The Military Chaplaincy in Crisis?

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court  overturned  the Defense of Marriage Act–a decision that redefines marriage. For those who hold to the traditional understanding of marriage, this has dire consequences. They argue that marriage is a union of male and female, and its purpose is for procreation and the nurturing of families. It is the fundamental building block of human society. All societies of all times have seen this, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, animist, or atheist. Yes, some have allowed for multiple wives, but the basic fact of it being a relationship between men and women for procreation has not been questioned until our era. Thus the conservative argument is that this is not a religious issue, but a fundamental question of human nature and biology.

The Supreme Court did not overturn all state laws on marriage, but its actions have affected all federal agencies, including the United States military. Same-sex partners are to get spousal benefits. Chapels are  to be open to same-sex ceremonies. Marriage retreats such as Strong Bonds are to be open to same-sex couples. These all impact the ministry of chaplains, who are both military officers, with responsibility to provide for the religious needs of all soldiers, and religious leaders, with responsibility to their endorsing agents.

The Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics (among others) have issued policy statements instructing their chaplains not to lead retreats that same-sex couples attend, not to participate in same-sex services, and not to participate in services with chaplains who approve of these unions. A chaplain of these denominations would lose his endorsement if he violated his endorser’s policy. Denominations that accept these unions, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have no problem with the military policy; but I wonder, would the ELCA defend a chaplain who stood his ground in favor of traditional marriage?

The guidance of the Army Chief of Chaplains is to remind its chaplains that they are to ensure that all soldiers are treated with dignity and respect, and that all soldiers are able to exercise their Title X and First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion. Also, under AR 165-1, that chaplains cannot be forced to do ceremonies or worship services contrary to the teachings of their endorser. Also, that chaplains are to “cooperate without compromise” and “perform or provide.”

Some chaplains struggle with this, however. They don’t see homosexuality as equivalent to providing for a Catholic mass or a Muslim prayer service. When someone comes to a chaplain confessing a sin, can that chaplain provide spiritual counsel (repent, and believe the gospel), or must he refer that moral issue to a chaplain who will tell the person that they have not sinned and should be proud of themselves for who they are?

Chaplains are reminded that they can do nothing prejudicial to good order and discipline. How do they preach about marriage? How do they counsel sinners to repent? There’s a lot of grey area here, that different commanders could handle differently–and that can be cause for concern.

A 2010 letter from the Adventist endorser to a DOD working group strikes a good balance, I think, in terms of what our approach should be. I support this approach.

But at the same time, these other unanswered questions give me concern as I consider the future. I’m reminded of a book written a few years ago by Keith Philips and Karl Tsatalbasidis, I Pledge Allegiance: The Role of Seventh-day Adventists in the Military (2007), which questioned whether Adventists could serve in the military without compromise. By performing ministry under the authority of the state, are we putting ourselves in an inherently untenable situation, that grows more problematic as we draw closer to the final days of earth’s history? The questions surrounding marriage are but one issue–what others might arise?  I had serious moral issues with our government’s role in the conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala. That entered into my decision to leave the military in the mid-1990s. It’s a perennial question: How  do chaplains speak to moral issues that put the chaplain in conflict with US policy or military conduct? Will the chaplain follow the lead of the military with docility, remaining silent “for good order and discipline,” or will he speak up, and risk the loss of rank or career (or even imprisonment)? These were questions asked of us when I was a student in the Chaplain Officer Basic Course many years ago. They remain relevant today, in garrison and on the battlefield.

Please pray for all our chaplains and our service members.