Military Chaplains + Their Gays

The New Way Forward

By Paul W. Dodd, Chaplain (Colonel), U.S. Army (Ret) &
Tom Carpenter, Esq. (Captain, USMC 1970-1982)

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl Samantha H Arrington/Released

On the day that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was repealed, Airman Randy Phillips, an OutServe member, posted a video of himself on YouTube “coming out” to his father. At home in Alabama, Phillips’ father responded with unconditional love.

The same day, he posted a second video “coming out” to his mother. She did not take the news as well. She talked about how God created Adam and Eve, male and female, and voiced concern about her son’s “spiritual well-being.”

Airman Phillips’ story is familiar for those struggling to reconcile personal integrity and religious upbringing. “Coming out” is seldom easy and is far more complex for many who have grown up in conservative households and churches. America has a strong and enduring religious heritage which can be traced back to pilgrim founders and puritan values.

LGBT service members and civilians alike, who have been raised in traditional communities of faith, have long experienced the sting of rejection by members of the clergy and by those who should love them most – their families and friends. Religion is often cited to justify hate crimes, bullying and bigotry. It forms the rationale for reparative therapy or transformational ministries (the pseudo-science of changing one’s sexual orientation).

Though the practice is now debunked by every major medical and mental health association in America, groups such as the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), many socially conservative churches, and some Christian therapists continue to promote interventions to “repair” homosexuals. This animus has left many LGBT people estranged from their religious roots.

The armed services have traditionally reflected the society they are sworn to defend. However, with the elimination of the draft, the military has moved to the political and cultural right, and so has the military chaplaincy. Today, partially as a result of a determined effort by some evangelical groups, chaplains endorsed by socially conservative denominations are in the majority within the military. Consequently, they exerted a significant and negative influence in the long and laborious journey to repeal DADT.

In 1993, when President Clinton tried to lift the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly, military chaplains led the opposition within the Pentagon working group. The same was true last year when the Comprehensive Review Working Group was conducting its investigation on the repeal of DADT. The chiefs of chaplains from the Army, Navy and Air Force, all from conservative denominations, were unanimous in their opposition to repeal. Their civilian allies from the Center for Military Readiness, Family Research Council, Alliance Defense Fund, Focus on the Family, Chaplains Alliance for Religious Liberty, and many denominational endorsers lobbied Congress to keep DADT and filed numerous documents opposing repeal with the Pentagon.

During the mandatory training before repeal was fully implemented, many members of OutServe reported open resistance from some of their fellow service members, including military chaplains. Often, offensive remarks were couched in religious terms, such as “my deeply held religious beliefs,” “the Bible says,” and “this is an issue of Christian morality.”

Against this backdrop, many LGBT service members have turned their backs on religion altogether. They have experienced faith used as a weapon by those who shame and shun LGBT people, who promote an agenda regarding gays as second-class citizens. Why would a gay service member even consider going to a military chaplain for support and guidance?

What about the right to religious liberty and access to welcoming and affirming military chaplains? And how can one find a safe and trusting environment on an installation where religious needs can be met? A brief history of the military chaplaincy might help answer those questions.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ronald Gutridge/Released

The concept of a military chaplaincy strains the delicate balance between religious liberty and the separation of church and state, values enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Citizens of the United States hold religious liberty to be a fundamental human right. At the same time, the establishment clause prohibits the recognition or preference of any official religion. Chaplains serving as endorsed clergy and commissioned military officers must walk that narrow and often precarious line between free exercise and religious establishment.

Other nations throughout history have long enlisted the support and services of clergy. The biblical record extols the exploits of Aaron, High Priest and brother of Moses, who served as spiritual counselor and military advisor. In the past, clergy have been called on to bless the troops, seek God’s favor, pray for the weather, mediate in times of war and peace, and even serve as sort of a rabbit’s foot for military leaders and service members. But that would hardly justify the mingling of church and state as seen in today’s military chaplaincy.

