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No, the Pentagon won't court-martial service members for sharing their faith.

Over the past few days, several limbs of conservative media have been vibrating with the fear that the Department of Defense was about to hatch a dark plot to persecute military personnel -- including chaplains -- for "sharing their faith." Some critics found those claims unpersuasive. But yesterday, news outlets began reporting a new Pentagon statement allegedly banning "proselytizing," under threat of court martial. And those who predicted the military was about to bar Christians from obeying Jesus' command to "preach the gospel" declared that they were right all along. Today, however, in response to my queries about the earlier statement, the Department of Defense has clarified that there is no ban on faith-sharing in the military.

Early last month, conservatives began circulating the meme that the Pentagon had begun classifying Catholics and evangelicals as "extremists." That claim was made on the basis of one PowerPoint slide that appeared during a U.S. Army Reserve presentation, given by an outside contractor. When the Army removed the slide from its website, rather than take that as a sign of embarrassment, some believed it confirmed their suspicions about burgeoning anti-Christianity in the military.

This dovetailed nicely with reports this week that an "anti-Christian activist" had been hired by the Pentagon to help them shape policy on religious tolerance. The "Jewish activist" in question? Mikey Weinstein, who runs the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which lobbies to protect members of the armed forces from aggressive, potentially unconstitutional proselytizing. Weinstein, it turns out, is given to outrageous overstatement and sloppy thinking on the questions his foundation purports to engage. To wit: "Today, we face incredibly well-funded gangs of fundamentalist Christian monsters who terrorize their fellow Americans by forcing their weaponized and twisted version of Christianity upon their helpless subordinates in our nation's armed forces." Of course, that didn't go over very well. Seeing red, some spread the falsehood that Weinstein was an "official consultant," suggesting he was being paid by the Pentagon to share his impressive insights on the Christian mind. Never mind that the original source for this story mentioned nothing of the sort. This guy called Christians monsters. The Pentagon invited him to a meeting. Bad things are coming. (Following these specious reports, Weinstein naturally received a slew of ugly e-mails, and one from an Army sergeant who promised to "have my troops pray for you" -- Q.E.D.)

No surprise, then, that these same conservatives were convinced that yesterday's reports of a new Pentagon statement "banning proselytizing" really meant that good Christian servicemen and -women would no longer be able to share their faith with others. But look at yesterday's Pentagon statement:

The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions and respects (and supports by its policy) the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs. The Department does not endorse any one religion or religious organization, and provides free access of religion for all members of the military services.Court martials and non-judicial punishment are decided on case-by-case basis and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome in future. However, religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense.

Leaving aside the fact that courts martial are always a possibility for any member of the military who breaks its rules -- not a special punishment for "proselytizing" -- the statement does not define "proselytizing." That's why I contacted the Department of Defense today. And here's the important part of the statement they sent in reply:

The U.S. Department of Defense has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution. 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).

If a service member harasses another member on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, or disability, then the commander takes action based on the gravity of the occurrence. Likewise, when religious harassment complaints are reported, commanders take action based on the gravity of the occurrence on a case by case basis.[Emphasis mine.]

Sure, you can quibble with those definitions of "evangelize" and "proselytize," but no, members of the armed forces will not be court-martialled for sharing their faith with one another. How such an outlandish claim spread throughout the conservative media so quickly, and even leaked into the mainstream press, may hold lessons for those of us who practice journalism professionally -- and those who like to dabble in it.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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There was a long cover story in Harper's back in 2009 that profiled Mikey Weinstein and touched on issues surrounding proselytizing in the military: "Jesus Killed Mohammed," by Jeff Sharlet. I recall finding it a bit of a mixed bag when I read it at the time, but it does have good background on these ongoing controversies that people like Sally Quinn and the fearful right-wing bloggers are just now noticing. Here's a relevant bit:

In the military, Mikey told me one night in Albuquerque, many constitutional rights that we as civilians enjoy are severely abridged in order to serve a higher goal: provide good order and discipline in order to protect the whole panoply of constitutional rights for the rest of us. One of those rights is free speech: a soldier in uniform cant endorse a political candidate, advertise a product, or proselytize. That rule is for the good of the publicno one wants men with guns telling them whom to vote forand for the military itself. An officer can tell a soldier what to do, but not what to believe; conscience is its own order.

P.S. Robert Hockett has a very good follow-up post at Mirror of Justice.

