A scholar I wasn’t aware of today but am now tracking is Jacqueline E. Whit, a professor of strategy at the US Air War College and published University of North Carolina Press author, who has written a book on US chaplains in Vietnam that I very much want to read.

Recently she was a guest on the UNCP blog, offering some thoughts on how US military chaplains have adapted to the 2011 repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a Clinton-era compromise which tried to protect closeted LGBT service men and women while barring openly gay people from serving.  Under DADT, service men and women could only be investigated if there was “credible information” as to their being LGBT, as this training manual from the period illustrates.


In her post, Whitt notes that prior to the repeal of DADT, there was concern among while there was considerable concern that some military chaplains would be forced to conduct services, such as same-sex marriages, that their consciences and denominations were opposed to, or that they would be unable tp make formerly protected religious statements about the sinfulness of homosexuality.   In fact, as Whitt notes,while “there have been some reports of conservative chaplains finding new regulations challenging, it seems that the rule of law, professionalism, and military order have won the day”.  Chaplains who do not wish to participate in same-sex marriages for reasons of conscience, or whose churches forbid them from doing so, are not obliged to do so.  Whitt writes:

Consistent with military regulations and guidelines before the law’s repeal, military chaplains are not required to perform services that are contrary to the dictates or conscience of their religious affiliations, but they must commit to helping service members who seek such services or support find someone who can. Chaplains have often referred to this commitment to “cooperation without compromise” as a foundational piece of their professional identity.

Even so, there have been a variety of responses to the changing environment within the DOD with regard to human sexuality and the role of military chaplains.

As one might expect, religious groups—such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church—with strong and clear doctrinal stances on the question of homosexuality and marriage have issued strict guidelines that their chaplains not participate in services involving same-sex couples or appear to endorse gay unions in any way. Then, there are a large number of chaplains and endorsing agencies—even among those with an evangelical bent—that have taken a more moderate stance on the issues, allowing for more flexibility and local judgment on the part of military chaplains. For example, Lutheran chaplains affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America are found on both sides of the issue, as are Episcopal chaplains who may bless same-sex unions but may not perform marriages. Then, on the other side of the spectrum politically and theologically, liberal denominations are acting to endorse more military chaplains and provide broader support to military members than they have since the Vietnam War. The Unitarian Universalist church and the United Church of Christ have publicly recognized that changing attitudes and policies within the DOD have opened up new opportunities for their churches.

Of course, there are still gray areas and tensions and particulars that must be worked out—marriage retreats and counseling are one topic of special concern—but this is to be expected in a pluralistic environment where a broad range of religious practices and beliefs are included in the conversation. Because the conversations will invariably touch on issues of First Amendment protections and freedoms, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law, and the issue of discrimination on the grounds of religious belief and/or sexual orientation, the conversations are likely to be impassioned, complex, and messy. But they must happen, and they should involve religious leaders and organizations, as well as military leaders and special interest groups.

Ultimately, the issues will need to be resolved primarily through the clarification of military regulations that govern chaplains’ responsibilities and through the work of commanders to create and sustain a positive climate in which all military service members can live and work.