Did the Pentagon bar Christians from talking about their faith while serving in the military? Not exactly, but a new push to aggressively stop proselytizing has chaplains nervous, according to the Deseret News:
The latest salvo came this week when conservative blogger Todd Starnes wrote on Fox News and the Christian Post that the Pentagon confirmed that “religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense.”
The regulation is not new. In August, the Air Force issued a policy telling its chaplains that they must balance an airman’s right to religious exercise with a prohibition against government establishment of religion. A violation of the policy could result in a court-martial.
What is new is a recent demand to enforce the rule. It came after a private meeting last week between Pentagon officials and Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, former Ambassador Joe Wilson and civil rights attorney Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein.
Conservative Christians are particularly upset that the Department of Defense is taking advice from Weinstein, who heads the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
“God help us now when someone with such visceral hatred of conservative Christians — literally tens of millions of Americans — who says sharing this gospel is ‘spiritual rape’ is helping develop policies for how to deal with Christians in the military,” wrote Ken Klukowski, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.
The issue for the regulation is not discussions of faith, but in superiors using their positions to coercively proselytize their troops. The Tennessean gives a clearer context of the rule revised last summer:
But new rules published last year by the Air Force warn leaders to be careful in talking about faith.
“For example,” the rules state, “they must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion.”
That’s a common-sense rule that one would probably find in many private-sector places of employment as well. The point of a military is, after all, to have a disciplined and cohesive force able to act on a moment’s notice to defend this nation and project power. Anything that interferes with that cohesion and discipline should be avoided where possible.
The Tennessean quotes Joe Carter about the difficulties of recognizing the limits:
Joe Carter, a former Marine and editor for the Gospel Coalition, a Birmingham, Ala.-based group, said coercion has no place in faith.
However, Carter said, Jesus told his disciples to spread the faith in Matthew 28, in a passage known as “The Great Commission.” That’s an essential part of the faith for many Christians, he said.
“We don’t want your boss saying you have to go to a Bible study,” he said. “But what if he just invites you?”
The Air Force’s PR group responded to the question of what crosses the line:
The Air Force’s public affairs office, using the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defines proselytizing as “to induce someone to convert to one’s faith,” said Capt. Jody Ritchie in an email.
“When on duty or in an official capacity, Air Force members are free to express their personal religious beliefs as long as it does not make others uncomfortable,” he said in an email. “Proselytizing, as defined above, goes over that line.”
Again, this goes to military discipline and coercion. No one, at least so far, is demanding that the Pentagon silence people from talking about their faith — an act that would immediately run afoul of the First Amendment anyway. That may be the goal of the MRFF, but they will end up bitterly disappointed. The Pentagon appears to be just making the case that leaders should not exploit their powers over their commands to pressure subordinated into religious conversion or activities, which is a common-sense approach to take.
Military chaplains definitely have concerns about their future in the armed forces, but this doesn’t appear to be one of them. They are more concerned about the implications for free expression of religious belief after the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell:
U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black says today’s military chaplains could be “accused of engaging in hate speech” if they preach what the Bible says about homosexuality.
Black, a retired Navy chaplain, told an audience at the Heritage Foundation that it’s an ongoing “challenge that I think we’re going to have to deal with.”
All of these potential encroachments are worth the effort of vigilance.