DADT and last rites; chaplaincy questions (again)

In the wake of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a few mainstream journalists are still trying to get a handle on what happens next with issues of religious liberty in the U.S. military.

For example, I had a conversation with a national-level religion reporter or two the other day and the conversations started with the following kind of statement: “You know, we can’t find religious leaders who are going to pull their chaplains if ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is repealed. There really isn’t a story there.”

Of course not. That was never the issue.

The issue has always been what, if anything, happens to culturally conservative chaplains — most Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Southern Baptists, Muslims, evangelical and high-church Anglicans, Pentecostals, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc. — after repeal. I have not seen a single statement saying that mere repeal would cause an exodus. Note carefully what two prominent leaders actually said, in letters to military leaders about this issue (as quoted in my Scripps Howard column on this topic):

If “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed, “no restrictions or limitations on the teaching of Catholic morality can be accepted,” noted Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military Services. While Catholic chaplains must always show compassion, they “can never condone — even silently — homosexual behavior.”

A letter from Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America to the chaplains board was even more blunt: “If our chaplains were in any way … prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as ‘prejudice’ or the denunciation of homosexuality as ‘hate language,’ or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service.”

Obviously, the flip side of this coin applies for the left, with many Lutherans, Presbyterians, mainstream Episcopalians, United Church of Christ clergy, American Baptists, Reform Jews and others having every right to express the pro-gay rights views that have been adopted by their church establishments (if not all of their congregations).

So while most of the mainstream press coverage (sample Washington Post report here) moves on to the next round of DADT politics (look for hearings on many implementation issues, including treatment of chaplains, in the new House of Representatives) it helps for religion-beat reporters to realize that the chaplaincy issue has not been settled.

As I stated not that long ago, it’s crucial to realize that the debates about the rights and responsibilities of military chaplains are decades old and certainly did not start with DADT. For years, most of the controversy came from secularists who — with good cause — feared the creation of a state-mandated, even if lowest-common-denominator religion funded with tax dollars.

For example: How many Wiccans are in the military? Quite a few. Where do they serve? Now, how many Wiccan chaplains are there? Maybe one? Where do they serve? One location, if any. How has that worked out? Not very well.

How many Wiccans feel comfortable with a Pentecostal pastor, a Muslim imam, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an evangelical Lutheran or anyone from another faith leading their rites (if they are allowed to do so under their own vows)? Now, many forms of pagan faith do not have formal ordination procedures (while some do). Who approves the appointment of a layperson as a chaplain? How do a small circle of pagan chaplains serve believers on bases spread out around the world?

This is an extreme example, in terms of the numbers, but the principles are what matter. Some chaplains simply cannot serve as substitutes for others. Some can. Some cannot. A liberal Episcopalian might make a grand substitute for a liberal United Methodist. She would make a poor substitute for a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an Eastern Orthodox priest or an imam, a Southern Baptist pastor, etc., etc.

Yet that is the policy and church-state experts on the left and the right are going to have their own reasons for feeling tense. Here are the facts, as stated in that excellent report that I recently praised:

“Some feared repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell might limit their individual freedom of expression and free exercise of religion, or require them to change their personal beliefs about the morality of homosexuality,” the report says. “The views expressed to us in these terms cannot be downplayed or dismissed.” But, it said, “Service members will not be required to change their personal views and religious beliefs; they must, however, continue to respect and serve with others who hold different views and beliefs.”

The same holds true for the military’s chaplain service, the report says. “Chaplains, in the context of their religious ministry, are not required to take actions inconsistent with their religious beliefs, but must still care for all Service members,” it says.

As I said before, the key is how military leaders and lawyers for activist groups choose to define the word “care.”

Care could mean someone saying, “Under my ordination vows, I honestly have a conflict of interest in offering the help that you are requesting or affirming key details of your beliefs. However, I will do everything I can to get you in contact with a clergy person representing your faith or a chaplain who is acceptable to you.” That is painful and awkward, obviously, but people of good will could make it work. Then again, improper “care” could mean an openly gay Catholic turning in his or her priest who advocates the teachings of the church in a sermon, a chat over coffee or even, heaven forbid, during confession.

Let me stress that the codes guiding the chaplains have long stated that they are allowed freedom of conscience AND they are expected to care for all. The tensions have been there for some time, on the doctrinal left and the right. It is hard to have the state govern the acts and consciences of women and men — on the left and on the right — who have taken vows to a higher power. The conflicts have been real — before DADT.

