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Military Chaplains the New 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell?'

02-04-2015
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FORT BENNING, Ga. -- "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was once a term used to refer to homosexuals in the military. Now, however, the term is more often being applied to Christians in uniform.

Military chaplains are feeling the pressure to conform to the new reality, as some label biblical values "hate speech."

Chaplains have been an integral part of the military throughout our nation's history, bringing hope to the living and comfort to the dying.

Now some chaplains are coming under fire from official government policy and must choose between their consciences and their commander's orders.

A Faith at Odds

The repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" worried the chaplains who follow the biblical view of same-sex relationships. Congress then stepped in, passing a bill that guaranteed the rights of all military personnel to exercise their faith.

Ron Crews, head of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, said the result of that legislation is that "chaplains can be chaplains."

"They can, in fact, bring their faith to the table in their work," he said.

Crews served as an Army chaplain for 21 years.

"Chaplains, and not only chaplains but all service members, cannot receive recriminations for living out their faith in the military," he said. "We want not only chaplains but all those who serve to be able to exercise the religious liberties that they are putting their lives on the line for."

Despite the law, many Christians, and especially chaplains, often find themselves at odds with military leadership.

"I got an email from a chaplain in Afghanistan who preached a sermon for his unit out of 1 Peter, talking about the last days and the fact that there would be a rise in homosexuality during the last days," Crews said.

"He got called into his commander's office, he got told, 'You cannot preach out of that text,'" Crews said. "He wound up getting a bad OR from that commander in the war zone."

Exploding Controversy

Another example of this tension happened recently at Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade. A chaplain was asked to give a suicide prevention class. But what happened next exploded in controversy.

Capt. Joe Lawhorn serves as chaplain for the 5th Ranger Training Battalion based at Fort Benning. He was asked to lead a class on suicide prevention at the Mountain Ranger Camp.

In addition to covering the Army-wide curriculum, he cited his own experience and shared his personal struggle with depression.

"And so he gave his rangers a handout," Crews said. "On one side was all of the resources available to military personnel. On the other side, though, he said, 'I want to tell you that this is what worked for me.'"

What was on the reverse side were referrals to Christian counseling services.

"During the presentation, according to those who were witnesses, at no time did Chaplain Lawhorn say 'mine is the only way,'" Crews said.

One ranger took a picture with his phone and sent it to the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and that group made a big issue of it.

Lawhorn's brigade commander later issued Lawhorn a "letter of concern," which the Pentagon insists is administrative in nature.

In our investigation the military has been unable to cite any written rule or regulation the chaplain actually violated. Meanwhile the Ranger who complained received no punishment at all, although he violated Army policy by going outside his chain of command.

A Force Multiplier

Those actions speak volumes about how toxic the climate has become for Christians in the military.

"You are in a very pluralistic environment," Jeff Strueker, a former Ranger chaplain, told CBN News. "You get all faiths and all walks of life."

Strueker became a chaplain half-way through his 24-year military career. He has been involved in every major American conflict since 1987.

"Why do we have chaplains to begin with? George Washington, when he formed the Continental Army, formed two branches--infantry and chaplains and basically said, 'I need war fighters, and then I need men who can minister to the souls of war fighters,'" Strueker explained.

"So a chaplain who is doing his job well is a force multiplier for a unit," he continued. "That force multiplier means that the unit is more effective in combat. (It) doesn't matter if it's a transportation unit or a hospital unit or if it's an infantry unit. They're more effective in combat with a chaplain."

Strueker believes the vital role of chaplains goes beyond leading church services for the troops.

"Today you need somebody in the unit who can deal with spiritual issues of a soldier. No one else in the unit can do what a chaplain can do," Strueker explained. "Ninety-nine percent of the counseling that I did was with people who weren't Christian. They came to me because I was there -- there while the bullets were flying and they needed somebody to talk to."

No Battlefield Complaints

And that's not all the chaplain does. Strueker said there are many cases in Iraq and Afghanistan where atrocities were avoided just because there was a chaplain there to be a moral linfluence on the men and women on those battlefields.

Strueker said on the front lines, complaints against chaplains are very rare.

"Sharing the Scriptures with somebody who's about take their last breath on a battlefield are the kind of complaints people that are way back in the rear make," Strueker added. "The guys that are on the battlefield don't ever make those kind of complaints to me as a chaplain."

Strueker said the current climate would make it more difficult to do his job.

"I'm commissioned by God to be a minister of the Gospel, and my denomination has endorsed me," he explained. "So I answer not just to the U.S. Army, but to God Himself and to my denomination for what I do."

"And if the point comes where my career is asking me to do something that my denomination or my relationship to God is asking me not to do, I have got to leave the military," he added.

"You serve everbody with grace and dignity," Crews said. "However, when someone comes to you for counsel you've got to be absolutely clear up front, that if you're coming to me, I counsel from a biblical perspective."

Strueker agrees.

"I don't want to see chaplains leave the military," he said. "I hope many more good men and women will become chaplains. But if you can't do it in good conscience, then you owe it to God to leave the military."

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