Controversy draws attention to military ban on 'proselytism'

Aerial photograph of the Pentagon in Arlington Va on Sept 26 2003 DOD photo by Tech Sgt Andy Dunaway USAF CNA US Catholic News 5 7 13 Aerial photograph of the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Sept. 26, 2003. DOD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway/USAF.

Uncertainty over what constitutes coercive "proselytism," which is barred by military policy, has led to concern and criticism of recent statements by the U.S. Department of Defense.

"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)," Defense Department spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen said May 2.

Military commanders take action on complaints of religious harassment "based on the gravity of occurrence on a case by case basis," he said in a statement.

Christensen said the Defense Department works to ensure that service members are free to practice their religion "in a manner that is respectful of other individuals' rights to follow their own belief systems; and in ways that are conducive to good order and discipline."

The statement comes amid concerns regarding reports claiming that Defense Department policy would put Christians at risk of facing court martial for sharing their religious beliefs. The reports cited department statements banning "proselytism" without defining the term.

New 2012 rules from the U.S. Air Force say superiors 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," USA Today reports.

Concerns particularly focused on an April 23 meeting between several military leaders and Mikey Weinstein, president of the New Mexico-based Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who has characterized his opponents in extreme terms.

In an April 16 opinion piece published at the Huffington Post, Weinstein said he is fighting "incredibly well-funded gangs of fundamentalist Christian monsters" who force "their weaponized and twisted version of Christianity upon their helpless subordinates in our nation's armed forces."

However, despite various media reports, Christensen denied that Weinstein is part of any Defense Department advisory group or a consultant on religious matters. Rather, he said, Weinstein was granted a meeting with certain officers in order "to express his concerns on religious issues in the military."

Still, there are concerns over how differences are determined between acceptable "evangelization" and punishable "proselytization." These worries are partly sparked by Weinstein's comments, reported by the Associated Press, that a Christian bumper sticker on an officer's car or a Bible on an officer's desk can amount to "pushing this fundamentalist version of Christianity on helpless subordinates."

The Department of Defense declined to offer further comments to CNA on what activities are considered evangelization as compared to proselytization.

Former Marine Joe Carter, who is editor for the Alabama-based Gospel Coalition, wondered about this distinction and how strictly the rules would be applied.

"We don't want your boss saying you have to go to a Bible study," he told USA Today. "But what if he just invites you?"

Ron Crews, a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel who heads the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, asked that more attention be paid to service members' rights to share and live their faith.

"Saying that a service member cannot speak of his faith is like telling a service member he cannot talk about his spouse or children," Crews said in a statement on the group's website.

"The Air Force cannot ban personnel from protected religious speech, and I certainly hope that it is willing to listen to the numerous individuals and groups that actually live out and protect military religious liberty, all without demonizing other service members."

Christensen said the Defense Department places "a high value" on the rights of service members to observe their religious tenets, including the right to hold no beliefs. He added that the Defense Department will never "single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution" and makes "reasonable accommodations" for all religions.

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