11 May 2011

Open letter to RADM Mark L. Tidd, Navy Chief of Chaplains

by Frank Turk

UPDATED: Navy changes mind about policy. And before they read my letter, even.

Dear Rear Admiral Tidd,

It's unlikely you're going to read this, I admit, because this is a blog explicitly about the Christian faith, and your job has become, since its inception in 1917 "to provide a system of appointing qualified and professional chaplains that meet the needs of the Navy," less about the Christian faith and more about finding a variety of religious backgrounds to counsel the sailors in the Navy. That's not hardly your fault -- it's just the state of things as our nation migrates further and further into multiculturalism and watches where we came from roll off toward the vanishing point on the horizon.

The reason I'm writing today is this bit in the NavyTimes about a policy change for the chaplains of the Navy. And I want to be fair to the logic of the policy change -- because it seems to me that this is not a change so much as it is a clarification of the role of the chaplain in the Navy.

As I read N097A/207063, the first matter of its business is to clarify that, barring the order of Don't Ask/Don't Tell, and previous military policy and guidelines, the use of naval facilities is not based on any pre-requisite sexual orientation. Fair enough, I guess -- I'm not sure I would have asked the question implied, but that's me. But then the next section states that a chaplain, insofar as he is licensed to do so, is practicing his own religious obligations, and it is legal in the jurisdiction in question, may participate in a ceremony of same-sex marriage.

Now seriously: this is a far cry from the establishment of chaplains in the Navy in 1775 who were, under orders of their captain, "to take care that divine service be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays, unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent."

I bring it up to you for a reason, which I have been pondering in other contexts lately. The reason is this: I wonder how we can anticipate each other to behave in a moral way anymore.

Before we go to far here, let's dispense with some of the more-rudimentary retorts to such a thought. For example, I grant that a person who does not share my moral orthodoxy (that is: my view of what is morally-orthodox, not my personal perfection -- which is lacking) can act in a nice way. They may even sometimes act in a morally-heroic way. I also grant that just because someone has chosen to do one particularly-immoral action and to justify it as not-immoral, they don't necessarily have a completely-defective moral code. They might have one blind spot, as a drunk who is a private drunk but still is a model citizen, or a person who only steals from dumpsters and empty lots but is a fabulous Boys & Girls Club volunteer and a member of the Rotary.

That is: I grant you that in theory we can say that someone who adopts a false moral precept is not necessarily, from a sociological point of view, someone we cannot trust at all. He might be a swell guy otherwise, and perhaps we should say with Seinfeld, "not that there's anything wrong with that."

Here's what worries me: that might be true in theory, but in practice we know for certain that moral codes are what they are. So a person who is guilty of avarice is inevitably guilty of other things that are caused by avarice -- and they likely justify all those things together as a bundle. They in fact have to do it -- otherwise they just simmer in want and frustration, and heavens knows that it's far worse to be bad company due to frustration than it is to be a secret scoundrel who is doing all manner of things to satisfy the envy and greed under the skin.

What worries me is that we are forgetting that agreement on the foundational moral items of our society is critical for there to be a society at all.

So when, for example, we make it clear that the use of our public spaces are hinged upon a principle of being "sexual orientation neutral," I'm afraid we've said a lot more than we intended. Seriously: Naval legal counsel really meant to say that any manner of sexual expression was A-OK in the Navy's public spaces? There's no way I'm going to unpack that, Rear Admiral, but I am certain that you can come up with at least one example which even you would say, "um, no. Not in the Navy."

But this is where we are headed. This is, in fact, where your policy is assisting us in going. I remember watching Monte Python's The Meaning of Life in college, and being flabbergasted by the scene in the prep school where John Cleese conducts a live-action sex ed class and thinking, "Wow. That's so far beyond absurd that it's not even funny -- its actually vile." And yet this week it is reported that this very thing happened at Northwestern University! 30 years and suddenly the completely-absurd unthinkable has become the practice. {Kudos to Northwestern, btw, who removed the Professor who did this from teaching that class -- but consider it: this person still teaches at Northwestern.}

Yet the slippery slope is not actually my point here -- it's an incredulous aside. It's the rabbit we cannot help but chase a moment because it cannot be avoided as we think about this.

My point is whether or not we can anticipate the moral judgments of people who do not agree with us on foundational moral premises. In the military, we have gone from the strict policy of DODD 1332.14 [which forbids propensity or intent to commit Homosexual acts] (10 U.S.C. § 654 [which upholds the longstanding tradition which places stricter codes of conduct on military personnel than ought to be enforced in civilian life]) which said homosexual behavior was incompatible with military service, along with the Uniform Code of Military Justice passed in 1950 which gave policies and procedures for discharging homosexual service members, to "Don't Ask/Don't Tell," to this policy -- which says, "it's your thing - do what you wanna do." What we have in fact done over time is to say this: military discipline does not apply to your sex life.

Now if we read that statement to 100 Americans, here's what I think someplace between 95 and 99 of them would say: of course, the military should not have jurisdiction over a person's sex life. So given the groundswell of support against such a thing, the Military ought to be broad-minded enough, wise enough even, to banish archaic codes.

That seems right, yes? It sounds like we should do this right away -- but then I go and read DoDD 1334.01, instructions for Wearing the Uniform. And let me say this: this instruction is far more detailed and far more restrictive than 1334.14. For example, section 3.1.4 says it is forbidden to wear the uniform when doing so "may tend to bring discredit upon the Armed Forces."

