A series of troubling occurrences that appear to show increasing hostility toward religious freedom in the military has prompted Christian leaders and conservative lawmakers to express their concern and pressure the Defense Department for answers.
On May 6 the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation's largest evangelical denomination, issued a joint statement with the SBC's North American Mission Board pointing out the handful of media stories and issues that have prompted the concern, and asking the Defense Department for a re-enforcement of its commitment to safeguard religious liberty among the troops.
“We have no interest in fomenting conspiracy theories or faux outrage,” wrote the authors of the statement, Kevin Ezell, president of the NAMB (North American Mission Board), and Russell Moore , the ERLC's new president. “We have no interest in misrepresenting our military leaders or their civilian command.... At the same time, we do not want to ignore potential threats to religious liberty.”
The Baptist leaders go on to list the most high-profile and alarming of the issues that have caught the public's attention concerning religious liberty in the military — all of them stories covered significantly by The New American:
– Training material used by the U.S. Army Reserve categorized Christians, Catholics, and Orthodox Jews as “religious extremists,” lumping them with the Ku Klux Klan, al-Qaeda, and Hamas.
– In April the U.S. Army blocked military personnel from accessing the SBC's website, citing unnamed “hostile content” on the site. Military officials later claimed the action was a mistake that occurred because of security software used by the Army.
– In early May the Defense Department released a statement confirming that military personnel could face disciplinary action — including court-martial — for sharing their faith with others. The statement occurred in conjunction with the revelation that the Defense Department was consulting with Mikey Weinstein of the atheist Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) on policy concerning religious expression in the armed forces. While the Defense Department quickly backed down on its statement, stipulating that only “proselytizing” and not “evangelizing” would be subject to discipline, conservative and Christian leaders remained duly alarmed.
In their statement, the SBC leaders noted that the news reports “have elicited a great deal of concern and confusion among military chaplains, pastors and congregations.” While rejecting the predictable sensationalizing of the reports by some media organs, the SBC duo nonetheless said that “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.”
Of particular concern, the SBC leaders said, was the Defense Department's targeting of “proselytizing” as a punishable offense. Noting that evangelical Christians have always placed importance on the act of “evangelizing,” the leaders wondered what incidents might have occurred among the troops “that would call for this seemingly arbitrary distinction between 'evangelizing' and 'proselytizing'?”
What might 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 leaders observed. “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.”
The statement pointed out that “evangelical Christianity is, by definition, a faith that believes all Christians are to share the gospel with our neighbors and friends. To insist on a privatized, non-missional Christianity is to establish a state religion of non-conversionist faith that renders evangelical Christianity as well as other faiths … out of bounds. For a religion to be free, it must be unbound by restrictions that unfairly limit its advance.
The SBC leaders concluded their statement by insisting that the Defense Department provide a clarification of its commitment to safeguard the rights of service members to exercise religious expression, including sharing their faith. “Our military men and women have submitted themselves to the authority of the United States armed services,” they said. “They have not placed their souls or their consciences or their constitutional rights in a blind trust.”
Meanwhile, some conservative lawmakers are joining in insisting that the Defense Department promise it will protect the religious liberty of military personnel. Fox News reported that U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) has circulated a letter among fellow lawmakers demanding that the Pentagon address the issue. “Congress deliberately included religious freedom protections in the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) to address this growing pattern of hostility and to protect the constitutionally guaranteed right of religious freedom for our service members and chaplains,” the letter reads in part.
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who is a minister as well as an officer in the Air Force Reserve, said he was appalled to discover that “the military of the freest nation in the world has labeled people of faith as religious extremists and continues this hostile attitude even after offering a half-hearted, public apology.” Added the lawmaker: “Our valiant servicemen and women are fighting every single day to protect our individual freedoms. How can we idly stand aside and let theirs be so easily taken?”
Much of the controversy about religious liberty in the military appears to thread its way back to the presence of MRFF's Mikey Weinstein, with whom the Defense Department has reportedly consulted on issues of religious expression. In comments to a Washington Post reporter, Weinstein called proselytizing by military personnel a “national security threat” that “should be punished.”
Weinstein later told Fox News: “Until the Air Force or Army or Navy or Marine Corps punishes a member of the military for unconstitutional religious proselytizing and oppression, we will never have the ability to stop this horrible, horrendous, dehumanizing behavior.” He added that his group “would love to see hundreds of prosecutions to stop this outrage of fundamentalist religious persecution.”
In response Jay Sekulow, president of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insisting that Weinstein be removed as a Defense Department consultant.
“Mikey Weinstein’s beliefs and statements are not only offensive, but clearly represent the vehement intolerance that our military should reject,” said Sekulow in a press release. “To use him as an advisor in crafting policy for religious tolerance is absurd.... This extremist has no business advising the Pentagon on any matters — much less the critically important need to protect the religious freedom of our men and women serving in the military.”
In his letter to the Defense Secretary, Sekulow notes that the views of Weinstein and his organization are out of sync with rulings the Supreme Court has made on “permissibly religious expression.” While Weinstein “claims to be in pursuit of religious tolerance,” Sekulow writes, “he readily defames those who disagree with him and accuses them of all manner of evil activities. In truth, Mr. Weinstein's disagreement is with the beliefs held by those he targets, beliefs that he frequently misunderstands and misstates and beliefs he periodically mocks.”
Sekulow lays out a laundry list of Weinstein's offensive statements and actions attacking religious liberty, and concludes by advising Hagel that Weinstein and his MRFF “do not represent views or pursue policies that enhance religious tolerance.... He is the last person who should be consulted in developing a balanced policy on religious expression in the armed forces of the United States.”
Photo of U.S. Navy chaplain in Iraq