Baptists military population impacts gay debate

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service

(RNS) In many religious circles, the repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay members is considered practically a done deal. But Southern Baptists, who have many more active-duty military chaplains than any other denomination, are not giving up without a fight.  The Southern Baptist Convention is battling the expected repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell on a number of fronts: its agencies are contacting Congress and the Pentagon, retired chaplains are sending letters to President Obama, and a resolution likely to be adopted at the denomination’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., this week (June 15-16), condemns allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

“If a policy makes it more difficult—in fact, discourages—one of the groups that provides one of the largest numbers of chaplains to the military from continuing to engage in chaplaincy ministry, that should raise significant concerns for them about the … spiritual well-being of our men and women in uniform,” said Barrett Duke, vice president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

With about 16 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the country’s largest Protestant denomination, but falls well short of the Catholic Church’s 68 million members.

But whereas the Catholic Church has 252 active-duty chaplains, the Southern Baptist Convention has 448—the most in the military. There are about 3,000 active-duty chaplains overall.

The number of active-duty personnel who say they are Southern Baptist is far smaller than the number of Roman Catholics, but there is no quota system for chaplains. Chaplains serve members of all faiths, rather than solely troops of their denomination.

More liberal denominations with much smaller numbers of military chaplains worry that Southern Baptists might be more influential in the gay debate.

“We have some concerns about that, sure,” said the Rev. John Gundlach, a retired Navy chaplain who serves as minister for government chaplaincy for the United Church of Christ, which had 17 military chaplains as of March, according to the Defense Department.

Gundlach’s denomination joined other groups like the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalists and the Alliance of Baptists, in writing to Congress earlier this spring saying “this policy of government-sanctioned discrimination is morally wrong.”

Southern Baptist leaders have warned their chaplains may have to leave the military if Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell is repealed. Even their allies aren’t willing to go that far.

Archbishop Timothy Broglio, leader of the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA, has urged Congress not to repeal the current policy. But John Schlageter, general counsel for the archdiocese, said there are no plans to remove Catholic chaplains if the repeal occurs.

“We don’t think that the free exercise would be that restricted that we have to pull out,” he said, referring to the constitutional principle of freely exercising religious freedom.

The House of Representatives voted in late May for the repeal and the Senate could consider it later this month. If both houses of Congress pass the repeal, it would not go into effect until a Defense Department review is completed by Dec. 1 and President Obama and top military officials determine it won’t harm military readiness or retention.

Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said the review panel’s mission “is not to engage in a debate about whether to repeal the law” but rather to learn how it might affect service members and their families.

Asked if a large group like the Southern Baptists might have more influence than others, Smith said: “Our review is going to be thorough and very objective.”

Southern Baptists, who say their presence in the military chaplaincy totals 1,300 chaplains when Reserve and National Guard units are included, have told Congress and the Pentagon that chaplains could lose their freedom to preach and counsel against homosexuality if openly gay members are accepted by the military.

“For instance, a chaplain could be told there are certain passages of the Scripture that you shouldn’t preach from,” said the Rev. David Mullis, the Southern Baptists’ military chaplaincy coordinator. “If there was a prohibition about certain kinds of literature that did not espouse homosexuality, I can see the Bible being banned in the military.”

Neither military officials nor Baptists could pinpoint why the Southern Baptist Convention has far more chaplains than other denominations. But retired Army Chaplain Herman Keizer, who once served as the European Command chaplain, said the number of Southern Baptist chaplains has increased with the shortage of Roman Catholic priests in the military and reduced participation by mainline Protestants after the Vietnam War.

Also, he said, some seminaries have attracted second-career students who are too old for the chaplaincy whereas Southern Baptist and other evangelical seminaries continue to draw younger clergy candidates.

Keizer, who has endorsed chaplains for the Christian Reformed Church, said he doesn’t think Bibles will be removed from military chapels and he doubts most Southern Baptists would leave if the repeal is put in place.

“They’re dedicated enough to the whole notion of evangelism that they’re not going to abandon a mission field,” he said.

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