I recognize that there are big items on the agenda for our Department of Defense and specifically, for Secretary Chuck Hagel. Budget cuts. An historic draw down of troops. Mounting concerns in Syria. So it's understandable why the Pentagon's leadership may have felt this week that a controversial pastor leading its Day of Prayer event was just not at the top of the list to receive its attention. But here's why it should have been.
In the run-up to his February confirmation hearing, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel positioned himself unequivocally as an advocate for LGBT members of the armed forces. Setting aside questions about his motivations for doing so for a moment, it's fair to say that pragmatically, he had little choice. His soon-to-be boss, President Obama, counted the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as one of his most important first-term successes, and the former Nebraska senator had anti-gay sins in his past that he needed to atone for before he could be considered a viable candidate for the job.
So he apologized to Ambassador James Hormel for saying nasty things about him when the openly gay Clinton nominee for an ambassadorship was seeking confirmation, and he promised the Senate's champions of civil rights that he'd grant gay and lesbian military families what benefits he could without running afoul of DOMA. His defenders testified in the press that Hagel was a changed man, and LGBT civil rights advocates received assurances from the highest levels that he'd been thoroughly vetted on the issues and found satisfactory.
In his opening statement at his confirmation hearing, Hagel spoke with earnestness about equal rights and equal opportunity for all who wear the uniform. When asked by Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, "Will you ensure that the Department of Defense, in accommodating religious beliefs or matters of conscience, does not tolerate discrimination or harm to others," Hagel answered, "Absolutely." It seemed to be a victory for the forces of equality, or at least for the forces of evolution.
Unfortunately, Hagel's pre-confirmation words were at odds with his actions yesterday, when his own Pentagon chaplain welcomed virulently anti-gay preacher Greg Laurie to the building to keynote a prayer event to which the whole Pentagon staff was invited. Now, many of us are scratching our heads and wondering how that disconnect happened so soon after the Secretary's confirmation.
This would be the point at which to pick up those questions about Hagel's motivations we set aside earlier, if you were inclined to do so. I'm not. I trust the word of a fellow soldier. I do wonder, though, if the Secretary understands how rhetoric like Laurie's harms his LGBT troops and their families. Perhaps he's never seen the studies of how anti-gay speech negatively impacts LGBT young adults (his average trooper is 21 years old) or read the reports showing how unchallenged anti-gay attitudes affect workplace climate. Perhaps, given his own anti-gay past, it never occurred to him to consider how giving an opinion like Laurie's the official DOD stamp of approval would impact unit cohesion in a force where gay and lesbian people are supposed to be able serve openly. He wouldn't be the first ally to let his privilege get in the way of his values.
Secretary Hagel's bona fides as a former enlisted soldier were supposed to make him better able to relate to the troops, and therefore better qualified to lead them. Given that qualification -- unique among all those who have held the office -- it is perfectly reasonable to expect him to at least consider what the effect on good order and discipline might be of a Pentagon-endorsed speaker telling almost 70,000 U.S. troops that they are a danger to America. Or maybe just to put himself in the shoes of a gay Marine, or the wife of a lesbian soldier, and ask himself, "How would I feel if my chain of command believed Greg Laurie's damning message of demonization was worthy of a hearing?"
Now, I know that our nation's gay and lesbian service members are tough. And they will not be discouraged or demoralized by a single careless act of the Pentagon's leadership to respect their journey toward full equality.
But I also know this: They are the same service members who have been fighting two wars for more than a decade... the same service members who will be called to act if things escalate in Syria, or North Korea, or any one of a number of hot spots around the world. So, why would our nation's military leaders be complicit as these patriots' detractors seek to discredit their identities, their families, and their service and sacrifice to our nation?
In order to keep his word and fulfill his commitment to his LGBT troops and their families, Secretary Hagel is going to have to get a lot better at empathizing with them. He could start by sitting down with a few and getting to know them. Early this week, one of these service members responded to news of this Day of Prayer with a single line, and I couldn't agree more: "Not cool, Mr. Secretary. Not cool."