In the case of America’s military, chaplains marked their official entry into General Washington’s Continental Army on July 29, 1775. By August of that year, Washington had enlisted 15 chaplains, each earning $20 per month, the same amount earned by Judge Advocates. Since then, chaplains have continued to serve as commissioned officers in the U.S. military. The federal law entitled “Appointment of Chaplains for the Military Services” provides the legal basis for their service, a ministry grounded in their sworn duty to secure the free exercise of religion for all service members, without regard to their distinctive religious beliefs (U.S. Code Title 10, DoD 1304.19). Thus, pluralism and tolerance are built into the very fabric of a chaplain’s ministry.

The Forum on the Military Chaplaincy (the Forum), a national coalition of military chaplains, lay leaders, and advocates, has long insisted that chaplains exercise a ministry of presence for all of their troops, either performing or providing ministries in keeping with the needs of all service members. The Forum advocates for a military chaplaincy committed to free and diverse religious expression, and to the sacred traditions of personal integrity, selfless compassion, respect for others, and excellence in leadership. The Forum’s mission is in keeping with the highest traditions of military service, and assures an environment of tolerance and trust, a safe and affirming space for America’s heroes.

Some have objected to the demands of tolerance and pluralism, suggesting that the religious liberties and prerogatives of chaplains trump the duty to care for all service members, particularly service members who identify as LGBT. In a Feb. 17, 2010, letter to Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Alliance Defense Fund wrote: “Ominously, supporters of the policy change are already arguing that normalizing homosexual behavior would require chaplains to provide pastoral counsel to individuals engaged in such behavior, and that refusal to do so based on religious objections would be a ‘breach of duty,’” concluding that such would be a violation of chaplains’ religious liberty.

Groups who opposed the repeal of DADT argued that recruiting and retention would be harmed, significant numbers of chaplains would resign their posts, morale and readiness would be compromised, and the rate of HIV/AIDS would spiral out of control. According to the best information currently available from DOD, none of that has occurred. Military leadership and patriotic service members, including chaplains, have outperformed even the most optimistic forecasts for the smooth and orderly implementation of the repeal of DADT.

The negative voices were either out of touch with the high standards and values of today’s military, or they misrepresented the boots on the ground to bolster their arguments. Writing recently in the Army Times, January 12, 2012, Major General Dennis Laich, U.S. Army (Ret), asserted that repeal has been a “nonevent,” and that opponents of repeal were wrong in their dire predictions. General Laich suspects their misleading statements were “due to their personal biases, pandering to a conservative/evangelical base, or (because they were) simply out of touch with the service members they are privileged to serve.” In any case, America’s military has withstood the test, and performed with the professionalism, dignity and class we would have expected of them.

Chaplains who continue to oppose the repeal of DADT, fearful of their role in offering counseling to LGBT service members and providing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, often invoke the “free exercise clause” to advance their religious beliefs. In April 2011, RADM Mark L. Tidd, chief of chaplains of the Navy, sent guidance to members of the Navy Chaplain Corps regarding the use of military chapels for same-sex weddings. In his letter, Chaplain Tidd shared Navy legal opinions on two key issues: the use of military chapels for same-sex weddings and the right of chaplains to choose whether or not to officiate at same-sex ceremonies.

According to Navy lawyers, under the new law, military chapels must be “sexual orientation-neutral.” After significant political and denominational pressure, the Department of Defense reversed Admiral Tidd’s guidance as premature. Then, following the repeal of DADT, the Pentagon reversed itself again and announced that military chaplains would be allowed to perform same-sex ceremonies in military facilities where such marriages are recognized by state law.

In January, thirty conservative House Republicans co-sponsored HR 3828, the so-called “Military Religious Freedom Protection Act.” In addition to prohibiting the use of military facilities for same-sex weddings, according to Attorney Jeffrey Hersh, legal director for the Forum, the “bill would effectively authorize chaplains to refuse any duty or function which could conflict with their personal beliefs.” Hersh further believes “if this bill passes, it could result in service members being denied free expression of their faith, and obstruct them from religious ministries and spiritual counseling – rights which the chaplain corps is sworn to secure.”

In their Covenant and Code of Ethics, the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF), the largest agency charged with endorsing chaplain candidates for military service, affirms a pluralistic ministry for all endorsed chaplains. The Code states, “I understand as a chaplain in the United States Armed Forces that I will function in a pluralistic environment with chaplains of other religious bodies to provide for ministry to all military personnel and their families entrusted to my care.” It is a code, which most service members can support, and NCMAF should hold their member organizations accountable for honoring it as they care for America’s troops.

