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Keith H. Kerr
Brigadier General, CSMR (Ret.)

A candidate for political office knows that to win, he or she must know the opposition, their platform, and as much other information about the opponent as possible. A beginning student in a debating learns that he or she must know both sides of the issue. Those of us who served in military intelligence heeded the advice of the Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese general, who said you must know your enemy.

Those of us working to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) believe that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) persons deserve full access to American society. That includes the right to serve in uniform. Each of us know those who must hide their inmost feelings and who worry each day if their career will be cut short by a careless remark, an intercepted letter, or a suspicious co-worker. But if we are to be successful in lifting the ban, do we really know the opposition? I think we do not.

The Administration’s intransigence and Congressional indifference frustrate our efforts. But the inconvenient truth is that religious conservatives are the best-organized and the best-financed opposition to the repeal of DADT today. They were instrumental in subverting the promise of newly-elected President Clinton to lift the ban in 1993. Their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and their networking inside the Pentagon continue today.

Why did it happen? And what is the opposition today?

The religious conservatives rise to a policy-making role and a potent voice in national affairs began in the 1960’s and culminated in the late 1990’s. The effort gathered momentum as they realized many values and attitudes of the mid-20th Century had slipped away, and they were determined to bring them back. One of those attitudes, of course, was the prejudice and persecution directed toward GLBT persons. From the 1960’s on, pluralism and secularism had become dominant on the American political landscape. Pluralism allowed a variety of views and tolerance for different attitudes, and secularism supported national policies that did not necessarily reflect sectarian doctrine. Pluralism and secularism were viewed by religious conservatives as a monstrous threat to their interpretation of the Bible. They became activists to advance sectarian ideals. The resulting conflict has also been called the Culture Wars.

The best known groups are James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the Rev. Lou Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition, and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Views of other prominent leaders often appear in the media: Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council. They are all opposed to increased participation in American society by GLBT persons, which they refer to as "the homosexual agenda."

Elaine Donnelly heads The Center for Military Readiness (CMR) and advocates replacing DADT with a policy of absolute prohibition. Ms. Donnelly’s group is hardly a think tank or a group studying a broad and in-depth array of defense issues, and styles itself as dealing with personnel issues. The CMR confines itself to issues of sexuality and is a thinly-veiled front for religious conservatives opposed to GLBT persons.

Two new books deal with the influence of the religious right on American policies. Ray Suarez of "The News Hour with James Lehrer" has written The Holy Votes. Mel White, bestselling author of Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America, and cofounder and president of Soulforce, Inc., is out with a new book: Religion Gone Bad—The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right. Suarez discusses the recent decline of the plural and secular influence in government as the result of religious fundamentalism. Mel White points out how conservatives have been successful in collapsing the separation of church and state in an effort to create a theocracy in which public policy is molded to reflect their interpretation of Holy Scripture.

Suarez also comments that religious conservatives arrive in politics with a binary set of values on national issues. Their views are not subject to change, either through discussion, new scientific evidence, or reason. Issues are either black or white and based on their rigid interpretation of the Bible.

Newsweek recently reported White House staffers had accepted $135,000 in free trips since November 2004, generally for meetings and conventions. Among those picking up the tab were Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention.

While the religious right was becoming more prominent in American politics, changes were taking place in the armed forces. After the Vietnam War, the makeup of the military chaplaincies began to change. For decades, chaplains from mainstream denominations had been predominant. These chaplains focused on pastoral counseling and placed minimum emphasis on sectarian or doctrinal views. The long Vietnam War ushered in new developments when clergy and lay leadership of mainline churches criticized the war. In contrast, religious conservatives believed the threat posed by Communism in Southeast Asia justified a war, and they never wavered in their support for the government, the armed forces, or intervention in Southeast Asia.

The attitude found a sympathetic audience in the defense establishment. By the mid 1970’s, prayer breakfasts and luncheons, and Bible studies groups had become routine at the Pentagon. A new and positive relationship emerged between the conservative chaplains and Defense Department officials and many high ranking officers. A number of them became "born again" Christians. The offensive continued at West Point, Annapolis, and the Army’s Command and General Staff College. More recently, in 2005, a scandal erupted at the Air Force Academy when one chaplain accused peers of aggressively promoting conservative religious views, proselytizing cadets, and exerting command pressure on non-evangelicals. Graduates and their parents testified in support of the charges, and the Pentagon dispatched a task force to study the situation and propose remedial steps.

