Get ready. Big changes are coming to the United States military. Congress seems poised to pass legislation that would call for the elimination of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy put in place in 1993. With the support of the Obama administration, and with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, it appears that the official normalization of homosexuality within the U.S. armed forces may take place sometime this summer, after the completion of a Pentagon review.
Last Thursday, the House of Representatives voted 234 to 194 to repeal the policy. That same day, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 16 to 12 to change the policy. A full Senate vote is expected this month.
Discharges from the U.S. armed forces for homosexual activity date back to the Revolutionary War, and until 1993 the services operated under a policy that identified homosexuality as “incompatible with military service.”
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a compromise policy put into place after newly elected President Bill Clinton failed to persuade Congress and the military command to lift all restrictions on the service of homosexuals in the armed forces. According to the policy, service personnel would not be asked about their sexual orientation, but if a homosexual orientation became a known issue, the individual could be discharged from the armed forces. From 1993 onward, homosexual activists have seen the removal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a major policy objective. Now, they are very close to seeing that objective realized.
Their efforts have been greatly assisted by a documented change in the public’s understanding of the issue. Within a very short span of years, a massive shift in public attitudes has taken place. Though responses to the issue depend greatly upon how the question is asked, public opposition to the service of homosexuals in the military has clearly lessened. This shift is part of the larger transformation of moral values on issues of sexuality that has occurred over the past decade.
So, now that the full normalization of homosexuality in the U.S. military looms before us, are we ready for all that this means? Almost surely not.
There are huge realities that frame the momentous nature of this policy change. The first is the centrality of sexual identity or orientation to human life. The second is the massive institutional and symbolic influence of the military in American life. The third is the threat to religious liberty posed by the normalization of homosexuality in the armed forces.
The Centrality of Sexual Orientation — “Out” Means “Out”
On this point, the prophets of the sexual revolution were right: Sexual identity and orientation are central to an individual’s sense of self and personhood, and to an individual’s public persona. Historically, armies have dealt with this by normalizing heterosexuality and by doing everything possible to meld individuals into a unified fighting force. In this process of forming unit cohesion, individuals are to a great degree stripped of their personal identities in order to take on the singular identity of the unit.
Writing at the onset of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, John Luddy, a former Marine infantry officer, explained how this process works:
Combat is a team endeavor. To win in combat, individuals must be trained to subjugate their individual instinct for self-preservation to the needs of their unit. Since most people are not naturally inclined to do this, military training must break down an individual and recast him as part of a team. This is why recruits give up their first names and why they look, act, dress, and train alike. To paraphrase an old drill instructor, the Marine Corps is not Burger King — you can’t have it your way.
The normalization of homosexuality within the armed forces does not merely mean the fact that persons found to have a homosexual orientation will no longer be discharged from the military, it also means that something as central to human experience and identity as sexuality now complicates the situation. The presence of openly homosexual persons in military units, military housing, and military culture changes the very nature of unit cohesion. Beyond this, it changes the nature of the military as an institution. To all the complexities of breaking down individual identity in order to build a common identity, an inevitable focus on sexual orientation now reverses the entire logic.
The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” does not in itself establish a comprehensive new policy. As James Dao of The New York Times reports, there are a host of “thorny issues” that must be decided:
Will openly gay service members be placed in separate housing, as the commandant of the Marine Corps has advocated? What benefits, if any, will partners or spouses of homosexual service members be accorded? Will all military units be required to treat homosexuals the same? And what training will heterosexual officers and enlisted troops receive to prepare them to serve with openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines?
These are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the “thorny issues” any new policy must regulate. The greatest challenge posed by the normalization of homosexuality within the armed forces is not the fact that homosexual persons will serve in uniform. Given the distribution of homosexuality within the population, we can be assured that the courageous service of homosexual persons has been the case from the beginning. The greatest challenge will be posed by the fact that the homosexuality will now be open, with all that means in terms of identification with homosexual culture and relationships. How do you redefine unit cohesion after that moral revolution?
The U.S. Military and the Shape of American Culture
From the nation’s birth, the armed forces have held an established place as a culture-forming institution. Our national life is shaped by several institutional forces, but few hold the power held by the U.S. military. The public’s admiration of the armed forces is enhanced by the reality of civilian control over the military, and service in uniform has been an important means of establishing national identity and culture.
The results of this influence have been overwhelmingly positive. The successful racial integration of the military was indispensable to the civil rights movement. The military has preserved national values of honor, courage, and service. Few institutions can compare to the massive influence of the military in shaping national culture.
