NEW ORLEANS (BP) — New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Institute for Faith and the Public Square hosted its third major conference, examining the tension chaplains experience between exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and religion while acknowledging the restrictions that often accompany receiving funds from public agencies.
The conference was titled “Chaplaincy: Ministering in Caesar’s House.”
“There is a growing negative atmosphere toward evangelical Christianity,” said Lloyd Harsch, church history professor and institute director. “Under the guise of tolerance, everyone who holds a religiously informed position is now viewed as suspect because they’re [considered] intolerant.”
IMPLICATIONS OF DADT REPEAL
The conference featured a panel discussion that dealt exclusively with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The panel included Maj. Gen. Douglas Carver, the recently retired Army Chief of Chaplains; and Jim Hartz, chaplaincy consultant with the North American Mission Board and retired Army chaplain (Lt. Col.); and Father Walter Austin, retired state chaplain with the Louisiana National Guard (Lt. Col.) and pastor of Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church in LaPlace, La.
Carver offered an inside look at the years-long process of repealing the policy. His experience with the repeal movement, he said, started in early 2009.
“In January 2009, I received a frantic phone call from my regimental sergeant major. He said, ‘Sir, we’re here in Texas and the chief of staff of the Army just asked us a question — ‘What do y’all think about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell being repealed?'” Carver said. “At that time, we at the Pentagon began to mobilize and ensure we had chaplains at every table where policy issues and decisions were being discussed.”
From the onset, Carver said, he and his team worked to help military leadership consider the possible moral, ethical and spiritual implications of a potential repeal.
Specific to military service, Carver and the other panelists said that only time will tell what effect the repeal of DADT may have on military chaplaincy. Still, despite the immediate and potential implications, Carver said he has seen virtually no resignations from chaplains.
“Soldiers continue to serve and salute the flag, so we’re dealing with it,” he said. “We’ve had one chaplain out of 2,900 resign over the issue. We expected and perhaps you heard there might be hundreds.”
Carver added, “Yes, the rules changed, but God called me as a military chaplain into the chaplaincy…. I was called to stay in this.”
Hartz echoed that commitment to serving soldiers and not being swayed by policy.
“What drives me is ‘How do I love my soldiers? How do I take care of them? How do I minister to their families?'” Hartz said. “Yeah, I’ve been honest. I’ve taken stands and told people what I believe. To say this is not a significant event is not what I’m trying to say, but we have faced these types of significant events throughout our careers.”
Austin said two keys for chaplains to minister post-DADT are to: 1) know what they stand for and 2) know who they’re serving.
“If you know what your denomination says, then you have no problem. If you go off on a tangent, then you have a problem, because it’s just you out there,” Austin said.
In a chaplaincy setting, Austin said, if the chaplain’s sponsoring agency or denomination does not support a certain issue or lifestyle, then the chaplain can and should simply decline counsel and defer to another chaplain. In chaplaincy terms, that’s called “perform or provide.”
At the same time, though, Austin said it’s important for chaplains to remember that they have been called to minister to the troops — all the service members — under their care. To illustrate that point, Austin recalled his time in Iraq.
“We were in combat. We got attacked just about every day. The focus was on doing your job and taking care of your buddies,” he said. “As a chaplain, that’s all we were focused on as well.”
A GROWING TREND
Retired Army Chaplain (Brig. Gen.) Doug Lee opened the conference by offering a look at the state of religious liberty in the United States. Lee, who served more than 30 years as an Army chaplain, has also ministered as a Presbyterian pastor and now serves as chair of the executive committee for the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.
The repeal of DADT was a part of a much larger attack on religious liberty in the United States, said Lee, who outlined several lawsuits from recent history to make his case.
Lee offered the example of Ward vs. Wilbanks, a lawsuit brought by a former graduate counseling student at Eastern Michigan University who was dismissed from the university because she would not counsel a person regarding a homosexual relationship. She was willing to assign the person to a different counselor, but the university dismissed her. The case is currently before the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Essentially that university was saying she had to change her religion if she wanted to get a degree from them and stay in that school,” Lee explained. “That’s still under review.”
Lee went on to offer similar examples from both academic and business settings.
“What’s the common thread in all these cases?” he asked. “A relentless assault on religious liberty and other issues related to that.”
People of faith, though, need not be discouraged by legal trends, Lee said. Instead, he said, they can find encouragement and inspiration in the Apostle Paul, Peter and other heroes of the faith who remained true to the Gospel in spite of pressure to compromise.
“God is still active as His Word goes forth in boldness and clarity,” Lee said.
New Orleans Seminary Provost Steve Lemke led a session on bio-medical ethics, Chaplain John Laing (Lt. Col.) spoke about praying in Jesus’ name, and Jim Hightower, director of McFarland Chaplaincy Institute in New Orleans, led a session on maintaining religious distinctives in a pluralistic setting.
Page Brooks, assistant professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Seminary and associate director of the institute, said the idea for the October chaplaincy focused conference came while he was deployed to Iraq in 2010 with the Louisiana Army National Guard.
During his deployment, Brooks met Laing, longtime chaplain and associate professor of systematic theology and philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The two began discussing the implications of the then-impending repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy on open homosexuality. The policy was officially repealed in September 2011.
When Brooks returned from Iraq and began working with Harsch on the institute, they soon expanded that idea to include a wide variety of issues facing chaplains.
“That was really the brainchild for this conference, seeing the need with the repeal of DADT and then broadening that out to say, ‘Let’s look at religious pluralism. Let’s look at praying in Jesus’ name. Let’s look at all these different areas that affect us,'” Brooks said.
Harsch, the institute’s director, said next year’s conference is already in the works, with a planned focus on the role personal faith and the church plays in the life of the Christian politician. Harsch said the conference will ask three basic questions of Christians who hold public office:
— How has your faith informed your political worldview?
— How has your faith influenced how you do politics?
— How has the church help you in your faith? And how can it do better?
For more information on the Institute for Faith and the Public Square, visit www.faithandpublicsquare.com or “like” it on Facebook.
Frank Michael McCormack is assistant director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS.edu).