So what does this look like in practice? Over at USA Today, veteran religion Cathy Lynn Grossman offered these scenarios at the Faith & Reason weblog:

If your loved one in uniform were wounded or dying, would you be all right with a chaplain at his or her side who withheld comforting prayers because your loved one is gay?

What if the chaplain’s view was that the most loving thing he could do would be to offer the evangelical vision of Christian truth that the chaplain believes is the only path to heaven?

That’s a perfect statement of half of the equation.

First, I cannot imagine any chaplain withholding prayers of comfort to a soldier in that circumstance. Notice that Grossman assumed that the gay soldier is not an evangelical of some kind. It is also assumed that the gay soldier is sexually active, as opposed to a celibate gay who affirms centuries of traditional Christian doctrines on faith and marriage. There are all kinds of variations here.

But let’s assume that this is a gay soldier who is secular or from a progressive flock that fully affirms homosexuality in all expressions. Then let’s assume that her chaplain is an outspoken Southern Baptist. The potential is there for the chaplain to voice offensive doctrines, right? And another chaplain may be miles away. Or the chaplain may be an Orthodox or Catholic priest who can offer words of comfort, but perhaps not the precise words of comfort sought by the soldier and his or her companion or companions (in the sense of friends who are with them at that moment).

Was proper “care” given? Is “care,” in this case, defined by the military or the body that ordained the chaplain? Or is “care” defined by the family of the fallen?

Now, the dying soldier is Hindu or a member of another polytheistic faith and the chaplain is Muslim.

Now, the dying soldier is a traditional Roman Catholic and the chaplain is Southern Baptist, a female Episcopal priest, a Reform rabbi, a Unitarian, a Pentecostal pastor (who rejects Catholicism), etc. etc. Who says the last rites and offers a final blessing or the Eucharist?

Now, the dying soldier is a Southern Baptist and the chaplain is a Mormon.

Now, the dying soldier is a Muslim and the chaplain is Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Wiccan, etc. etc.

Grossman’s scenario is perfectly valid and raises questions that should trouble all people of good will. But the variations on this scenario go on and on, don’t they?

That’s the story. The concerns on left and right are valid.

What are the options? They are three:

(1) Find some way to end the chaplaincy program (under the assumption that if equal access is not possible, then closing down the chaplaincy program is the only legal option that is fair to all).

(2) Allow clergy to serve without violating their ordination vows (with the knowledge that, even when working with people of good will, this imperfect system will cause tensions and accusations of “hate speech”).

(3) The establishment of state-mandated and government-funded religious rites and rules of conduct of chaplains, mandating that expressions of the beliefs of many clergy are acceptable and that expressions of opposing beliefs are not acceptable. Some chaplains would argue that option (3) is already in place, but it is inconsistently enforced.

So what is the next wrinkle in the story? Congressional debates about freedom of conscience and the meaning of the word “care.” Stay tuned.

TOP PHOTO: Image from the U.S. Air Force website.

Print Friendly

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.

  • Harris

    I think one part of the answer may lie in Ross Douthat’s column this morning. Douthat highlights the loss of cultural weight on the part of Christian America. To the degree that this is so, then the unmooring of chaplaincies would seem to be difficult to resist.

  • Judy Harrow

    Hi, TMatt and all

    I’m guessing I’m the first Wiccan to read this post, and hoping somebody more knowledgeable will respond soon. Meanwhile, here are at least some preliminary answers to some of your questions:

    I don’t know how many Wiccans are currently in the military, nor where they are stationed. Given that many Wiccans and other Pagans feel uncomfortable letting their beliefs be knows, I doubt that anybody does. However, some Wiccans and Pagans have chosen to identify as such on their dog tags, etc., so I’m sure the military has at least a partial count.

    There are no — zero — Wiccan or other Pagan chaplains.

    No chaplain is required or expected to perform the actual rituals of any religion other than their own. On smaller bases, there may be only one chaplain present, but it’s really unlikely that everybody there will be of that chaplain’s faith group. Chaplains are expected to facilitate the logistics of all religious practice — reserving a meeting room, providing needed supplies, that sort of thing — and to offer support and counsel for any who request this.

    Service members can and do organize their own worship and study groups — and there are many such Pagan circles around the world. These groups are facilitated by volunteers, who are called “Distinctive Faith Group Liaisons.” Besides what they do within the group, these people are responsible for interacting with the local chaplain concerning logistics, as I mentioned above. Larger bases will have interfaith councils (not sure that’s the term then use), where DFGLs and chaplains of many faiths meet to discuss topics of mutual interest.