When the 1993 debate about lifting the ban on homosexuals in the uniformed services reached Congress, Colin Powell was serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In his remarks, General Powell upheld the plural and secular view of national policy, namely the strict separation of church and state.

A question to Powell at the Naval Academy validated his position. A midshipman asked what those who believed that homosexuality is immoral should do if the ban was lifted. Powell responded by saying they had the option to resign, upholding the secular approach to politics. He said, "We, as professional members of the military, must conform to the policy. The debate will be over at that point."

Despite this statement, General Powell and his colleagues were opposed to allowing GLBT personnel to serve on other grounds. They argued against lifting the ban saying it would be detrimental to good order, discipline, and unit cohesion, would undermine morale and recruiting, and would increase the spread of AIDS among military personnel. Later, the general reacted stiffly and with disbelief when asked if he could see a relationship between the discrimination directed toward African-Americans and that toward homosexuals.

The fundamentalists who had risen to prominence in the military chaplaincies now added their position in the debate. In stark contrast to Powell’s secular view, Brigadier General James M. Hutchens, a retired chaplain, testified to the House Armed Services Committee. He quoted extensively from the Koran and Torah. Then he invoked the New Testament and condemned homosexuality by saying:

1. The wrath of God is being revealed against it.

2. It is based on a refusal to honor God

3. It is based on ingratitude toward God.

4. It is based on a willful choice.

5. God has lifted his restraining hand.

6. What starts as a choice becomes all-consuming…

7. Those who practice it know full well God’s decree…

8. Condoning homosexuality is wrong, and is a further step away from God.

Other chaplains spoke and presented their views to both the House and Senate committees. Video clips of gay pride parades were shown in a biased effort to highlight the extreme revelers and focus on excesses. The implied argument was that these GLB people would contaminate our service members and denigrate the uniform with their conduct. Virtually no testimony was allowed supporting the great contributions to national defense by patriotic GLBT Americans over many decades. Unfortunately, these conservative chaplains still remain in great numbers in our military services. Today they advocate even more sectarian emphasis in prayers, invocations and benedictions.

In contrast to the religious conservatives, the inclusive churches, synagogues, and mosques never organized effectively to advocate acceptance of GLBT people in the military or in society at large. Additionally, their interpretations of the Bible on the issue of homosexuality were never widely disseminated to the American public. Although individual church spokesmen often spoke up for GLBT persons and welcomed them, no cross-denomination group emerged until very recently. Soulforce began in 1999 when 200 GLBT activists descended on the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church to protest their anti-gay policies. Soulforce advocates "freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from religious and political oppression through non-violent resistance."

Where do these facts lead those of us who support the right of GLBT persons to serve openly in the armed forces? The inconvenient truth is the religious right remains the best-organized and financed obstacle to lifting the ban on GLBT persons. There is no doubt that the Judeo-Christian ethic has been the moral foundation of American government. Our laws and our culture are based on religious and philosophical values like: "Thou shalt not bear false witness;" or "Thou shalt not kill," or "All men are created equal." Today, these moral values are accepted and embraced in our culture. But when one religious movement has imposed its particular sectarian views on our society, then it is time to speak out and work for change.

In the last three years, I have been less than successful in convincing my colleagues that the religious right is the major obstacle to eliminating DADT. To many, that group seems insignificant and irrelevant in the context of daily political issues and world events.

Jim Maloney asked that I suggest a course of action to achieve our goal. After considering this issue for three years, I have concluded that two events are essential to lifting the ban on GLBT people in the military. We must advocate and support:

1. A return by our national leadership to the secular and plural doctrine of government;

2. The continuing effort to show the American people that the inclusion of GLBT persons in the armed forces of the United States promotes defense readiness and equality for all.

Keith H. Kerr
Brigadier General, CSMR (Ret.)

OTHER THOUGHTS: Whenever ‘A’ attempts by law to impose moral standards on ‘B,’ ‘A’ is most likely a scoundrel." H. L. Menken