(RNS) Christian conservatives have grown increasingly alarmed in recent weeks over reports and rumors that the Pentagon is considering new policies aimed at discriminating against Christians and disciplining or even court-martialing those who share their faith.

Army Chaplain Capt. Joseph Odell baptizes a fellow soldier on the field in Afghanistan. RNS photo courtesy Joseph Odell

Army Chaplain Capt. Joseph Odell baptizes a fellow soldier on the field in Afghanistan. RNS photo courtesy Joseph Odell


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But the Department of Defense on Thursday (May 2) sought to debunk that speculation, saying that while aggressive proselytizing is barred, evangelization is still permitted and the rights of all believers – and non-believers – will be protected.

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

“Service members can share their faith (evangelize), but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs (proselytization),” Christensen added.

He also said that “when religious harassment complaints are reported, commanders take action based on the gravity of the occurrence on a case by case basis.” He did not specify what the range of penalties could be.

The latest statement was aimed at refuting widely circulated reports in conservative media outlets that Christian soldiers could be court-martialed for sharing their faith.

Rear Adm. William D. Lee of the U.S. Coast Guard warned of threats to faith within the military while speaking at National Day of Prayer observances on Capitol Hill. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Rear Adm. William D. Lee of the U.S. Coast Guard warned of threats to faith within the military while speaking at National Day of Prayer observances on Capitol Hill. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Whether the push back will be successful in dispelling suspicions, even within the ranks, is uncertain. Even as Christensen released his statement Thursday, Rear Adm. William D. Lee of the U.S. Coast Guard warned of threats to faith within the military while speaking at National Day of Prayer observances on Capitol Hill.

“I am not talking about proselytizing; I am vehemently against that,” the admiral said in remarks that drew a standing ovation. “I’m talking about gently whispering the gospel.”

The current controversy seems to have originated with Fox News contributor Todd Starnes, who on Tuesday wrote about a Pentagon meeting on harassment and tolerance issues; among the attendees was the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Mikey Weinstein.

Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has had grafitti sprayed on his house, dead animals left on his lawn and shots fired through his window. Critics' prayers against him, he said, are the least of his worries. Religion News Service file photo.

Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has had grafitti sprayed on his house, dead animals left on his lawn and shots fired through his window. Critics’ prayers against him, he said, are the least of his worries. Religion News Service file photo.


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Weinstein is known for his inflammatory rhetoric about religious believers and Christians in particular, and he didn’t disappoint this time: he told The Washington Post after the April 23 meeting that proselytizing in the military is akin to “spiritual rape,” among other things.

The Fox News report on Weinstein’s remarks also cited a statement from Christensen, the Pentagon spokesman, who reiterated the preexisting policy against proselytizing. But the Starnes piece went on to claim that the policy also applied to evangelizing, or sharing the gospel. In addition, the story highlighted court martial as a possible penalty.

Outlets like Breitbart.com then amplified the reports with stories such as “Pentagon May Court Martial Soldiers Who Share Christian Faith.” The Washington-based Family Research Council then launched a petition drive – which had more than 100,000 signatures as of Thursday – to urge the Pentagon “to scrub plans to court-martial Christians.”

But this latest dust up did not occur in a vacuum.

In recent years the U.S. military has become a battleground in the culture wars as the growing pluralism of the armed forces, along with increasing assertiveness of both Christian and secular activists, have led the Pentagon to clarify and develop policies of neutrality.

Those policies often do not sit well with Christians, and the Obama administration’s 2011 decision to end the military’s “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy on gay service personnel ramped up their fears still further.

Then in early April it was reported that during a U.S. Army Reserve presentation, an outside contractor had included Catholics and evangelicals in a PowerPoint show listing possible “extremists.” While the Army removed the offending slide, the incident was reported as another example of anti-Christian bias in the military.

Scott McChrystal, a retired Army chaplain and the military/VA representative for the Assemblies of God, prays during a church service with other veterans. RNS photo courtesy Scott McChrystal

Scott McChrystal, a retired Army chaplain and the military/VA representative for the Assemblies of God, prays during a church service with other veterans. RNS photo courtesy Scott McChrystal

Just three weeks later, when some soldiers and chaplains complained that they were blocked from logging onto the website of the Southern Baptist Convention, Christian conservatives accused the military of targeting evangelicals for censorship.

Even after it turned out that the problem lay with a glitch in the SBC’s own website, the Family Research Council and others still insisted the incident revealed a troubling pattern of military antipathy to Christians – a charge that critics said was akin to crying wolf.

“Conservatives are supposed to stand for truth against relativism. But that seems not to be the play in this case,” wrote RealClearReligion columnist Jeffrey Weiss. “Truth that doesn’t fit a predetermined narrative is stood on its head and square-peg-crammed into a round hole.”

The Christian activist group Alliance Defending Freedom on Thursday claimed victory, saying the Pentagon had “backtracked” on its previous position, but said it was still going to pursue legal channels to investigate “this gross error.”

