Senators Tear into Pentagon Nominee to Oversee Chaplains as Being Anti-Christian

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Brenda S. Fulton addresses audience members
Brenda S. Fulton addresses audience members as part of a panel during a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month event in the auditorium at the Pentagon June 26, 2012. (DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad McNeeley)

Republican senators on Thursday hammered the nominee for a key Pentagon military personnel job, arguing past tweets and statements show she will not be able to respect Christian troops' religious freedoms and oversee chaplains.

The political fireworks happened as Brenda "Sue" Fulton, who was tapped by President Joe Biden to be assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, testified at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Fulton is a West Point graduate who was the first openly gay member of the academy's Board of Visitors, and she has led several LGBT military groups including SPARTA, which advocates for transgender troops.

Pointing to a tweet where Fulton called Republicans "right-wing anti-everyone nutjobs falling in love with a dictatorship," Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., pressed Fulton on whether she thinks Christian Republican reservists and Guardsmen are "racist" and "nutjobs."

"I'm a Christian, and no, I don't," Fulton replied. "I will, as I have throughout my career, work side by side with Republicans, with Democrats, with independents, with anyone regardless of their political beliefs, for the mission, for what is best for our Armed Forces."

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who is the committee chairman, defended Fulton's "extraordinary career" that he said has included working with people of all different ethnicities, as well as political and religious beliefs.

"There's been no complaints by any of your subordinates or any of your superiors about your work," Reed said.

But that was not enough to mollify Republicans, who said they would oppose the nomination.

"I think you'll understand why so many members of this committee and this Senate do not think you are fit to take over this position. You are going to be in charge of military chaplains," said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a staunch conservative who is seen as a possible 2024 presidential contender. "You have a long history of offensive, inflammatory accusations against Bible-believing Christians."

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Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., accused Fulton of saying "callous, hateful, divisive and absolutely untrue things" over the years. Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Dan Sullivan of Alaska also explicitly said they would oppose Fulton.

Among the comments at issue was a 2017 interview with The New York Times in which Fulton said military chaplains are required to provide guidance to service members regardless of their religious beliefs.

"What people fail to understand is that chaplains give up some of their rights as ministers when they become military chaplains," Fulton said in 2017.

Republicans argued the statement was anti-religious and shows she should not hold a job where she would be in charge of military chaplains. But Fulton said her point was that a military chaplain is "required to find support for that individual one way or another, either support them themselves or find that support."

"Whereas a civilian could turn someone away and say 'not my job,'" Fulton explained.

Republicans also pointed to a 2011 quote in which Fulton argued the repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for gay service members and the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to ignore gay marriages, were the product of a "powerful right-wing anti-gay, anti-abortion lobby" that was more radical than Christian.

Cotton zeroed in on tweets in which Fulton said "'religious freedom' is twisted to mean conservative Christians can dictate their views to the rest of us." She also argued for repealing a 1993 law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and claimed "the vast majority of white evangelical leaders are utterly unmoored from the gospel of Jesus Christ."

"I support religious freedom, and I would support religious freedom for all of our troops, all of our civilian employees, consistent with the law," she replied.

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., raised a 2018 social media post in which Fulton said, "It's not a political statement to say the GOP is racist, it's a moral statement, and one backed up by an increasing amount of evidence."

Fulton apologized for the earlier remark.

"The words are muddled and confused, and I deeply regret them," she said during the testimony. "I know that when we talk about race, we have to do it in a way that opens and expands the conversation instead of shutting it. And by that standard, I failed miserably, and I deeply apologize."

Republicans, who have leaned into culture wars as part of their electoral strategy, have attacked a few of Biden's nominees for controversial tweets despite largely staying silent about former President Donald Trump's inflammatory tweets when he was in office.

They locked arms in opposition to Colin Kahl, who was confirmed anyway as undersecretary of defense for policy, over his partisan outbursts on Twitter.

While nominees do not need GOP votes to be confirmed, staunch Republican opposition can slow down a confirmation at a time when key national security jobs remain unfilled more than eight months into Biden's presidency. The chamber's 50-50 party divide also means nominees cannot lose any Democratic support if all Republicans oppose the nomination.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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