When the Air Force chaplain’s office rescinded its invitation to Tony Perkins to keynote a military families’ prayer luncheon, it should have been over something truly dreadful. Disinvitation is serious business; usually, once an offer has been made and accepted, hospitality is supposed to kick in.
So what did Perkins, a former Marine and president of the Family Research Council, do to offend the Air Force chaplaincy? He wrote on his organization’s website that he opposes Pres. Barack Obama’s intention to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
In the words of a written statement from the authorities at Andrews, Perkins’s invitation was retracted “after his recent public comments made many who planned to attend the event uncomfortable.” The chaplain’s office “wanted the luncheon to be inclusive for the entire base community.”
Those who were distressed by Perkins’s opinion still work for a military that does not allow homosexuals to serve openly, a reality beside which Perkins’s mere comments really ought to pale. All Perkins did was express his support for what is still, despite the president’s opposition, the law, which is not such a strange thing for a former military man to do.
Indeed, the week of the Perkins-less prayer luncheon, several current military men expressed the same opinion. Air Force chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told the House Armed Services Committee that “this is not the time to perturb the force, which is at the moment stretched by demands in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, without careful deliberation.” His Army counterpart, Gen. George Casey, said he had “serious concerns” about a repeal. (Both were invited back onto their bases after testifying.)
And it isn’t as though Perkins had been scheduled to speak about “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The theme of his convocation — which was put on the books way back in October 2009 — was “Back to Basics.” The event was devotional, not political. “I would have never used this venue as a political venue to even mention the president,” Perkins said, “unless it was to pray for him.”
Air Force chaplain Lt. Col. Gary Bertsch made one good point — exactly one — which was: “As military members, we are sworn to support our commander-in-chief, and are forbidden to make or support statements which run counter to our roles in the armed forces.”
It’s true enough that military men owe deference to their commander-in-chief and shouldn’t be noisy about points of disagreement with him. But the president has invited debate on gays in the military. Congress has called on high-ranking men to give their honest and expert opinions. Perkins heads an organization that specializes in family issues. Of course he would weigh in.
The chaplain’s argument seems even odder when you consider the press release that got Perkins in trouble. The day after President Obama’s State of the Union address, Perkins posted a response to the FRC website that included this line: “The sexual environment the President is seeking to impose upon the young men and women who serve this country is the antithesis of the successful warfighting culture and as such should be rejected.” Not exactly flamethrower language. The release then went on to discuss various other topics, such as child-care tax credits.
Perkins doesn’t personify opposition to gays in the military, and the FRC isn’t a single-issue shop dedicated to thwarting gay rights. If the chaplain hadn’t made an issue of the FRC’s opposition to this particular White House agendum, the prayer luncheon probably would have come and gone without incident.
When a respected national figure like Tony Perkins starts seeing prayer-luncheon engagements canceled over a position rooted in Christian orthodoxy, it’s time to make sure our religious liberty is still in the last place we left it. The chaplain’s office would never say that a guest of the base may not believe as Perkins does, of course, but it does seem to be suggesting that its guests keep that opinion to themselves. Rep. Jack Kingston (R., Ga.) suspects that this chilling effect is exactly what Perkins’s critics had in mind. “They knew there would be a backlash to this, and I think they had a design about that.” The incident wasn’t about Perkins, he thinks, but about “using him to drive a message — that your brand of sermon is no longer welcome in the U.S. military.”
Whether the Air Force meant to send it or not, the message is clear enough. If this is where the policy stands now, imagine how strict things will become if “don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed.
– Helen Rittelmeyer is an associate editor of National Review.