    I’ve heard from many Wiccan military members about good interactions with open-minded and compassionate chaplains of many other faith groups. This seems to be the far predominant, though sadly not universal, experience.

    (and, indeed, I have had some friendly and open interactions with the chaplain at the Catholic hospital where I receive dialysis.)

    Again, I hope that others will add more specific details and correct any mistakes I may have made.

    Blessed Solstice to all!

  • dalea

    Everything that Judy said, from another Wiccan.

    From what I have read and heard, Wiccan practices are constrained in the military. Swords and knives can not have sharp blades. People must wear clothing. No bonfires allowed. Difficult to bring food to share, people who live in barracks don’t have refrigerators, cupboards or stoves.

    One problem is that Wicca does not have a class of full time professional clergy. We probably could not get much agreement of what would constitute training for such a position. Add to that the idea that all Wiccans particpate actively in the service, there are no congregants. The central feature of Wicca is the Circle. We really don’t believe things as much as we have rituals and practices. From practice we gain experiences and insight. A religion in which the members agree on very little of the abstract matters usually talked about in theology presents problems for the military. Plus Wicca varies depending on location: Samhain in the Northern Hemisphere is Beltane in the Southern Hemisphere. This is something Naval Wiccans face.

    FWIW most military Wiccans I have met have been Navy.

  • tmatt


    I would say that this is rooted in the loss of “civic tolerance,” the belief that all religions are equal in the eyes of the state.


    There was a chaplain at Ft. Hood a few years ago who, I believe, was identified as a Druid. Then there was the celebrated case of the Pentecostal chaplain who switched to Wicca. There was prejudice involved, of course, but he also lost his sponsoring denomination and, thus, had to find a new one. Did that happen?


    The lack of denominational structure, as I told Judy, would make it very hard to be accepted as a military chaplain.

  • Judy Harrow

    Hi, TMatt

    1. There’s a years-old Circle at Fort Hood, facilitated by a DFGL, not a chaplain. Although their presence there was attacked by bigots who were neither in the military nor in the local area, they have survived and thrived. It was my great pleasure to be at Fort Hood for their tenth anniversary celebration, a few years ago.

    2. The chaplain who lost his endorsement has not found another endorser, and is now serving in the military in another capacity. This despite the fact that he always had excellent ratings until the point where his beliefs changed.

  • tmatt


    The law states that he must have an endorser. Could come group of pagans FORM such an association?

  • tmatt

    Spiking away, killing the posts that exist simply to bash others. Please deal with the journalism issues, folks.

  • DannyK

    … In my experience as an Army veteran, most military chaplains are more concerned with helping service members than in confronting them about their apostasy — with some exceptions. I fully expect that most military chaplains will continue to help first and insist on orthodoxy second, regardless of this new policy.

  • Dr. David L. Oringderff

    TMatt and all …

    Chaplains are professional branch officers, like doctors and lawyers. Unlike doctors and lawyers, chaplains do not have state boards to certify their professional competence. All they have is the signature of their Endorser, and the endorser can withdraw that signature on a whim, and the chaplain is out of a job. That was the case with Chaplain (CPT) Don Larsen in 2006. His endorser, through the back-door, old-boy network in the Army Chief of Chaplains Office learned that Don was seeking to change his endorsement to the Sacred Well Congregation. Don, at the time of his decision to change endorsers, was serving as a distinguished Battalion Chaplain of a combat aviation unit in Iraq. Within 24 hours Don’s endorsement was withdrawn, he was no longer a chaplain, and he was packing to return to the States over the protests of his supervising chaplains, commander, and the troops that he served. (Don was a lucky one—he was a line officer prior to his appointment as chaplain, so he was able to pick back up his line commission). This same endorser has been known to withdraw a chaplain’s endorsement for “insufficient tithing.” This endorser, and other rogue endorsers in his camp, thankfully, are in the minority. …

    Judy was entirely correct, there are no chaplains in any component who are endorsed by a Wiccan or pagan faith group. There are no Wiccan or pagan organizations who have attained the status of Ecclesiastical Endorsing Agent (EEA). The Sacred Well Congregation has been engaged in a concerted effort to secure EEA status since 1998. We have come close three times, and are probably better suited than any other organization to become an EEA. And within the next two-three years we will probably have a chaplain serving under our endorsement.

