Close reading: Tony Perkins on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

In a turn of events covered quietly by everyone but Fox News, Congress moved closer to repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell last week, and seems finally ready to allow openly gay Americans to serve in the military. I haven’t been to Chelsea lately, but I assume the streets are empty and everyone is in Kabul. While the rest of the country seems poised between ambivalence and total apathy, church people and soldiers—two groups that reveal a surprising overlap—continue to rail against repeal.* Not least of them is Tony Perkins, former Marine and President of the Family Research Council, who argues on CNN’s Belief Blog that “ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would undermine religious liberty.” If that sounds like a weird inversion to you, buckle up. Perkins’s argument is a horse desperately pushing a cart, relying on a series of tropes that would be baffling were they not so familiar. It’s a microcosm for the larger, logically bankrupt argument against allowing gay men and women a place in modern society, and it’s sufficiently typical—and infuriating—to merit a close reading.

Perkin’s essential contention is that abandoning DADT means more than just letting gay dudes join the army. “It would mean simultaneously ushering out the back door* anyone who disapproves of homosexual conduct,” he writes, “whether because of legitimate privacy and health concerns or because of moral or religious convictions.” In case you’re new to Tony Perkins, he will not be saying what those “legitimate privacy and health concerns” are, although the second one is presumably AIDS and the first one is, apparently, his inordinate interest in everyone else’s sexuality. Perkins prefers to focus on the religious angle, and the fear that good Christian soldiers will be subjected to “sensitivity training intended to indoctrinate them into the myths of the homosexual movement.”

Those myths are basically that it’s all right to be gay and you’re not doing it on purpose anyway. Perkins is afraid that servicemen who have been indoctrinated with another set of myths and speak out against their homosexual comrades will be denied promotions or even forced out of the service “for no other offense than believing what all the great monotheistic religions have believed for all of history.” It’s a dramatic sentence, and indicative of Perkins’s two great talents as a rhetorician.

First, he’s a clever smuggler. “All the great monotheistic religions” are Judaism, Christianity and Islam, whose 6000 years of tradition hardly constitute “all of history.”* By conflating all of their history with all of recorded time, Perkins subtly implants the notion that his (particular, religious, particularly religious) values are the default values of the human condition. They aren’t, or else DADT wouldn’t be a religious issue in the first place.

Second, he’s intellectually dishonest. Religious belief is hardly the only offense committed by his hypothetical soldier, who is passed over for a promotion apparently because he can’t stop talking about how one of his fellow soldiers is going to hell right after he dies. The soldier in this thought experiment (let’s call him Private Perkins) isn’t just religious; he’s also a dick. The military is big on esprit d’corps, and would frown upon any soldier who spent a lot of time criticizing other soldiers’ behavior. That’s the “don’t ask” portion of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the armed services apply the same principle to Private Perkins when he discovers, say, that Private Johnson cheated on his taxes.

Perkins third go-to tactic, which he deploys with less skill and more force, is a simple inversion of values. The obvious argument against DADT is that it imposes one group’s religious values on everybody else. It’s a tough one to refute, so Perkins simply appropriates it. “Under the new regulations,” he wonders, “will [military chaplains] be free to preach from the entire Bible? Or will they be forced to excise the many passages declaring homosexual conduct to be a sin?” He argues that a more inclusive armed forces will force chaplains to pick and choose among the articles of their faith.

Rhetorically, it’s a pyrrhic victory. Perkins’s choice of chaplains as exemplar victims, unable to “proclaim the moral and theological teachings of their faith,” raises a germane question. How about the part about not killing people? Christian soldiers are already forced to ignore Isaiah 2:3-4—”Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore,”—or the infamous Matthew 5:38, in which Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Perkins, who is an ordained minister in addition to being a former Marine, sees no conflict between the religious beliefs of Christian troops and the US military’s stated mission to teach them to kill strangers as efficiently as possible. It would be a glaring inconsistency in his beliefs, were he not viewing them from backstage. Like his discovery that the US military’s refusal to impose Christian beliefs on the general population is a violation of religious freedom, Perkins’s opinions about how killing relates to biblical literalism are not the conclusion of his inquiry but the genesis.

