Russell D. Moore, president-elect of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has issued a statement with Kevin Ezell, head of the Souther Baptist Convention’s North American Missions Board, on recent worries about the curtailment of religious liberty in the armed forces:
1.) On April 8, media sources reported that United States Army troops were told, in briefing materials, that evangelical Christians were “extremists,” included in the same category as al-Qaeda. FACT: This characterization did happen, in a redeployment briefing for Army Reserve soldiers in Pennsylvania. The Department of Defense looked into this, and corrected the briefing materials.
2.) On April 25, news reports indicated that the United States Army had blocked the Southern Baptist Convention’s website www.sbc.net due to “hostile content.” FACT: This incident took place across Army, Air Force, Marine and Navy bases, not simply Army bases. Military officials tell us the concern was related to malware issues, related to maintaining the safety of military computer networks from viruses and hacking, not an intentional move to block the Southern Baptist Convention site for ideological reasons.
3.) On April 28 news reports indicated that the Pentagon had tapped Mikey Weinstein, infamous for his inflammatory anti-Christian remarks, as an adviser on religious issues in the U.S. military. FACT: The Department of Defense confirms that Weinstein requested and was granted a meeting with Pentagon officials but denies he serves as a military consultant or in any other official capacity.
4.) On May 1, some news sources reported that soldiers could be prosecuted for sharing their faith, up to and including court-martial. FACT: The Department of Defense clarified that no troops or chaplains are being court-martialed for evangelism. Military spokespersons said that evangelism is not a punishable offense, but that “proselytizing,” defined as an unwelcome coercion of religious beliefs, would be considered a Uniform Code of Military Justice offense because such action violates good order and discipline by forcing faith beliefs on those not welcoming such advances.
These reports have elicited a great deal of concern and confusion among military chaplains, pastors and congregations. In some cases, misinformation has been mixed with fact, with the possible result of furthering already tense relationships between military and religious communities.
Of the items mentioned above, we are most concerned about the language of “proselytizing” as a punishable offense. We agree, of course, that no one should coerce religious beliefs on anyone else. As a matter of fact, if the military were to allow some sort of coercive conversion—to any religion, including ours—we would object to such as a violation of both the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and of our consciences. We believe the New Birth comes by the Spirit of Christ not by the sword of Caesar.
This behavior is, of course, clearly already prohibited as harassment. What incidents have taken place, we wonder, that would call for this seemingly arbitrary distinction between “evangelizing” and “proselytizing”? . . .
While no reports indicate any known court martial or disciplinary proceedings related to evangelism, we also know that the time for clarification and protection of religious liberty is before such rights are taken away, not simply after they have been. Moreover, we have seen too many other incremental steps to marginalize and stigmatize the free exercise of religion, especially among evangelical Christians, in the military and elsewhere. Notice, for instance, the ongoing struggles for evangelical Christian chaplains to pray in public settings as evangelical Christians, in the name of Jesus, which is the only way evangelical Christians believe we can come before God the Father.
We ask then, and expect, from our military leaders, and from their civilian command, clarification of a commitment to safeguarding religious liberty, including the right for all servicemen and women to share their faith, short of coercion or harassment. This would entail a less subjective and more precise definition of such coercion and harassment, beyond the ambiguous language of “proselytizing.”