In many religious circles, the repeal of a military ban on openly gay members is considered practically a done deal. But Southern Baptists, who have many more active-duty military chaplains than any other denomination, are not giving up without a fight.
U.S. Army Chaplain Jeff Houston (right) prays with American soldiers prior to a mission in Iraq.
The Southern Baptist Convention is battling the expected repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell on a number of fronts. Its agencies are contacting Congress and the Pentagon, retired chaplains are sending letters to President Obama, and a resolution adopted at the denomination’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., condemns allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
“If a policy makes it more difficult–in fact, discourages–one of the groups that provides one of the largest numbers of chaplains to the military from continuing to engage in chaplaincy ministry, that should raise significant concerns for them about the … spiritual well-being of our men and women in uniform,” said Barrett Duke, vice president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
With about 16 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the country’s largest Protestant denomination but falls well short of the Catholic Church’s 68 million members. But whereas the Catholic Church has 252 active-duty chaplains, the Southern Baptist Convention has 448–the most in the military. There are about 3,000 active-duty chaplains overall.
The number of active-duty personnel who identify themselves as Southern Baptist is far smaller than the number of Roman Catholics, but there is no quota system for chaplains. Chaplains serve members of all faiths, rather than solely troops of their denomination.
More liberal denominations with much smaller numbers of military chaplains worry Southern Baptists might be more influential in the gay debate.
“We have some concerns about that, sure,” said John Gundlach, a retired Navy chaplain who serves as minister for government chaplaincy for the United Church of Christ, which had 17 military chaplains as of March, according to the Defense Department.
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