Tony Perkins already knows what’s true. He needs reasoning because he needs reasons, and his analysis suffers accordingly. These are the thoughts of a man who is not thinking for his own benefit but for yours. Is it any surprise that he considers religious liberty—”our nation’s first freedom”—the liberty to exercise his own beliefs on everybody else?

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  1. Also, don’t his arguments sort of imply that, in addition to gay folk, he also doesn’t want atheists in the armed forces? Or any type of sinner? Or anyone except for good, practicing Christians? I fear our army would get awfully small (and kind of lame) if we started listening to this guy.

  2. I suspect the armed forces already have a “line ushering….out the back door”. It includes people who can’t accept 1) minorities in positions of leadership; 2) women in the armed services; 3) gays in the military; 4) separation of church and state sufficient to avoid aggressive evangelism.

    It seems to me if non-Christians in the military can live with constant references to Jesus by chaplains and fellow soldiers, straight military can live with having gay comrades.

    The big challenge is going to be military housing and benefits for married same-sex couples.

  3. Nice post, Dan. I spent 9 years in the military, so I have a little insight into this topic. People in the military are, on average, more conservative, more Republican, more Christian (in belief, if not practice), and more traditional than the general populace. Some of that is chicken-and-egg (those type of people are attracted to the military because that’s the type of people that are in the military), and some of that is instilled by the official–and unofficial–indoctrination processes of the military.

    Military people will resist the open inclusion of gays. As your mother points out, they resisted the inclusion of minorities and women. Through education, time, and sometimes straight force (direct order), the military has become much more racially- and sexually-integrated. In some cases, the military has reverse-discriminated and promoted less-qualified people in order to meet quotas and/or foster an image.

    However, a person’s sexuality is quite different than their sex or race. A person’s sexuality does not need to be as public; it happens at home (or in a truck stop bathroom), and not necessarily in the workplace. That’s why DADT has survived; it’s possible to get along without asking and/or telling one’s sexual preference. Not optimal, but possible. I agree that housing and benefits will get tricky, though, because that does require public acknowledgement.

    In other words, the military will integrate gays as it has integrated others. It will be ugly, it will cause problems, but because the military is very regimented, it will happen if they decide it to. Military members WILL receive sensitivity training about sexuality, and will be expected to comply or receive punishment. However, the training will not “indoctrinate them into the myths of the homosexual movement” as Perkins says. Based on my experience with training, they’ll basically be told that being gay is okay, and it’s not your fucking business, Private Dickface. We already received a lot of sensitivity training telling us to tread carefully if we decide to hit on Sergeant Amanda, and now they’ll just say to be careful hitting on Sergeant Adam too.

    The culture of prejudice will remain for a long time, however. The military is a boys’ club. Gays will meet a less-than-friendly environment, just like women still do now. Are they discriminated against? No. Are they the subject of sexism and jokes? Yup, just like any place that women are in the minority (construction, manufacturing, etc.). The first generations of openly gay soldiers will have to endure a lot of jokes, pranks, hazing, etc. The military basically molds its soldiers into well-disciplined assholes. They are expected to go balls-out and kill people, but only when let off the leash. It’s hard to hold on to that leash all the time.

    However, Perkins displays a poor understanding of military chaplaincy. Many hardcore Christians in the military (including some chaplains) believe that since they are in the majority, they should be allowed to evangelize. Chaplains are in the military in order to be counselors, advisors, and spiritual guides for the soldiers. They have privacy priveleges that are rare in the military. Their job is not to spread a faith, but to serve the faith of the soldiers. That is why there are Wiccan, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc., chaplains. All soldiers are not “indoctrinated in the myths” of the Wiccans, they’re basically told not to care about each other’s religion. Chaplains will have to accept that gays will be serving openly. Will some tell their gay soldiers that, according to their faith, that they are sinners? Yup, that’s part of the spiritual guidance, however retarded it may seem.

    Evangelical christians got into huge trouble recently because they’d basically taken over the Air Force Academy and made into Fort God. The military keeps them in check (more or less), because it’s bad for morale and discipline to involve religion into work, let alone the military. As you point out, the rampant contradictions of christianity haven’t seemed to dawned upon military people like Perkins, so why get so wrapped around the axle now?

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