If people wanted to know what military laws and regulations say regarding proselytizing in the military, there are much better sources than the conservative blogs. For example, I would recommend people read a 2007 article from the Air Force Law: If one does, one will realize that the military regulations prohibiting coercive proselytizing are not "new" but have been in place for decades, although they were updated under President Bush because of problems found with coercive proselytizing at the U.S. Air Force Academy by independent observers like the Yale Divinity School. As Grant has already noted, this ban on unwanted or coercive proselytizing does not cover voluntary peer-to-peer conversations about religion. To better understand how the military actually regulates proselytizing, please read this passage from the article from pp. 35-36 [citations omitted]:"Unwanted proselytizing of another military member, even when it occurs among peers, can create delicate issues when it continues after the listener has expressed the desire not to hear any more invitations to adopt the speakers religion. As a general principle, of course, the Free Speech Clause does not require a speaker to cease speaking a message just because others do not like hearing it. A military member complaining to the chain of command about another members off-duty proselytizing might be advised to avoid, if possible, spending off-duty time with the proselytizer.When the listener realistically cannot avoid the proselytizer, however, the situation is different. Examples include if the two are assigned as roommates or must work closely together or if the proselytizer is stalking the listener. Because of the repeated, unwanted nature of the proselytizing and the listeners inability to avoid it, the proselytizing can affect the listeners morale and ability to do his job and thus interfere with mission accomplishment and unit effectiveness. If it does, the religious speech becomes unprotected, and superiors should act to stop these adverse effects. Typically this would begin with counseling the proselytizer, emphasizing the religious speechs effect on military efficiency due to its repeated, unwanted nature rather than the content of the speech. Some religious speech by military members could also be limited under the Free Speech Clause not because of its content but because it violates some valid content-neutral law or order. For example, a regulation prohibiting the routine use of slogans and quotes on official e-mails would also prohibit religious quotations. Similarly, a lawful order to maintain 'radio silence' during a mission would also prohibit religious speech. These limitations are certainly permissible, despite their incidental impact on religious speech, because they are not aimed at any particular message and directly further important military interests. Finally, the Joint Ethics Regulations provision on 'misuse of position' prohibits governmental employees, including military members, from using their official position for 'endorsement of any . . . enterprise' or 'in a manner that could reasonably be construed to imply that . . . the Government sanctions or endorses [their] personal activities.' This content-neutral regulation limits religious speech in a way similar to the Establishment Clauses limitation on religious speech. It should be noted that the military's exisiting regulations against unwanted or coercive proselytizing both by servicemens and by chaplains have been upheld as constitutional by the courts. This is made clear by the 2007 law review article linked to above. Footnote 286 on p. 39-40 of the 2007 article discusses how the Second Circuit in Katcoff v. Marsh held that the military regulations prohibiting servicemen and chaplains from engaging in uninvited proselytizing or evangelizing are constitutional. It states:"Although the constitutionality of the chaplaincy has not reached the Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals has upheld the chaplaincy, including its meeting of spiritual needs of military members, against an Establishment Clause challenge. Katcoff v. Marsh, 755 F.2d 223 (2d Cir. 1984). When chaplains engage in religious speech with people who have sought them for that purpose, they are meeting the spiritual needs of military members, as permitted by Katcoff. But chaplains uninvited proselytizing religious speech to military members poses a different practical and legal issue. On one hand, persuading others to adopt their beliefs is central to some major religious. See, e.g., Matthew 28:19 (quoting Jesus exhortation to 'go and make disciples of all nations') (New International Version). Chaplains of such religions likely would feel a strong calling to proselytize. On the other hand, the militarys permitting its chaplains to proselytize memberswithout the members explicit or implicit invitationwould likely violate the Establishment Clause. The court in Katcoff noted that '[n]o chaplain is authorized to proselytize soldiers or their families,' id. at 228, and that '[t]he primary function of the military chaplain is to engage in activities designed to meet the religious needs of a pluralistic military community, including military personnel and their dependents,' id. at 226. A chaplaincy that meets the religious need of military personnel, who may be deployed in remote locations away from their own churches, is permitted (and arguably mandated) by the Free Exercise Clause and does not violate the Establishment Clause. See id. at 232. Similarly, chaplains who provide spiritual insight to those who have sought it are also meeting the religious needs of military members. But chaplains who, without invitation, actively proselytize are not meeting the Free Exercise needs of military members. They are essentially creating new religious needs by promoting religion. Thus, attempts by chaplains in their capacity as governmental representatives to persuade military members to adopt a particular religion likely violate the Establishment Clause under Katcoffs rationale. Sometimes chaplains distinguish between evangelizing (attempting to convert people who have no religious affiliation) and proselytizing (attempting to convert people who already have religious beliefs), permitting the former but not the latter. See Laurie Goodstein, Air Force Rule on Chaplains Was Revoked, N.Y. TIMES, Oct. 12, 2005, at A16. This is a distinction without First Amendment significance. Under Katcoffs rationale, both activities by chaplains would be impermissible when applied to personnel not seeking to be converted. The Air Forces interim religious guidelines state that chaplains 'should respect the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs' and 'must be as sensitive to those who do not welcome offerings of faith, as they are generous in sharing their faith with those who do.' Air Force Interim Guidelines, supra note 26, 3D(2).As already noted by Grant, any violation of military regulations can subject a service member to court martial but usually there are a wide range of corrective actions that can be taken before the military even considers court martialling someone for a violation of its regulations.

