The Pentagon’s problem with proselytizing

May 20, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-lead

PentagonUSA, May 09, 2013: In early April, Army Reserve soldiers in Pennsylvania were told in a redeployment briefing that evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics were “extremists,” the same category as al Qaeda. Later that month, the Southern Baptist Convention’s website was blocked on Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps bases due to what the military’s software filter told Web users was “hostile content.” And in early May, news reports said that an anti-Christian crusader had proposed new rules for the Pentagon so that military-service members could be court-martialed for sharing their faith.

But the initial reports on these matters were exaggerated, taken out of context or simply false. The Army Reserve briefing materials in Pennsylvania were quickly corrected, and the alleged website ban turned out to be a software glitch. On May 2, the Pentagon issued a statement reiterating its policy that personal evangelism is permitted:

“The U.S. Department of Defense has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution,” assured Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen in the statement. “The Department makes reasonable accommodations for all religions and celebrates the religious diversity of our service members.”

So is the case about Pentagon policy closed? Not at all, say some religious-liberty advocates.

For one thing, the Pentagon statement clarifying that military personnel would not be court-martialed if they “evangelize” also said that “proselytization” is considered a Uniform Code of Military Justice offense. Yet the definitions of those two words are almost identical: Merriam-Webster defines proselytization as “to recruit or convert especially to a new faith, institution, or cause” and evangelize as “to preach the gospel to or to convert to Christianity.”

In response to the Pentagon statement, two Southern Baptist leaders issued their own statement on May 6 voicing concern about religious freedom, even while cautioning Christians to refrain from jumping to conclusions. “What incidents have taken place, we wonder, that would call for this seemingly arbitrary distinction between ‘evangelizing’ and ‘proselytizing’?” asked the Rev. Russell Moore, president-elect of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Rev. Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board. “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.”

The ambiguity of how these regulations are defined and enforced, Messrs. Moore and Ezell said, could lead men and women in the military to fear retribution and choose to remain silent: “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.”

If the Pentagon wants to reassure soldiers that they won’t be persecuted for sharing their faith, the fact that military leaders have met with Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, isn’t helping. Launched in 2006 and with $700,000 in reported donations in 2011, the foundation fights what Mr. Weinstein decries as the undue influence of evangelical Christians in the U.S. military. (The foundation’s website offerings include: “SHOCKING VIDEO: MRFF Reveals U.S. Military Being Used as Government-Paid Missionaries.”) Mr. Weinstein, who served as an Air Force advocate general for 10 years, has said that he and his sons experienced harassment due to their Jewish faith during their studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

A trip by Mr. Weinstein to the Pentagon last month prompted a flurry of alarm in evangelical circles. The worries that he had become a Pentagon adviser gained such currency that a military spokesman moved last week to clarify matters. Mr. Weinstein is not a Defense adviser or consultant, the spokesman said, adding: “Mr. Weinstein requested, and was granted, a meeting at the Pentagon April 23, with the Air Force judge advocate general and others, to include the deputy chief of chaplains, to express his concerns of religious issues in the military.”

Mr. Weinstein, whom the Associated Press once quoted as saying that a Christian-themed bumper sticker on an officer’s car or a Bible on an officer’s desk can amount to “pushing this fundamentalist version of Christianity on helpless subordinates,” wants the Pentagon to court-martial officers who proselytize.

Part of the alarm among Christians is the extreme rhetoric Mr. Weinstein uses to characterize them. In an April 16 Huffington Post column, for instance, Mr. Weinstein referred to evangelical Christians as “monsters of human degradation, marginalization, humiliation and tyranny.”

Evangelical groups say that Mr. Weinstein’s hateful rhetoric should disqualify him from having any influence on the military. One reason the Pentagon meeting caused such a stir was that Mr. Weinstein, on his foundation’s website, already takes credit for dozens of campaigns to limit the influence of religion in the military, and he prominently notes that last year he was named by Defense News, a Gannett publication aimed at a military readership, as one of the “100 Most Influential People in U.S. Defense.”

Joe Carter, a former Marine and an editor for the online evangelical magazine The Gospel Coalition, says nobody can take religious freedom for granted. “There was a time—just a few years ago, in fact—when we could laugh off such views by extremists like Weinstein. But the political climate has become increasingly hostile to religious liberties and all threats must be watched more carefully.”

The Pentagon is still struggling to contain the rumors that unsettled so many evangelicals in recent weeks. The erroneous reports do need to be corrected. But military leaders should recognize that the rumors spread far and fast in part because they were so believable.

– wsj

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