(Adelle M. Banks contributed to this report)

KRE END GIBSON

29 Comments

  1. After witnessing sexual harassment by a senior NCO (I was a junior NCO) in a time before “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was dropped, I became convinced that military life in present day times is inadvisable for faithful Christians to participate in anything military. It’s way to easy for high ranking soldiers to ruin the lives of junior soldiers. I know. I nearly was charged with a serious crime at the word of a lying 1st Lieutenent in 1989. Thank God he was found in his web of lies! It destroyed me for the rest of my life. I have not been able to trust anyone ever since this and a previous harassment from a 1st Sergeant that called me a “Religious Freak” and “Holy Roller.” I tried to get of the Chaplains special duty roster and begged him not to tell anyone. I didn’t want to cause waves with Top. It just wasn’t worth it. Top tried to give me extra duty and an Article 15 for not being there fore guard duty after he knew we were selected by the Chaplain to represent the Battalion in and International Pilgrimage in Lourdes. I went from Catholic to Protestant by the end of my active duty tour, procelytized by locals in Lawton…married into my wife’s huge Protestant family known for procelytizing. Since then, we’ve all converted to Catholicism after realizing the lies and that Protestants also have their faults in leadership and the truth is greatly misunderstood by refusing to read the real history of the Church, which I so inconveniently discovered in 2006 and which caused me to turn white as a ghost. I went back home and my wife read what I read and was convinced.

    Proselytizing exists everywhere, even Catholics do it in their misguided “good intentions”. But what I find even harsher is the secular people trying to force a natural instinct in mankind out of good intentioned men and women trying to serve their country. The hate is way too evil for my taste. And with this, my son was going to join the Army whether I wanted him or not. So I helped him get setup for ROTC. At least that would help protect him a little as a commissioned officer. Since that time, he realized all of what I taught him in a moment of an epiphany and decided not to join at all. Thank God. The U.S. military has been led down a dark path where noble men and women will not be welcome. Homosexuals will get away with destroying lives by manipulating policies and accusing the accusers of “being gay too.” The policy of “Don’t ask don’t tell” needs to be reinstated, just like the “Jody” calls were also refuted. I used to be the only soldier in the ranks with some rank to stop soldiers from “cat calls”. There were few of me back then. I see from my more recent enlistment less that a decade ago that its gotten much worse – sexual harassment escalated into insane levels. My son’s and daughter deserve a much better life than what the U.S. military is willing to provide them. Duty, Honor, Country. These may be things of the past for Christians.

  2. Proselytizing is against the law in Iran too. It sounds clear to me that either no change is needed at all or that the word proselytizing means that a regular guy can’t tell another man or women about Jesus salvation outside the confines of some type of church environment. That is clearly against the word of God and Christians cannot follow that order or law. It is also clearly against the freedom of religion and the free exersize there of, we are giveing in the constitution. Once again, people with evil intent are attempting to take away more civil rights and freedoms at the expense of Christians and the true meanings of the constitution of the U. S. The constitution also states that Congress cannot pass ANY laws that infringe on our religious freedoms. Therefore the armed services are bound by the constitution as well because we all raise our right hand and swear to uphold and protect the constitution of the U.S from threats both foreign and domestic. By adding this un-American word “proselytizing”, haters of Christian truths are attempting to circumvent the constitution so as to shut up the spreading of Christian salvation. Gods word will never be shut off or take away. Regardless of what they do, God rules.

    • It is clear that “proselytizing” as used in this context is synonymous with “harassment”. For any action to be taken a complaint would have to be made and proved. If you want to share your faith with one of your peers and he is agreeable to listening there is no problem. If you are a officer or executive trying to push your faith onto a subordinate or if you continue to harass a peer who has objected that is clearly harassment and should be prohibited.

  3. No prayer allowed in school, no 10 Commandments allowed to be displayed in school, no utterance of Jesus in school, no displays of monuments extolling Jesus or Christianity, of course the Pentagon’s explaination is totally believable.

    • Garson Abuita

      The Christian right certainly has a tenuous relationship with the truth. All of the things you state are allowed, depending on the context.

  4. A number of survey research projects have shown a connection between states with high religious participation and serious social problems such as spouse abuse, drug abuse, porn use, etc. I can help but wonder if the rise in sexual abuse in the military is tied to the rise in the military of evangelical Christianity and proselytizing.

  5. “……but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs….”

    This sentence is the linchpin. Too many devout Christians try to force their beliefs on others and belittle those who question what they are told. This is one of the biggest problems with Christianity today. Sharing the “Good Word” with a receptive person is one thing: beating an unreceptive person over the head with your beliefs is quite another.

  6. My question is this…why during government shutdown, Christian chaplins were not allowed to hold a service, even at a place off base even there own home, where court martial was a possible repercussion. ..but muslims chaplains could still hold their services on friday without any possible repercussion.

  1. [...] Hence the furor over “anti-Catholic” officials in Miami trying to close a soup kitchen run by Mother Teresa’s order — or not — or anger over the liberal media conspiracy to “blackout” coverage of the Kermit Gosnell trial — or not — or the scandal of Obama’s Pentagon hunting down Christians in the military to court-martial them if they talk about their faith — or not. [...]

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