    As far as numbers, getting an accurate count is problematic, and there is not too much of an effort on the part of the services to better track numbers of the myriad of faith groups. Military personnel have always been able to specify any religious preference on their dog tags. I had “WiCCA” on my dog tags for my last fifteen years of active duty. However, you do not gather statistics from dog tags; statistics are gathered from official military personnel records. Under the old, manual system one could specify just about anything as a religious preference. Under the automated personnel records system that was instituted in the 1990’s, data fields were severely restricted. Basically one could specify “Catholic” “Protestant” “Jewish” “Other” or “No Religious Preference.” The codes were gradually expanded , and through the efforts of one Wiccan personnel officer at the Pentagon, “Wicca” was added to the Air Force coding system in 2003; the other services soon followed. Still, people are sometimes reluctant to declare a non-mainstream faith on their official records. Notwithstanding this reluctance, according to a Jan 18, 2010 article in the Air Force Times: “In the Air Force, Wicca—witchcraft—is the largest non-Christian faith with 1,434 followers. The breakdown of other religious minorities: 1,271 Buddhists; 1,148 Jews; 678 Muslims; and 190 Hindus.” And I expect this number to grow in the next few years. The Sacred Well Congregation sponsors and provides for the Basic Military Training Wicca Faith Group at Lackland, AFB. Trainees cannot leave the base for religious services, so religious services have to be brought to them. And we do, 52 weeks a year, with an average attendance of 200 trainees; I led a Samhain ritual there last year (09) and we had 356 trainees in attendance.

    Dalea, as far as “constrained,” really that has not been too much of an issue, and we have been working with the military on religious accommodation matters since 1996. We provide Denominational Sponsorship and Lay-Leader Endorsement to 36 military circles world-wide. All services are represented, but the preponderance are Army and Air Force; we have seven circles in Southwest Asia, and one aboard ship. In 2009, total attendance at all Sacred Well Congregation programs, services and events was over 32,000. I would have to look at our Combined Federal Campaign application for the exact numbers.

    Weapons cannot be kept in barracks; personal athames and other blades of personnel residing in barracks or dorms, when not in use for religious purposes, must be kept in the arms room, or left in the custody of the chaplain. Personnel who don’t live in a barracks/dormitory environment can keep them in their quarters. The only issue we have ever had with blades occurred a few years ago on an Army installation. A young soldier was walking home from ritual very late one night, probably had too much ale with cakes and ale, was dressed in Renn Fair outfit, and had a 36-inch claymore slung over his shoulder. He got very irate when the MPs wanted to know what he was doing walking around post at 0200 hours, inebriated, and with a very large sword on his back. Common sense can go a long way in avoiding unpleasant issues.

    When there is not a burn-ban in effect, bonfires are routinely used at Sabbats at the outdoor stone circle at Fort Hood. Just as I was leaving the Free-Exercise of Religion conference last month at the Air Force Academy, the Engineers were installing a propane fueled fire pit in the stone circle on the hill adjacent to the Cadet Chapel.
    All of our military circles are Open Circles—anyone can attend and often people of other faiths and chaplains and chaplains assistants attend our Religious Education programs and celebrations. So some practices appropriate for a closed coven environment may not be appropriate for open circles. And PUBLIC nudity is banned on all military installations. It would be construed as violating “good order and discipline.”

    TMatt (or anyone else who has an interest): my post was a bit long-winded, so if you want more specific details about the Chaplain Larsen travesty, the Barr Wars (1999) at Fort Hood, or our experiences working with the military, please contact me through

  • Hector

    The whole bit about giving last rites to dying soldiers seems a bit silly to me.

    My understanding of church policy towards, for example, divorced-and-remarried Catholics, is that while they aren’t allowed to receive the Eucharist, they are allowed to receive last rites. Because your views on the morality of divorced people having sex, a dying person isn’t going to be having sex with anyone anytime soon. They’re dying, after all.

    Why wouldn’t the same apply for a RC chaplain giving the last rites to a dying gay soldier?

  • dalea

    What fascinates me about this press coverage is that it remains divorced from what we know about GL people in the military. The Gay press has covered the subject in depth for years, but this has apparently made no impression outside GL circles.

    From the DADT discharges, we know that over 60% are women, who do not serve in combat. Yet the press focuses on the much smaller male contingent, as seen above. What the Gay press has pieced together is that Gay men tend to be concentrated in the Navy and Air Force. And are most likely to be in medical or highly technical forces. One tv program this weekend pointed out that over 10% of translators had been discharged under DADT. Many of the Lesbian discharges have been of nurses.