Discredit? Heavens -- that implies that we can agree on what is and is not a credit to the military, doesn't it?

What if we can't? See: the problem is not that people with an inconsistent system of moral values can't sometimes act like they are "just like" someone else. The problem comes when we have to decide what it means to be a credit or discredit to the Armed Forces -- or to our nation, for that matter.

And I put it to you: this is the foundational question the chaplain ought to be able to answer. The chaplain ought to be the agent of the divine in the midst of those who, if I may get Christian on you a second, are engaged in the rightly-appointed ministry of the sword on behalf of the government. When the chaplaincy has become the place where policy trumps the ability to define what is a credit or discredit, and what is an honor or a dishonor, it is no longer discharging, as they said in 1775, "the divine service."

I'm praying for you, Rear Admiral. I am hoping that somehow God will use you in this moment to do something which no one expects, and no one will understand -- but that everyone will agree was more than just the work of a good leader or a great administrator. And I leave you with that much to consider.


CR said...

I guess he read your letter since he reversed His decision. ;)

DJP said...

... before they read my letter, even.

You write that like They're not monitoring your hard-drive.

Tom Chantry said...

I think there's an office in the inner ring of the Pentagon dedicated to monitoring Frank. If you haven't heard, his general cussedness is deemed to have risen to the level of a national security threat.

donsands said...

Well written. You have a fine way with words and thoughts. My pastor was a Navy Chaplain for 7 years on a Aircraft Carrier. he recently met with a group of chaplains in Arizone to make a video to send to Congress I think, about all this.

Have a terrific day in our Lord's grace and love.

Frank Turk said...

DJP & Chantry -

I can neither confirm nor deny those statements.

Frank Turk said...

And I an going to write the conspiratorial history of the world. The idea occured to me when writing last week's letter, and I think it's a winner.

Jim Crigler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Crigler said...

Is there a chance that "divine service" in 1775 meant the Lord's Supper? If so, that would lend itself to an action-oriented (vis-à-vis warm fuzzy) chaplaincy. If not, it's the result of my listening to Lutherans.

Robert said...

Excellent letter, Frank. If by chance this letter is read by the Rear Admiral, I hope that he takes it to heart and prayerfully considers what action would best serve Jesus.

Frank Turk said...

Crigler --

I think it means the morning and evening prayers.

Sir Brass said...

Tom (of Chantry):

I think that department was recently placed under the umbrella of DHS, and is known as "The Department for the Monitoring and Enforcement of Reasonable Tones."

They're right next door to the Political Correctness department and a few cubes down from the Department of Ridiculous Handshakes (our copy of the Brits' Ministry of Silly Walks).


Merrilee Stevenson said...

I hope that the update doesn't change people's minds about reading your entire letter.

Each time you write an open letter, I'm always looking for the gospel, as you usually present it in some way in your writing. And in this case, it appears to be the answer to the question you were pondering,

"...how we can anticipate each other to behave in a moral way anymore."

Someone coined a phrase, "The gospel is the solution to culture." (At least I hope that person got a few coins for saying it!) Anyway, it affects how I look at the problems I see in our world and in my neighborhood.

All that to say that I really appreciate this blog and you three amigos who are helping people like me think about issues in this world with a Biblical mindset and theological integrity. Some people pay good money for this kind of an education. I, for one, am thankful to get it for free.

Solameanie said...

Well said, Frank, and I kind of hope you send your letter to all 535 members of Congress.

Also, I hope you know that you have forever shattered my innocent, childlike image of Gumby. I note with sadness the absence of Pokey, and I can see why.

Mark B. Hanson said...

As slippery as this slope is, there'll be a picture of Gumby and Pokey again in about 5 years.

Tommy said...

"The gospel is the solution to culture."

I love that quote! The truth of Christ transends all social forums. If we proclaim Him and live to glorify Him to the utmost, then our worldview won't be compromised by human standards and thinking.

And another great read, Frank. I'm not the news savant that most of my generation pretends to be, so I never would have come across these turn of events on my own, but you bring them, along with the uncompromising truth of God, into my workday. Thank you for this dose of truth applied to life, even as I sit inside a ministry building.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's Frank Turk who coined the phrase. He's the person to whom my mind attributes the credit.

Frank Turk said...

I think Tad Thompson coined it and I made it wildly popular.

He's a famous author now who works for Challies. I languish in modest obscurity ...

Solameanie said...

I'd like to coin something, but then the Feds would be after me. I'd better stick to legal tender, like ministry.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

You are in good company, Frank. While modest obscurity doesn't offer many material luxuries, at least we can go to the grocery store without papparazzi. (I do have my own personal entourage, though, and it sometimes feels like everyone is watching us. But no one asks for my autograph.)

Hillbilly Geek said...

They didn't reverse it: they had just forgotten the "not" in the relevant sentence. Just a typo, y'see...
My captcha: squids

Merrilee Stevenson said...

Yeah, getting back on-topic for a second: the article linked in the update doesn't give me much confidence that the policy is completely trashed. "Suspended until further notice" is what it said.

I guess they figure that the eventual slide downward will happen on its own...

Again, our only hope is in Christ alone to transform this world.