The letter sent to President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates by a group retired chaplains begging for retention of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell is not exactly a testament to intellectual honesty. The chaplains–evangelicals and other conservative Protestants–are exercised that if the military “normalizes homosexual behavior” it will impinge upon their own religious liberty. But as they are well aware, clergy don’t enjoy the same degree of religious liberty when they’re employed by the military as they do as civilians. There are rules limiting proselytizing, for example, and although these have always stuck in the craw of evangelical chaplains anxious to exercise the Great Commission, they have had to abide by them. If they can’t, then they can always pursue their calling outside the confines of military service.
Deep into the letter, the signatories do admit that military chaplains only have their jobs by virtue of the need to enable other service personnel to exercise their own right of religious free exercise. The letter goes on to claim that limiting chaplains’ religious freedom will limit the free exercise rights of “the men and women in uniform who share their faith and rely on their instruction.” Why? Because it says so.
The truth is that by not forbidding it American society “normalizes” what a lot of religious folks consider sinful behavior: divorce, extramarital sex, alcohol consumption, dancing, gambling, abortion. It’s simply necessary for Americans to recognize that the norms of civil society are not necessarily the same as the norms of their particular faith. And that goes for the military portion of civil society as well.
It’s pretty clear, however, that the chaplains are angling for something other than the retention of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. For decades, evangelicals have resented the limits the military has imposed on their chaplains. (See Anne Loveland’s fine 1996 study, American Evangelicals andthe U.S. Military, 1942-1993.) During the recent Bush Administration, the restraints loosened considerably, and (most notoriously at the Air Force Academy) an evangelical regime began to take hold. Under the Obama Administration, however, things have headed back the other way.
What the signatories–many of whom are associated with the International Association of Evangelical Chaplains–really want is congressional legislation giving them a freer hand to do their thing than the current rules permit. That’s why they write, at the end of their letter, “At the very least, though, Congress should include comprehensive and robust religious liberty protections in any sort of policy change.” I can’t wait to see the proposed language.