become a military chaplain, you and your denomination have to accept the requirement that you be “sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members and civilians who work for the Army”. The chaplain corps candidate has to be authorized/recommended by his/her denomination. (

    Lastly, the Orthodox Church seems to have no problem with these requirements. They have lots of priests on active and reserve duty. (

  • tmatt


    Nothing you have said contradicts anything in the post.

    For the Orthodox, the prayer language issue was very serious to many bishops, but not to others. That will play itself out: I would keep an eye on Metropolitan JONAH in DC. Now, the DADT changes would be a new issue, something the Orthodox bishops have not had to address yet.

  • Chris

    Wasn’t aware that my comments had to contradict anything in the post! :-)

  • del

    As to the “Code of Ethics” issue (written by a multi-faith entity – not the government), that document deals with religious liberty and accommodation, NOT sexual preferences. All chaplains assist the varied faith-groups in the military and help them “freely exercise” their religious needs. The Army calls this “provide religious support” and chaplains do this well. But, chaplains are endorsed to represent specific faith-groups. As such they “perform religious support” according to their faith-group. This means when they serve in an ecclesiastical manner (preach, teach, sacraments, etc) they must remain faithful to their endorsement – they do NOT “perform” ecumenical services if it violates their faith-group tenets. This “perform or provide” distinction has worked amazingly well for many years and enhances the First Amendment issues inherent in this subject. A repeal of DADT will affect the “perform” aspect of a chaplain’s ministry since “open homosexuality” violates many faith-group tenets…and “hate speech” and “civil rights” violations will suddenly be on the table. All one has to do is look at what’s already happening in the non-military arena insofar as homosexual-friendly litigation goes.

  • freedomnotseparation

    First, the issue at stake with DADT is that ultimately hate legislation in this country now defines intent in the action; in other words, if your words are determined by a judicial figure to be intended to harm–HATE CRIME! That is the concern of the 40 and the body that you refer to as being on speed dial. You fail to see that point. Chaplains counsel everyone regardless of their faith and their lifestyle; however, if DODT is repealed there is deep concern that chaplains will be at risk if they counsel a service member that a homosexual lifestyle is sinful. Chaplains already deal with a host of acts that fly against their faith’s morals, but this one will come with legislative power to silence the chaplains. I say again, chaplains of all faiths help all service members–espcially in the midst of combat. When counseling or when performing divine rites, they execute these duties in the manner consistent with their faith background. Anyone who suggests that they would not do so for homosexuals is wrong. Again, the concern is over their words being used as a case for discrimination or accusations of commiting a hate crime.

  • Dave

    If some Orthodox bishops come down on one side and some on the other, does this leave the individual Orthodox chaplain free to make a personal choice?

  • tmatt


    Not really. Moving from one jurisdiction to another is a complicated thing.

    Of course, this is the kind of issue — one of many — that might complicate the process of creating one united Orthodox Church in America, as required by Orthodox tradition and canon law.

  • tmatt

    Comments are closed because no one actually wants to discuss the journalism issues in how the press could cover both sides of this issue fairly and accurately.