Army chaplains perform their ministries under the motto, “Pro Deo et Patria,” for God and country. They, like all military chaplains, have a dual allegiance. They are endorsed as clergy by their respective faith groups, and commissioned as officers in the U.S. military. They must honor their oaths of office while remaining faithful to their distinctive religious faith – no easy task! Now that DADT has been repealed and gay and lesbian troops can serve openly, a higher level of professionalism and trust will be required of all military chaplains.

Will chaplains help bring an end to bigotry and bullying, or will they object on religious grounds and foster discrimination? Will there be a collision between chaplains most concerned about their own religious freedom, and service members who demand respect and equality from their chaplains and other military leaders? Will service members, like Airman Phillips, receive support from their chaplain when difficult family issues arise, such as a mother’s concern for her son’s “spiritual well-being?”

Fortunately, there have always been chaplains who have listened, cared and offered acceptance, without bias or discrimination, to all their troops. It is our hope that such a welcoming and affirming spirit will characterize the chaplain corps as we move forward to open and equal service for America’s military.

  1. Laurel
    March 30, 2012 at 9:18 PM

    I’m the spouse of an active duty Sailor, and attend a Unitarian Universalist church. Our church is a welcoming and supportive community for many people. We had at least one openly gay military couple attending prior to the repeal of DADT, and currently have a gay minster. We would like to let service members know our community is available to them for spiritual support, but don’t really know how to get the word out.

    Even before the repeal, I felt strongly that the very conservative Chaplain corp might be less than fully prepared to serve those who need support dealing with LGBTQ issues, either at work or personally. Clearly internal changes would be ideal. In the mean time, how can inclusive religious organizations in the community help fill the gap for service members who need a spiritually safe place to seek help… or just a place to be accepted?

    I’m curious if anyone has ideas on how to approach the chapel at the base where my husband is stationed to simply identify ourselves as a resource. Does anyone think a Chaplain would “refer out,” so to speak? If not through the Chapel, how else could we let service members know we are here?

  2. trent
    March 30, 2012 at 8:52 PM

    I had this same issue when I was an Lt, I was worried that Chaplain meant “Churchified” and upon discovery that there was a supportive and controversial “underground” which was primarily run by Officers and Chaplains, I was really skeptical, but after a while, I changed my mind, I saw occasional refusal to talk to someone who had issues, and heard about some, but
    there ALWAYS was someone who was willing, did not condemn or belittle, and the frankest discussion I ever had was in a group with 2 Chaplains and about a dozen gay students and soldiers made all of us realize and sympathize a good deal more with each other, because
    what we went through from being gay, the cynicism, distrust, suspicions, all the unfair treatment we dealt with was being done to the Ministers and Chaplains for defending us.
    I think the best quote I heard stated was that our lives, and what we did was between us and God, but to refrain from supporting a fellow soldier and give him help, support and deny them the comfort of religion was failing to honor their duty as a soldier AND to God.

    In part, it was this experience that led me to become involved in Native religion, not instead of
    other beliefs, but because I realized there were people in all religions who saw a duty to others as more important than personal ideas, dependence upon dogma, and the idea that any religious organization could deny a person to believe was a ludicrous notion which condemned a persons belief as antithetical to any religion. By supporting others, you actually
    defend your own belief, and make room for everyone to belong. As soldiers, that has to be how it is, because to do less you fail them, and yourself.

    • Laurel
      March 30, 2012 at 9:20 PM

      Well said.

  3. Henry
    March 30, 2012 at 4:35 PM

    The question during my 30 years as an Army chaplain, and today, is: “Who are you there for?” I wasn’t there for God, though I am the Lord’s servant; I was there for my soldiers, for my Bible (Matt 25) said that if I served them, I served my God. My Bible also said, “By their fruits, shall you know them.” God includes and my task is to strive to do the same.

  4. March 30, 2012 at 6:30 AM

    The “Bible” wasn’t written with Gay folks in mind.

  5. Monbois
    March 29, 2012 at 2:28 PM

    Why do people want to practice a belief that demonizes them? I took my own little spiritual journey many years ago and rejected organized religion based not only on its hate-mongering of gay men and lesbians, but all the other social ills religion encourages, inspires and insists its follwers practice, from sexism to rejection of science in favor of supersticious nonsense. I’m not black, but I’ve often wondered if I were, would I choose to reject Christianity since it’s the religion my slave ancestors were forced to practice by their white masters?