    So, a more plausible scenario of the repeal is this: socially conservative chaplains may find problems in working with wounded soldiers as LG nurses and aides cut off their access or severely limit the time available. I suspect that the UCC chaplains will have a lot of support from the medical staff; the SBC not so much.

    Why the press does not deal with the facts on ground amazes me. Repealing DADT will have a much greater influence on military women than men.

  • mb

    It’s amazing to me how many are quick to offer the disbanding of the military chaplaincy. It has existed longer than the US Constitution. George Washington supported the creation of military chaplaincy for the Continental Army. Additionally, the First Amendment protects all Americans and their free exercise of religion and prevents the government from establishing a state religion. These two complimentary religious protections mean our nation’s warriors can worship according to their individual faith convictions. Thus, chaplains exists to meet the spiritual and pastoral care needs of those who have volunteered to serve.
    I disagree with the third option’s comment “The establishment of state-mandated and government-funded religious rites and rules of conduct of chaplains, mandating that expressions of the beliefs of many clergy are acceptable and that expressions of opposing beliefs are not acceptable. Some chaplains would argue that option (3) is already in place, but it is inconsistently enforced.” I’ve been a chaplain for a very long time. I know of no establishment of state-mandated and government-funded religious rites and rules. I do know of chaplains desires to be sensitive to those present in any group when a public prayer is offered. When I offer those prayers, I am simply respecting the diversity of the group while I pray to my own God.
    Regarding the second option, show me any human system that is perfect and is void of being a target of accusations of those who disagree. Military chaplains have an extensive history of providing for the needs of our military members who are different from their own faith background. While no organization is ever perfect, the military chaplaincy is made up of very dedicated men and women who work very long hours taking care of the spiritual and emotional needs of others. Through their listening and caring, many problems never come to light because of their preventative care of others.
    Military chaplain numbers are severely limited so each chaplain quickly learns to operate within the boundaries of their own faith tradition and their conscience while focusing on meeting the many spiritual needs of others. If chaplains cannot do it personally, then they typically do their very best to find a way for that need to be met by another. I don’t have to agree with a person’s theological or behavioral practices to listen to their issues and to help them develop a plan of action that works best for them.

    I’ve worked with many individuals over the years whose attitudes or behaviors I had disagreement with but could easily seek to meet their emotional, relational, or spiritual needs. Even with that disagreement, I was able to serve them as a chaplain. For instance, I’ve provide counsel to many who were in adulterous affairs. I don’t have to approve of the adultery in my caring of the individual. Equally, I don’t have to approve of a gay lifestyle in my caring of the individual. God certainly disagreed with my own behavior when He loved me in a demonstrative way! I find that most chaplains follow that model of caring.

  • tmatt


    And your denominational affiliation?

    Sounds like you are pretty content in option 3.

    The new report says that an EO (equal opportunity complain) is an option if a soldier is offended by a sermon in which a chaplain defends his or her church’s teachings on marriage, even in a voluntary service organized by members of that denomination.

    This does not sound like an option 3 state-mandated doctrinal code to you? This EO would not hurt a chaplain’s career?

    We are veering far into issues that should be covered, with attribution, in balanced coverage of the views of both sides, in the mainstream press — not on comment boards.

  • Dave

    Tmatt, comment #6. Organizing an endorsing agency may be on some Pagans’ “to do” list for the future. At the present Pagan organizations apart from liturgical tend to focus on gaining basic rights. That nice photograph of Abraham Kooiman’s headstone with the Pentagram on it — it was a TEN YEAR struggle to get that right, which is usually granted to minority religious groups in under a year. The same Pagan organization is now addressing denial of Pagan’s rights to prison chaplaincy. I’m sure we’ll get around to endorsing agencies once we’ve cleared up some of the clutter.

  • SouthCoast

    The establishment of state-mandated and government-funded religious rites and rules of conduct of chaplains…” Would this not be unconstitutional? Establishment, etc.

  • C Harper

    Two points of fact for clarification, one addressed to the article itself and one to comment 13 by tmatt
    1. Not all Lutherans have abandoned traditional Scriptural teaching regarding homosexuality. Only the ELCA has within America. To lump all Lutherans together is disingenuous.
    2. The recommendation in fact does not offer the option of filing an EO complaint against the sermonic content of a chaplain or any other ecclesiastical action he/she might conduct. In fact, the recommendation explicitly states the content of a sermon cannot be ground for an EO complaint.