It was in 1775 that Gen. George Washington authorized chaplains in the Continental Army. "Purity of Morals," he wrote three years later, provided the "only sure foundation of publick happiness in any Country" and thus was "highly conducive to order, subordination and success in an Army."
"Purity of Morals" might have provided unity during the American Revolution, but chaplains face more divisive issues decades after the Sexual Revolution.
"No Catholic priest or deacon may be forced by any authority to witness or bless the union of couples of the same gender," wrote Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy Broglio, in guidelines released last month. "No Catholic priest or deacon can be obliged to assist at a 'Strong Bonds' or other 'Marriage Retreat,' if that gathering is also open to couples of the same gender. A priest who is asked to counsel non-Catholic parties in a same-gendered relationship will direct them to a chaplain who is able to assist."
The archbishop's missive followed a remarkably similar memorandum from Southern Baptist Convention leaders, including former U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains Douglas Carver, a retired two-star general. It stressed that Southern Baptist chaplains must teach that "all forms of sexual immorality," including adultery, homosexuality and pornography, are "equally destructive to healthy marital relations."
However, the document's main purpose was to offer guidance on issues emerging after Pentagon decisions to embrace same-sex marriage and to allow gays and lesbians to openly serve in the armed forces.
Southern Baptist chaplains, the guidelines stressed, could not "conduct or attend" same-sex union rites or join in counseling sessions or retreats that "give the appearance of accepting ... sexual wrongdoing."
The document also drew a stark line between the work of SBC chaplains and those representing liberal traditions, saying they should not lead worship services with any clergy member who "personally practices or affirms a homosexual lifestyle or such conduct."
While one Army manual says chaplains are not obligated to perform duties "contrary to their faith traditions, tenets and beliefs," other regulations stress that all chaplains must be willing to provide "religious support" for all personnel in their care.
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The "Chaplain Activities in the United States Army" volume notes, for example, that while chaplains "remain fully accountable to the code of ethics and ecclesiastical standards of their endorsing faith group," this does not relieve them from their duty to provide "adequate religious support to accomplish the mission."
Thus, it's significant that Army materials promoting the chaplain-led "Strong Bonds" program indicate that its mission is to help all soldiers — singles, unmarried couples and families — thrive in the "turbulence of the military environment."
It will be impossible for doctrinally conservative clergy to avoid same-gender couples and families in that context. Thus, it's time for some chaplains to quit, according to a manifesto from the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers titled "Didn't Southern Baptists Just Resign as Military Chaplains?"
"The SBC policy is encouraging because it is an honest representation of the previous unwritten anti-gay stance of the SBC ... but is discouraging in that it does not take full responsibility and resign explicitly from a military chaplaincy they clearly do not wish to partake in," said the MilitaryAtheists.org analysis.
"The policy as written may potentially be copied by other endorsing agencies who share the same view of scripture. If other agencies follow suit, potentially 50 percent of military chaplains may be affected."
Clearly, the nation's two largest churches do play crucial roles in the chaplaincy program. A mere 234 priests serve the 25 percent of all military personnel who are Catholics. The Southern Baptist Convention has more than 1,500 approved chaplains, more than any other faith group.
America's military leaders will have to decide if doctrinally conservative chaplains will be allowed to honor their religious vows or not, said the Rev. Russell Moore, leader of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a forum last week.
The current trend, Moore said, is to view chaplains as "carriers of the American civil religion, in a way that seeks to counsel and to do some religious duties but not to actually be Roman Catholics or Evangelicals or Latter-day Saints or Muslims or what have you. I think that is troubling. ... I believe in religious pluralism in the public square where everyone comes as he or she is into the public square for more dialogue and not less."