The United Church of Christ congregation that I serve is not too far from the Army base at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. Because of our proximity to the Air Force Chaplain Corps College housed there we often get chaplain students attending our services. It’s part of their training to get off the base and attend church services of denominations that they may not otherwise experience.
A uniformed young man showed up at one of our services recently and, as part of his assignment, interviewed me on the policies and polity of the UCC after service. Since he was asking a lot of questions, I decided to ask him one. This was before Congress finally overturned the 17-year-old policy during their lame duck session last December.
The religious right claims the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would jeopardize the religious freedom of chaplains who believe homosexuality is sinful, so I wanted to ask a living, breathing chaplain what he thought about that claim.
“Well,” he began, “we serve whoever comes to us. I don’t think it will be a big deal. There may be some who will have a problem with it, but we’re trained to treat it like any other sin.” He must have seen me roll my eyes involuntarily.
“I don’t know much about the UCC,” he admitted, “but I take it your church doesn’t believe it’s a sin.”
I told him no, the UCC fully accepts gays and lesbians and is the only mainline Protestant denomination to have passed a resolution in support of full marriage equality. “Well,” he said, backtracking a bit, “I still don’t think it will cause a problem.”
But, his attitude is part of the growing problem within the military. The chaplain corps is overflowing with conservative evangelicals:
Even though just 3 percent of the military’s enlisted personnel and officers call themselves Southern Baptist, Pentecostal, or some form of evangelical, 33 percent of military chaplains are members of one of those groups, according to Pentagon statistics.
And the disparity could soon widen: Data from the Air Force indicate that 87 percent of those seeking to become chaplains are enrolled at evangelical divinity schools.
The source of the problem is fairly obvious—more liberal-leaning mainline denominations have an uneasy, if not contentious, relationship with the armed forces. Eden Theological Seminary President Rev. David Greenhaw acknowledged that problem even as the school—which is associated with UCC—launches its own chaplaincy program, focusing on being ecumenical as well as interfaith.
The news is welcome, coming on the heels of complaints last year by some servicemembers that they were punished for not attending a Christian concert at Fort Eustis in Virginia.
An influx of more liberal chaplains may bring more tolerance into the armed services as the Pentagon gets ready to enact the lifting of DADT—but a gander at the coming elections in 2012 reveals the fight over the policy is far from over.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer on his radio show that he would re-enact the ban on gay servicemembers if he’s elected president.
So, while the movement toward acceptance of gays and lesbians—and more liberal form of religion—in the armed services is a good sign, the victories here are still fragile and continue to be the subject of coming battles.