That is why the normalization of homosexuality within the armed forces has been such a central goal of the homosexual movement. The three most significant institutional barriers to the full normalization of homosexuality in the society are the military, laws governing marriage, and the churches. For this reason, all three of these institutional forces have been directly targeted by those who would push for the full acceptance of homosexuality. A focus on these institutions is essential if homosexuality is to be recognized on an equal moral and cultural footing with heterosexuality. There is no surprise here.
It must be recognized that the normalization of homosexuality within the U.S. military will have effects far beyond the armed forces. The most immediate changes will appear closest to where the military is concentrated, both geographically and culturally. Businesses doing work for the armed forces, individuals offering housing and a host of services to military personnel, and others similarly connected to the armed services will be the first to be required to respond to these effects and to conform to the new military reality. From there, the circles of the military’s influence will extend to the rest of the society in one manner or another.
The rejection of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is not just about the military — and that is why so much effort has been directed to its repeal.
Religious Liberty — Conviction Collides with the New Military Culture
Make no mistake: The repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy will present a clear and present threat to the religious liberty of those who wear the American uniform, and especially to those who serve as chaplains.
The military serves under a clear set of rules and expectations. When homosexuality is normalized in the armed forces, an entire interconnected network of laws, regulations, directives, and policies will eventually shift as well. As those pushing for the normalization of homosexuality understand all too well, any policy that meets that objective will necessarily sanction personnel who do not conform to the new expectation. In other words, there will be an automatic reversal of the prevailing military logic on the question of homosexuality. At present, the armed forces operate under policies that identify open homosexuality as incompatible with military service. With a single stroke of legislation, that policy will not only be repealed, it will be reversed. Homosexuality will be transformed from something that is officially “incompatible with military service,” to a reality that must be protected by rules and regulations about discrimination, advancement, promotion, and military culture.
What will this mean for those in the armed forces who believe, based on their sincere religious convictions, that homosexuality is a sin? Advocating or articulating such a viewpoint will be contrary to the military’s official stance and policy. Already, employees of many corporations in the civilian world complain about discrimination in promotion and career advancement if they do not, for example, agree to put a gay pride flag on their desk for Gay Pride Month. It is not that they refuse to work cooperatively with homosexual colleagues, but they cannot celebrate homosexuality itself. Just wait until this logic hits the military.
And what about military chaplains? What will they be allowed to say and teach about homosexuality? What do they do when, for example, a Christian soldier comes for counsel about his struggles with homosexual temptation? How can a chaplain wearing the uniform of the armed forces counsel that what the military says is normal and without moral significance is what the Bible nonetheless declares to be sin?
The religious liberties of millions of uniformed Americans will be put at immediate risk by the normalization of homosexuality in the military — and these are the very people who are putting their lives on the line to preserve these liberties for others.
On the Precipice of a Vast Cultural Change
The repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy represents a huge cultural shift for the nation, and one that will come with a countless array of consequences. The repeal of the policy will not mean the end of the military, but it will mean a very different military. Given the unique circumstances and commitments of military life, it will mean an inevitable change in the profiles of persons who enlist and choose to re-enlist in the armed forces. It will mean that persons committed to a biblical view of human sexuality will be far less likely to enlist in the military, and especially to enlist in the chaplaincy corps. Do Americans recognize what this means? Are they ready for a military that has been evacuated by those who believe that homosexuality is not the moral equivalent of heterosexuality? Have they considered what this means for military recruitment?
Are they really ready to support a policy change that means that only theological liberals will be welcome as chaplains?
There is no precedent for such a massive change in the life of the military — none. For the first time, groups defined by sexual identity and sexual behavior will become protected classes within the U.S. armed forces. This is not merely a possibility; if homosexuality is normalized within the military, it is an inevitability.
Christians should take stock of all this represents, and recognize what is at stake. Few changes in military policy will affect so many people, and pose such direct challenges to Christian conviction and religious liberty. The military’s normalization of homosexuality will affect our entire field of ministry and mission.
Unless something alters the political context, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is about to become history, and the U.S. military is about to be changed forever. The summer of 2010 may well turn out to be a watershed season in this nation’s life and history. Is anyone paying attention?
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James Dao, “As ‘Don’t Ask’ Fades, Military Faces Thorny Issues,” The New York Times, Saturday, May 28, 2010.
John Luddy, “Make Love, Not War: The Pentagon’s Ban is Wise and Just,” in Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science, and Culture of Homosexuality, ed. John Corvino (Rowan and Littlefield, 1997), pp. 267-273 (269).