    I understand the mental lock religion places on the minds of people who were raised in a certain religion, and on those who turn to religion in desperate times because no one else in the world seems to give a damn about them. I feel very fortunate that, although my parents were Christian, they didn’t attend church because of the hypocristy rampant in most congregations. (Though they did send my sister and me to Sunday School when we were very small, but that was undoubtedly just to get rid of us for an hour or so in order to make whoopie and produce my younger brother – yuck!)

    Most of today’s religions – and Chrisitanity – usually found converts at the tip of a bloodied sword. Nearly 600 years ago Muslims gave young Turks the choice of converting to Islam or having their heads severed from their bodies, and Christianity often offered the same “choice”. If a religion can’t win followers by means of its own genuineness and must force people to adhere to its rules and regulations through terror, how much could a so-called loving god be involved?

    I can’t say I’m a complete atheist because, well, I don’t want my existence to come to an end after I die. So I’m admittedly as completely selfish as the most die-hard zealots in that respect. However, I have the common sense to realize that no one – NO ONE – has any idea what comes after death, if anything. No one has ever come back from a true death where the brain has completely died and decomposition has set in, and my guess is that no matter how far science may advance, that will never be possible. If there is a god, or God, if you prefer, I doubt it has a gender or needs little cosmic pissants like us to kiss its ass and placate it in order to be happy. It would most likely be far more interested in maniuplating black holes and quasars, exploring alternate dimensions or watching Titanic in 3D before anyone else – without the annoying glasses!

    But religion? Love it or leave it? I prefer to leave it. I can sleep better knowing I’m not actively contributing to the orgianized bigotry and oppression of millions of people around the world, including myself. I say “actively” here because I don’t believe in “passive” compliance to an fucked up organization; either you support it or you don’t. If you don’t speak out against it, you’re actively supporting it.

  6. Kristina Coppinger
    March 29, 2012 at 12:37 PM

    I think it is time to do an article on chaplains who are supportive of the repeal of DADT and who look forward to the doing away with DOMA. I for one fit in that camp.

    • Laurel
      March 30, 2012 at 9:02 PM

      Monbois – I felt similarly to the sentiments you expressed until recently. I am very grateful to have found a religious organization based on principles rather than dogma, which values the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It a very unique religion which supports a personal search for truth, a welcoming community (welcoming of all people, both straight and LGBTQ) and a democratic process in its governance.

      You’re right – a lot of organized religion out there sucks, but I think Unitarian Universalism is the answer to many of your very legitimate objections to organized religion.

      If your curiosity is aroused, Google the 7 principles of Unitarian Universalism. You might be pleasantly surprised that there are other people out there who feel the way you do, but who have chosen to reject traditional organized religion, and create something amazingly fair, rational and compassionate. At least I have been pleasantly surprised. I’d given up hope that there was a “church” (and I use that term loosely here) where people realized there is no difference between “divinely revealed truth” and that truth which someone figured out the old fashioned way – empirically.

      Being “evangelical” sort of goes against the UU grain, but I smiled reading your post because I so strongly agree with 99% of your words, except where you say:
      “But religion? Love it or leave it? I prefer to leave it. I can sleep better knowing I’m not actively contributing to the orgianized bigotry and oppression of millions of people around the world, including myself.” I challenge you to consider that there are religious groups working for just what you say you want. Fairness, justice, dignity, acceptance. Ya just gotta find the religion that welcomes people who think like you, like we, do. Go look it up. You’ll be surprised.

      I’d welcome your thoughts on this.


    • Tom Carpenter
      March 31, 2012 at 10:54 AM

      Kristina: Could you please contact me at your earliest convenience so we can explore your idea further? tom

  7. trent
    March 29, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    When I was an LT in the Army National Guard, we had a group of Gay members who did their best to influence sense,… It was lead by three Chaplains, and when I was brought into an “Inner Circle” I found they had over 650 supporters, no computer records, all meetings were in person,
    and, to my surprise, it was supported by mostly intelligence units, medical units, and run by Chaplains.

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