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.