As everyone knows, General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told the Chicago Tribune that homosexual conduct is immoral and that, therefore, its practitioners should not be allowed to join the Armed Services. (He has since retracted and apologized.) "Immoral" seemed an odd phrase. In most western moral systems, immorality requires an element of harm to, or disregard for, others. The obvious examples are robbery or murder--though even sexual conduct that some call immoral supposedly degrades the moral climate of the community. That's mostly nonsense; on the rare instances when sexual conduct should be an object of moral scrutiny, it involves harming another--as (in Pace's other example) adultery does--through a hurtful breach of trust. But no one is actually harmed--and no civil liberties are trampled--by homosexuality. When pressed to describe the immorality, he said it was just what his upbringing taught him. (He's not the only one in the military who feels this way.) I take that to mean the Catholic Church in which he was raised.
Ever since the notorious "values" exit poll after the election of 2004, people have been telling each other how important religion is in American political thought (and many Democrats credit a renewed emphasis on religion with their 2006 victories). "Democrats now agree they have a problem with groups who have high levels of religious faith and observance," the political theorist Bill Galston told the audience at the Pew Forum's annual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life. The entire code of Western ethics has its origins in the Bible, people say. Or, look at how Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. used Christian morality to argue against segregation. This country was founded by Christian gentlemen, the Declaration of Independence cites the Creator, and so on.
And, if we want to incorporate the entire Judeo-Christian tradition into current policy, it is true that the Old Testament does say harsh things about sodomy. So, just as--following Biblical tradition--they don't mix milk and meat, observant Jews, for instance, should be pretty tough on gay people. But why do Christians pay the Old Testament's commandments any mind? After all they stopped keeping Kosher centuries ago, when Jesus wiped the rulebook clean except for the ethical code--e.g., the Ten Commandments. And the Judeo-Christian ethics don't say anything about sodomy. The whole apparatus of condemnation rests on three letters from Paul, decades later, in which he called homosexuality "against nature." Homosexuality thus presents the purest instance of whether a democratic republic should enforce a purely theological (rather than ethical) prohibition--one with not the slightest secular defense. It's as if Pace had said the Army would not take people who eat bacon.
There are obvious practical reasons why this is stupid: Allowing a religious dictate to exclude gays from the Armed Forces disregards real secular, civil benefits. First of all, we need all the help we can get. (Remember the story about Arabic translators who were booted on account of "don't ask, don't tell"?) And there's a moral case that you can't truly be a citizen if you're part of a class that is barred from defending the nation. (This is why I argued long ago against the exclusion of women.)
The link between soldiering and citizenship is an old one. At the earliest stages of Western history, only men who had enough land to afford armor could be citizens of Athens. The best illustration of this connection was The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. As Italy's fascist regime tightened its laws, the protagonists, Italian Jews, withdrew from society to its fabulous estate--prepared to wait it out until the storm passed. Although we know the outcome anyway, the crucial scene occurs when the pampered son takes a train trip and winds up the only civilian in a car full of his uniformed peers. Only the Jewish boy can't join the Italian Army. The outcome is inevitable. (I am not saying that we've cultivated a fascist regime in which gays will be slaughtered for immorality. If anything, American society seems to be moving away from the "morality" of Pace's upbringing. But the rewards of service are great and deep, and the costs of exclusion to all members of the excluded group are also great and deep.)
In fact, the very fact that "don't ask, don't tell" has persisted seems like a fluke. The Supreme Court has, in recent years, ruled that gays may not be stopped from seeking protection from discrimination and that homosexual sex may not be made criminal. The Constitution protects gays, just like any other citizen, voting, asking, telling, and acting like any sexual being (except in private organizations, like Church groups or the Cub Scouts, which may ban them). Only in the Armed Forces are they treated like the Jews in Mussolini's Italy.
It is true that the full panoply of constitutional rights do not apply to the military. Commanders may forbid certain types of expression (servicemen can't publish their whereabouts if it may help the enemy), and you could even argue that compulsory service--the draft--violated the Thirteenth Amendment proscribing slavery. Courts martial aren't exactly models of due process. And, sometimes, that's OK: It's a balance.
But the last things that should be sacrificed in the name of balance are the guarantees of equality enshrined in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Those rules exist so that a diverse nation does not act on ideas that General Pace's family got from the Apostle Paul. Unlike expression that reveals the location of troops in wartime, there is no rational or empirical argument for excluding whole groups of able-bodied people. Time and again, as society has come to accept once excluded and defamed groups (blacks, women, Asians), the Armed Services have been strengthened by their inclusion. Because America is a country of many people and cultures; because the Armed Services have historically served as an avenue to full citizenship; because prejudices like Pace's have never survived the test of time; and because the diversity of people willing to make great sacrifices for their society is a source of strength, not weakness, there are only two immoralities a secular society should recognize when considering excluding gays from service--bigotry and ingratitude.
By Linda Hirshman