Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Can the Church Please Repeal?

By Robert Harvey

Just a few months ago, we were able to witness the historic House and Senate votes on the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the discriminatory law that has denied more than 14,000 Americans – and countless others barred or discouraged from enlisting – the ability to serve openly and honestly about their sexuality in our military. Enacted after a long, arduous battle, this repeal allowed the president and the Pentagon to implement a new policy of non-discrimination for lesbian and gay service members.

Yet, even after the houses of Congress had the fortitude to defend our country’s values of freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans, there is an institution [a large, diverse, and divided institution] that holds on to “Don’t ask, don’t tell” as its policy—the Church. Behind the Sunday morning messages of love and compassion, lie oppressive religious structures which condemn and oppress gay and lesbian persons. It is virtually impossible to approach the topic of gay and lesbian equality—in marriage, in adoption, and in yes, even in ordained ministry—without a variety of responses, including raised eyebrows, perplexed faces, painful tears, and proclamations of hell and condemnation; on the other side one might be met with open arms, joyful laughter, inner peace, and unconditional love.

With the most vocal voices being those of biblical fundamentalism and literalism, the ‘left’ Church needs to identify itself more publically in order to combat this idea that the irrationally loud get to determine the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for an oppressed population. Sorrowfully to report, many on the loud ‘right’ seem to have lost their copy of the Gospels where Jesus instructs: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). It this passage, Jesus is capsizing the hierarchal and legislative systems in place that held down oppressed and marginalized persons. According to Dr. Cornel West in The Cornel West Reader, “what the Palestinian Jew named Jesus was all about was, ‘I’m going to overturn various forms of hierarchy that stand in the way of being connected with you compassionately.’”

Of course, because the ‘right’ would read the words of Jesus as suggesting that love implies confronting the “sins” of our brothers and sisters, let us be clear that this was by no means Jesus’ message. Dr. West suggests throughout Jesus’ ministry, he directly addressed any issues of morality and degradation that were being projected as attempts to hurt the positive-functioning life of others. He expounds on this idea when he writes:
If Jesus was proclaiming a certain kind of love-centered state of existence that is impinging upon the space and time in which we live, impinging upon history, and if this issue of homosexuality and homoeroticism was a fundamental sin, he certainly would have highlighted it … what we get, as in so many other cases, is an attempt to project various conceptions of the gospel that followed after the life and resurrection of Jesus, in an attempt to reinforce the very thing that he himself was fighting against.
Despite progress being made in many of the areas of American society—politically, educationally, and economically—many Christian denominational networks continue to preserve an exclusion of gays and lesbians from active participation in the life of the church, but also in the life of their own existence. In spite of the state-by-state advancement in marriage/civil union rights for gays and lesbians, many Christian churches maintain the patriarchal, heterosexist, fundamentalist, and irrational belief that heterosexual marriage possesses an inherent superiority to homosexual marriage, while studies suggest that heterosexual marriages possess the highest rates of divorce compared to both gay and interracial relationships; in the words of the Reverend Dr. Peter J. Gomes, minister of the Harvard Memorial Church:

“I think Jesus would say, ‘The Gospel is inconvenient, it makes people nervous. But if there is anything that can be done to encourage fidelity, and loyalty, and recreating the kingdom of God between two people, I’m for it. And your heterosexual world is not all that great, 50% percent of marriages end in divorce.’”
Let me note that there are several denominational networks, including the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America that have embraced and unconditionally welcomed the gay and lesbian community, yet the larger, universal Church still embraces the policy of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’. It is both deceitful and distressing that an institution, which is built on the principles of love, hope, compassion, and community—all lessons of Jesus, of course—would be so closely affiliated with oppression, victimization, and exclusion. Just as the Church had to [and continues to] confront its irrationality of racial and gender issues, it too must confront gay and lesbian inclusion.

The Church, the ‘right’ and ‘left’, has to stop holding God to the boundaries of limited human consciousness and practice the message it claims to believe. The Gospels inform us: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The Church in order to truly follow Jesus must be willing to turn from its ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ ways, take up the cross to include all persons, and follow after Jesus.

Robert S. Harvey is currently a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, where he addresses the intersection of religion, education, democracy, and civil rights. Robert is also a Baptist minister and has published a number of essays, articles, and social commentaries; he is currently completing a book entitled, 'Unconditional Love, Unconditional Inclusion: The Role of Christian Churches in the Social Development of Gays and Lesbians.'


  1. It seems remiss to discuss the 'left' Church and gay and lesbian inclusion without mentioning the United Church of Christ, which self-identifies as a place of "extravagant welcome for LGBT persons" and was the first denomination to ordain an openly gay pastor. Read more here:

  2. Alyssa, I agree with you; and I ask your forgiveness for unfortunately leaving out the UCC. It was of no malice. Similarly, there are other denominational networks who are taking left and liberal positions on the matter who were also left out. Again, my apologies.

  3. You have presented a very interesting parallel here Rob. While I have been cognizant of the discrimination the church attempts to justify through specific gospel references, I would have never thought to liken it to the government both in the opposing views of left vs right but also the debate encircling interpretation of the constitution (govt's bible). My fear is that inaccurate, lazy and incomplete critical analysis of the Church on the part of the average person will allow folks to simply dismiss it as hypocritical instead of identifying the human error involved here; ultimately causing some to miss out on a chance to maintain, grow or find faith. I only hope folks like you who strive to reach, teach and display the true strength of spirituality can continue to be an example for others.

    Much love and continue pressing forward!