The North American Mission Board, which certifies chaplains for the Southern Baptist Convention, has released a set of guidelines for their chaplains forbidding them from performing any same-sex weddings. Fair enough, that’s certainly expected and acceptable. But those guidelines seem to go much further than that and help reveal the importance of having humanist chaplains available to those in the military. For instance:
Southern Baptists believe that “all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality and pornography” … are condemned by Holy Scripture as sin…. Responsible pastoral care will seek to offer repentance and forgiveness, help and healing, and restoration through the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial gift of love on the cross.
But is “pastoral care” really the job of a chaplain? It is in some circumstances, of course, when a soldier shares their faith. But there are going to be many people in their units that do not share their faith and they are still expected to counsel those people. If the only thing they have to say to an atheist, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or anyone other than a Christian is “you need to get right with Jesus,” then at least for those soldiers who are not Christians their counsel may do more harm than good. At best, it’s useless; at worst, it’s divisive and damaging.
NAMB-endorsed chaplains will not conduct or attend a wedding ceremony for any same-sex couple, bless such a union or perform counseling in support of such a union, assist or support paid contractors or volunteers leading same-sex relational events, nor offer any kind of relationship training or retreat, on or off of a military installation, that would give the appearance of accepting the homosexual lifestyle or sexual wrongdoing. This biblical prohibition remains in effect irrespective of any civil law authorizing same-sex marriage or benefits to the contrary….
[NAMB-endorsed chaplains may not conduct] a service jointly with a chaplain, contractor or volunteer who personally practices a homosexual lifestyle or affirms a homosexual lifestyle or such conduct.
This goes far beyond merely saying that their chaplains can’t officiate at a same-sex wedding. They have to refuse to counsel a soldier in a same-sex marriage. A straight soldier can, and many of them undoubtedly do, come to the chaplain for counsel when they have marital problems, but the chaplain under these guidelines must refuse to counsel a gay soldier. And they can’t even conduct a service, not a wedding, with anyone who is gay or who thinks it’s okay to be gay. That’s more than a bit of an overreaction.
This all goes back to two very different conceptions of a chaplain’s job. For chaplains who are endorsed by the more fundamentalist denominations and organizations, they tend to view their job as being the same as a minister with a congregation. They think their job is to convert the people in their unit to their religion and to impose their theology upon them in everything they do. Chaplains from the more liberal denominations will tend to view their job as one of a counselor, a confidant and a sounding board. They think their job is to help meet the needs of all the people in their unit who come to them for counsel, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Imagine being an atheist in a unit with a fundamentalist chaplain. You have problems in your marriage, a moral dilemma to face, or any of the innumerable things that may cause a soldier to be troubled and seek counseling (without going to a psychologist, which will go on their official record and could prevent them from moving up in rank), but if you go to the chaplain he’s just going to tell you that you need to give your life to Christ and pray about it.
These new guidelines inadvertently provide more support for allowing humanist chaplains. Not in every unit, of course, but they should at least be available at the base or garrison level for those soldiers whose needs are not being met — cannot be met — by their unit chaplain. And when Rep. John Fleming and the other Republicans who voted to prohibit the military from allowing humanist chaplains say they support the troops, they’re lying. They only support the troops who agree with them religiously.