By Bob Allen
The Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission defended new guidelines for military chaplains in response to a recent commentary published by Associated Baptist Press.
Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the SBC agency dedicated to public policy and religious-liberty concerns, said the North American Mission Board updated guidelines for military chaplains to “offer more precise recommendations and regulations” in response to the repeal of “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act.
“We’re very concerned about our chaplains offering a proper witness, a Christ-like witness, one that respects all individuals in the military but also holds firm on Southern Baptist doctrine,” Walker, who formerly worked with the Heritage Foundation before joining the ERLC staff in August, said in a video on the agency website.
“We have new policies that say Southern Baptist chaplains cannot be present at a same-sex civil union or a same-sex marriage that is performed on a base, or for that matter anywhere in the community,” Walker said. “They can’t provide counseling services to same-sex couples. They can shift their services and provide them with another venue or outlet, but we don’t want to give the appearance that we’re endorsing that particular type of union.”
ERLC President Russell Moore, who took office in June, referenced specifically a Sept. 16 ABPnews commentary by Tom Carpenter, co-chair of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, saying the new restrictions could force chaplains to choose between obeying their denomination or military regulations that require chaplains to cooperate with other faiths “in a pluralistic environment.”
“We’re not worried about our chaplains doing this,” Moore said of the same-sex marriage ban. “We’re worried about letting the government know this is what our chaplains are about, so you’re not going to be able to force them to do anything else.”
Moore, who previously taught and served as a vice president at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he was surprised by negative reaction to the guidelines in secular and “liberal Baptist” media.
“We’re calling for separation of church and state to be able to say chaplaincy isn’t a subset of the military,” he said. “Instead what the military is doing by having chaplains is to enable people who are in the military to freely exercise their religion. It’s not just a post of some kind of American civil religion.”
While “technically” paid by the armed services, Walker said, military chaplains are “sent” by denominations or sending churches to help soldiers exercise their First Amendment guarantee to the free exercise of religion.
“So this is really just about continuing the operation of using our First Amendment liberties in a post-Defense of Marriage Act world,” Walker said.
“If you read the recommendations, there is nothing condemning about the regulations,” Walker said. “They are basically saying that Southern Baptists need to operate according to Southern Baptist Convention doctrine, orthodoxy and the Baptist Faith and Message.”
Moore said under the new guidelines, a same-sex couple could request individual counseling about how to deal with their same-sex attraction. “What our chaplains would not be able to do, based on our convictions, is to counsel that same-sex couple on how to have a better marriage with one another,” he said.
“We need to operate in the categories of repentance,” Walker explained. “It’s what all of us are called to do, so basically were just asking the chaplains to be able to do that in all different contexts.”