Weinstein wrote WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE: ONE MAN'S WAR AGAINST AN EVANGELICAL COUP IN OUR NATION'S MILITARY. His focus was on the USAF Academy where, if I remember, there were complaints of chaplains being permitted/encouraged to proselytize. The academy, of course, is adjacent to Colorado Springs, a hotbed of conservative-minded Christian belief and expression.

Hi Grant -- I did an essay, a few years ago, on "proselytism" (and the importance of distinguishing it from abusive and dignity-denying forms of advocacy), which tried to connect the JPII's writings on evangelization with some themes in the First Amendment (e.g., the special place given to the act of changing minds -- one's own and others'). It was called "Chaning Minds: Proselytism, Religious Freedom, and the First Amendment" (available here, if anyone's interested: Best, Rick

Grant, I am an Army veteran; I also majored in sociology at university. All of the very recent conversations going on seem to miss an important point about the rank structured U.S. military. Where in all the blather does anyone make a reference to, for example, the discussion of religion between two E3s, or an E5 and an E4, or an O1 and an E5 . . . it appears the ether is full of commentators who have no conception of what an O1 or an E5 is. Why are such people pretending they know about the military, about command influence, about the extended and isolated extended military total institution as referenced in Richard G. Hutcheson's 1997/98 Revised edition of The Churches and the Chaplaincy, which was published by the U.S. GPO????????????????? Maybe the E5 would be able to ascertain whether or not the O1 was attempting to evangelize or proselytize, but people not in that situation pretending they know the rules is simply absurd. My advice: if you are not a military veteran, state precisely that before commencing your pontification.

I just published a book on Military Chaplains and Religious Diversity, drawing on interviews with active duty chaplains and on Richard G. Hutcheson's revised The Churches and the Chaplaincy that JJ references in his comment. From my own experience with chaplains from almost two dozen different faith groups, I find this alarm about court martials for proselytizing in the military overstates. Proselytizing can adversely affect good order and discipline, morale, cohesion and retention. There are also legitimate Establishment concerns: Mormon, Jewish and Catholic taxpayers should not have to fund efforts to convert their relatives to Evangelical Protestantism, for example. On the other hand, proselytization can be considered part of the Evangelicals' free exercise of religion (and freedom of speech), so it's not an easy knot to entangle. The problem, in my grounded opinion, arises when chaplains are more concerned with asserting their own religious rights than with protecting those of others. The Royal Air Force chaplains' motto "To Serve, Not to be Served" captures that sentiment, too. But here's the thing: chaplains know and understand these issues and generally (with exceptions) restrain themselves from proselytizing. I think even the much-vilified Evangelicals more often than not realize that rank introduces an inescapable element of coercion that has no place in their own theology, or at least grudgingly accept some limitations as the price of an otherwise rewarding ministry. This is not to say that there aren't real issues and excesses; just that these don't necessarily represent the day to day realities of chaplains' work. Obviously, proselytization by other officers or the enlisted (I've talked to Catholic chaplains who have been asked "Chaplain, are you saved?" by overzealous enlisted) is a somewhat dofferent matter, given then different scrutiny and levels of theological education. It saddens me that the discussion around this issue so quickly becomes totalizing and hysterical (on both sides: Mikey Weinstein is as incendiary in his rhetoric as those he opposes) when the reality on the ground is far more complex and usually a lot calmer. There are open, good-faith, pragmatic ways to resolve differences of and about religion in the military, yet these never get headlines. Sigh.

(Your book is so expensive. Looks good, though.)

Although chaplains hold commissions, they are not part of line authority as I recall (I'm a 4-yr active duty veteran). Chaplains conduct religious worship, offer educational programs, and are available to all service members --- regardless of creed --- for counseling of one kind or other. Mr. Weinstein is anything but "incendiary in his rhetoric". His concerns are very real.

Joe Jaglowicz: It's possible to be incendiary about a real concern. If you've ever heard or met Weinstein in person, you won't miss his flair for the dramatic or his uncompromising streak. The audience I saw him in (Army War College in 2011) generally agreed that he was onto a real issue, but was divided on whether his personality overshadowed the contents of his presentation. This based on conversations over cookies and juice after his presentation, for what that's worth.

Kim, the following is from Wikipedia, Sub. Dominionism: "The existence of a dominionist movement is challenged, particularly by those in the Christian Right, who generally avoid the label and see the characterizations as misleadingly implying that mainstream conservative Christians subscribe to Dominion Theology". Unfortunately, a definition of "mainstream conservative Christians" is not provided . . . Neither is it really provided in Wikipedia, Subj: Evangelicalism.

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