General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Military and UUism: Respecting Inherent Worth?

General Assembly 2007 Event 4023
Presenters: Rev. Beth Miller, Director of Ministry and Professional Leadership Staff Group; Rev. Lisa Presley, Interim District Executive, Heartland District; Rev. Cynthia Kane, UU minister and Navy chaplain; Dr. Vince Patton, UU and former Coast Guard petty officer

The Rev. Lisa Presley began by saying that Unitarian Universalist (UU) clergy are ideally suited for multi-faith environments like police and the military. However, she added, our congregations do not come across as supporting members of the military. We do not show people that we are welcoming to military and military families.

Presley created a survey of UUs regarding the military and the police. Almost 500 people took the survey. Among the surprising results were that overall, 76% said we needed a strong military. Agreement was highest among those who defined themselves as politically conservative; next highest among those who defined themselves as moderate; this was followed by those currently in the military. But when asked whether they believed their congregation thought this was true, 42% agreed. The lowest agreement scores were those under 24 at 27% who believed their congregation thought this was true; the highest agreement was for those who have been Unitarian Universalists for between 25-34 years and the second highest was among those currently in the military. When asked whether Unitarian Universalists should serve as police chaplains, 84% of individuals agreed, and 48% thought their congregations agreed. This wide divide—a difference of 36 percentage points—was a surprisingly large gap.

What could these answers mean? Presley offered several possibilities. Perhaps people answered for self what they think they should have said, and more accurately reflected their own responses in answering for congregation, Perhaps people answered truthfully for the congregation and themselves, and we are much less accepting in the aggregate than we are individually. Perhaps answers for congregation are not reflective of actual attitudes, and congregations are more supportive than this survey shows. But, in any case, we as UUs do not appear to be supportive, even if we are actually so.

Some congregations will need to make a difficult choice, or learn how to "live smart in the tension." If they are a peace-oriented church where they want to be able to speak out against military actions, they may not be able to be also welcoming to the military. It is possible, but it's difficult to do.

The Rev. Beth Miller added that there is a lot that UU ministers can do. There is a new brochure for UU ministers and military chaplaincy; Unitarian Universalist representatives will be visiting the army chaplain's school at Fort Jackson, trying to build relationships.

The Rev. Cynthia Kane raised the issue of how we bring together two ideas: UU respect for life now (as opposed to the hereafter), and the military's necessity of dealing with death, either one's own or one's colleagues. Kane finds for herself a perfect integrity, bearing allegiance to the UU principles and purposes.

Kane created the "chapulance," a mobile religious vehicle, while serving in Guantanamo. It had UU slogans and such outside the vehicle. She would visit soldiers' hangouts—bars, for example. Soldiers, she said, loved the wallet cards that contained the principles of UUism. She was told by an officer one day, in talking about the role of the military chaplain, "My job is to get the enemy; your job [as a chaplain] is to keep me from liking it." Kane's perspective is that military chaplaincy means bearing witness to another person's experience. She sees her job as healing for some in our UU congregations and troubling for others.

Kane noted that she did not see any torture at Guantanamo Bay, but noted that not seing it doesn't mean it didn't happen. She said that she was called a collaborator and a "chaplain of the gulag" by some UUs because she didn't fit their expectations of attitudes about the military.

Kane explained that the Department of Defense considers UUs "special religious concerns" as we're out of the mainstream—we are "other" to them.

Kane ended by noting that both military and religious institutions are similar in that they bring people to community. Both reach for more than our best; both call us to bring more healing and wholeness to our bruised and broken world.

Dr. Vince Patton (Mount Vernon UU Church, Alexandria, VA), a former coast guard petty officer, told the group that within our faith, there is a history of military chaplains, and that most people don't know it. "We need acceptance within our faith that we can be chaplains," he added, also noting that UUs have asked in an Action of Immediate Witness (AIW) for repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military. The congregation he belongs to, in suburban Virginia, includes military people, and "we are all one people." Currently there are only two UU chaplains in the active military. He urged that UUs spread the word of UUism in the military.

The Rev. Beth Miller has established a UU Committee on Military Ministry (CMM) to support military members and their families; the families of those who are deployed need much support. Regina Largent, retired Army, is on the committee, with two other retired military as well. Rev. Paul Boothby from the Unitarian Church of Norfolk (Virginia) has set up a 70-person committee to support families of deployed personnel.

Our congregations often force people to hide the fact that they were in the military. Lisa told the story of a woman who came up to her at a Memorial Day service and told her "Nobody in my congregation knows I was a nurse in Vietnam."

Presley had a number of suggestions of what UU congregations and members can do:

  • Look at your language. Always speak about the presidency respectfully, and distinguish that from the holder of the office and the actions of his administration. Make sure you separate your opinions of the roles from the actions of the administration.
  • Differentiate between the people and the policies.
  • Make sure you have church services that honor veterans. Many vets won't go to their churches on those days because they're sure they'll only hear anti-military speeches.
  • In general, create a safe space for vets and military families.
  • Create a support group for military, as the Norfolk church did.
  • Are there family members of gay/lesbian service members? Get to know them.
  • Create rituals for those who are going off, or who are returning.

Kane recommends reading AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of American's Upper Classes From Military Service and How It Hurts our Country by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer

In the comment and question period, one participant mentioned that their church is very anti-military, yet every Sunday there are postcards and letters that can be addressed to military deployed overseas. Patton added that is a Department of Defense website run by their public affairs section that can facilitate direct communication with troops. He mentioned that 80% of the population has some connection to the military, whether it's family members, friends serving, etc.

Another participant asked, "How come being against the war is so often taken as being against the troops?" Presley responded that it's different now from the Vietnam war era, when many churches were split apart over protest. Now it's much more subtle and nuanced.

Doug Muder commented that he has a friend who was in the Marine Corps who went to the military funeral of a friend. The only chaplain available was a fundamentalist, who gave the clear indication that the deceased was going to hell. Had there been a UU chaplain available, it would have been a much different service (See Doug's online GA blog).

A woman in the Davis, California, congregation, whose husband is deployed overseas, told the group that "I have had nothing but support from my two churches."

A participant commented, "My son is a marine and he is very cherished in our church. It's very supportive of him." Presley added that she gets mail from many ministers with pacifist leanings, whose own children or grandchildren are now in the military.

Another question was, "What is the current status of evangelism in the military, given the Air Force Academy incidents of the recent past?" Kane answered that that's predominant in all the services. Outreach to service members is part of their mission and their theology, and they have the resources and the mission to do that.

A recent veteran commented that "I was not greeted very well by my denomination when I came back from service overseas. It's great to see so much support and attendance here at this workshop."

A minister asked, "When is the last time on Veterans Day when names of vets were listed in your order of service?" He added that many vets are still struggling psychologically with their military service. In services, joys and concerns, vespers, we can make clear we support people even if we don't support the policies.

A member from a UU church near Seattle commented that her church is doing peace marches, but her son is in Iraq; she doesn't feel supported at all. She suggested starting an informal support group for parents of adult children of those serving in war zones.

Reported by Allan Stern; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.