Is proselytizing outlawed in the U.S. military?

I have been troubled by recent reports about alleged religious liberty violations in the United States military. Some of the reports have turned out to be more hype than help, but there has been enough reporting to suggest some serious issues of concern.

Russell Moore (ERLC) and Kevin Ezell (NAMB) have released a joint statement in response to these reports, and they have sifted through the hype to the central issues at stake. They write:

We reject any and all attempts to sensationalize or misrepresent situations, in this or any other context. Having said that, we are concerned. While rejecting any conspiracy theory linking the reports above, we believe there are in some of these cases elements that are indicative of a troubling lack of respect for true religious diversity in our military. Furthermore, problematic attempts in some sectors of the military to compromise the free exercise of religion have given a sense of plausibility when other such reports emerge, even when those reports are not grounded in fact.

The joint statement gives special attention to recent reports that proselytizing has been outlawed in the U. S. military.

On May 1, some news sources reported that soldiers could be prosecuted for sharing their faith, up to and including court-martial. FACT: The Department of Defense clarified that no troops or chaplains are being court-martialed for evangelism. Military spokespersons said that evangelism is not a punishable offense, but that “proselytizing,” defined as an unwelcome coercion of religious beliefs, would be considered a Uniform Code of Military Justice offense because such action violates good order and discipline by forcing faith beliefs on those not welcoming such advances…

We are most concerned about the language of “proselytizing” as a punishable offense. We agree, of course, that no one should coerce religious beliefs on anyone else. As a matter of fact, if the military were to allow some sort of coercive conversion—to any religion, including ours—we would object to such as a violation of both the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and of our consciences. We believe the New Birth comes by the Spirit of Christ not by the sword of Caesar.

This behavior is, of course, clearly already prohibited as harassment. What incidents have taken place, we wonder, that would call for this seemingly arbitrary distinction between “evangelizing” and “proselytizing”? Proselytizing, after all, includes a range of meaning, encompassing a definition of “seeking to recruit to a cause or to a belief.” With a subjective interpretation and adjudication of such cases, we need reassurance that such would not restrict the free exercise of religion for our chaplains and military personnel.

After all, who defines what is proselytizing and what is evangelism? What could seem to be a friendly conversation about spiritual matters to one serviceperson could be perceived or deliberately mischaracterized as “proselytizing” to the person on the receiving end. The fact that this has been raised at all in such a subjective fashion could have a chilling effect on service personnel sharing their faith at all.

Read the rest here.

5 Responses to Is proselytizing outlawed in the U.S. military?

  1. polarbear May 6, 2013 at 6:19 pm #

    Thanks for posting this Denny. I have been seeing the same stuff, but had not seen enough from credible sources (whatever that means anymore) to determine if it were true or not. It is an uneasy place to work when unknown people define the terminology such as proselytizing and evangelizing. Glad that this is being brought to light.

  2. James Stanton May 6, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

    I can probably add more at a later time but I’ll keep it short for now. I can only speak for the Army but the military is a microcosm of society and although tradition and a type of conservatism is upheld we also reflect the evolution of society albeit at a slower pace.

    I wouldn’t be surprised that hostility to evangelism is rising in the military just as it has in civilian society in recent years in the USA. I wonder, however, if military personnel are more likely, especially the younger ones, to have a suspicious and hostility to anything considered extreme as a result of the wars we’ve been tasked with fighting in recent years. Something I hear repeatedly is that religion is to blame for all our social and political ills and it is not aimed at at one particular religion.

  3. Greg Henderson May 7, 2013 at 9:10 am #

    Thanks for keeping up with this issue Denny. As someone who resides outside Washington, D.C. this is a story that peaks my interest. I know so many people who either serve in the military or work for other government agencies who could be affected by this. It will be interesting to see where this story heads.

  4. Ian Shaw May 7, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    Here we are, back to the debate about the definition of words again…..

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. News of Note: “Southern Baptist Convention Releases Joint Statement Related to Christian Soldiers Proselytizing in the Military” | Santa Monica Church Blog - May 6, 2013

    […] “Is proselytizing outlawed in the U.S. military?” – Denny Burk on the joint Southern Baptist Statement in response to the controversy related […]

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