Yesterday I blogged here about an ABC report of a same-sex “wedding” at a military base in New Jersey. The story didn’t seem quite right to me, since there is no such thing as same-sex marriage in New Jersey—only civil unions—and we usually mean to say someone got married when we say a “wedding” took place (and that the couple are “newlyweds,” as ABC’s report had it). New Jersey marriage law governs any military base in the state, so the event’s taking place on federal property, with a Navy chaplain officiating, can’t make any difference. But the truth did wink at the reader from this story when it referred to the couple’s “civil union” in just one place. It bears pointing out that a civil union requires no ceremony, and no ceremony can solemnize one. It’s a registered relationship, a contract with signatures. Did the couple sign the contract that day, at the “wedding” that wasn’t a wedding? Or earlier? Or later? The two things—the relationship and the ceremony—have nothing to do with one another.
Did the ABC reporter who used “wedding” really know better? It seems she did, but it was a whole lot more story to suggest that an actual marriage had taken place.
And the impulse to make this event into more than it was appears to be pretty widespread. Just Google the (conveniently unusual) name of the Air Force noncom, Erwynn Umali, and you’ll see what I mean. Since the ceremony took place in late June, a lot of stories have rolled out hailing the news that two men had a “wedding” and were “married” at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a concerted effort to present this occurrence as something it was not, in law or in fact, and that the purpose of the effort is to keep forcing the public consciousness to confront the “normalcy” of gay marriage.
Another angle on the story, which has gotten less attention amid all the false triumphalism, is the role of the Navy chaplain who participated in this affair—and her superior. Chaplains in the military services are officers answerable to a military chain of command, but each one also requires an “endorsement” from a recognized religious organization whose giving or withholding of such endorsement is considered binding by the Pentagon. No endorsement, no chaplaincy, and no continued role in that branch of military service. Chaplain Kay Reeb is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and I am reliably informed that the ELCA does not recognize a same-sex marriage as something its pastors can perform. But the ELCA has gone so far as to permit its pastors to “bless” same-sex unions. If Chaplain Reeb was acting within the bounds of Lutheran doctrine, and not freelancing, she could offer a blessing of the couple’s relationship, but could not have married them, even in a state that permits it (which, again, New Jersey does not). If Reeb herself is pleased to talk of having done a “wedding,” or more pointedly, of having “married” the couple, she might check in with her endorsing authority. She might just be needlessly making trouble for the more orthodox Lutheran pastors in the armed forces.
Reeb’s supervisor in the base chaplaincy is Air Force Chaplain (Col.) Timothy Wagoner, who is a Baptist minister. He had to approve the use of the base chapel, and from news reports in the Baptist press, it appears that he was present at the (not really a) “wedding” in late June, and was observed to be looking on approvingly, though he did not share in the ceremonial functions. This has caused some flap in the Southern Baptist Convention, whose North American Mission Board (NAMB) is the endorsing authority for all Southern Baptist chaplains in the military. The Southern Baptists, needless to say, offer no recognition of or blessing for same-sex relationships. The NAMB felt constrained to offer a gentle reminder to Chaplain Wagoner about the norms of the denomination.
And now the latest is that Wagoner is leaving the Southern Baptists ! This would mean the end of his military career, if he did not obtain a fresh endorsement from another authority that endorses chaplains. I expect he will have little trouble acquiring one.
With “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repealed, and the Defense of Marriage Act under assault, we can look forward to a great many more episodes like this. Many military chaplains will face requests—increasingly couched as demands in the new regime—that they bless same-sex unions, or even perform marriages in the few jurisdictions that permit them. The most orthodox among them—Catholic, Mormon, Evangelical, Jewish, and Muslim—will find their positions very uncomfortable. They won’t view the doctrines of their faith as quite as flexible as those of Chaplain Reeb, or as negotiable as those of Chaplain Wagoner. What will become of them, their consciences, and their religious freedom? We’re about to find out.