I’m glad that Matthew Schmitz posted excerpts yesterday from the statement released by Southern Baptist leaders regarding recent reports about religious freedom in the military. Russell Moore (familiar to FT readers), president-elect of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Kevin Ezell, president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board (which endorses all Southern Baptist military chaplains), engage in no fearmongering. They note that some recent stories have been blown out of proportion (no, the notorious Mikey Weinstein of the misnamed “Military Religious Freedom Foundation” is not guiding policy decisions on military law), but they zero in on some genuine concerns for the hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women who want to satisfy the demands of both their military duty and their faith.
Here are some portions of the Moore-Ezell statement that Matt omitted yesterday (beginning with a sentence he did include):
What incidents have taken place, we wonder, that would call for this seemingly arbitrary distinction between ‘evangelizing’ and ‘proselytizing’? Proselytizing, after all, includes a range of meaning, encompassing a definition of ‘seeking to recruit to a cause or to a belief.’ With a subjective interpretation and adjudication of such cases, we need reassurance that such would not restrict the free exercise of religion for our chaplains and military personnel.
After all, who defines what is proselytizing and what is evangelism? What could 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 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.
We believe in a free marketplace of ideas. Moreover, 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 — such as the Latter-day Saints — out of bounds. For a religion to be free, it must be unbound by restrictions that unfairly limit its advance.
This statement is both thoroughly Christian and thoroughly American. In the free marketplace of religious ideas, the joyful sharing of the good news with one’s fellows is an act of charity, and so too is listening respectfully. The talking and the listening are acts of good citizenship as well, and are no conceivable threat to military discipline, good order, or the lawful carrying out of one’s duties. To insist on a Weinstein-esque “separation of church and state” turns a garden of faiths into a desert, and is nowhere commanded by our Constitution. Military norms that bar coercion, harassment, or untimely distractions from carrying out one’s duties—norms that would apply equally to religious speech and, say, soapbox political orations or invitations to get-rich-quick schemes—are adequate to the task of policing the boundaries of permissible religious speech.
After calling for clarification of this seemingly arbitrary “proselytization vs. evangelization” distinction, Moore and Ezell conclude thus:
Our military men and women have submitted themselves to the authority of the United States armed services. They have not placed their souls or their consciences or their constitutional rights in a blind trust. Moreover, we reaffirm what our country has always recognized, that chaplains do not serve a merely civic function. They are there in order to facilitate the First Amendment-guaranteed free exercise of religion for our servicemen and women. That is only possible if these chaplains are free to be, respectively, Baptists or Catholics or Jews or Muslims or Latter-day Saints, etc., rather than merely ministers of some generic American civil religion.
We pledge to continue meeting with military leaders to ensure civil conversation about religious liberty. We also pledge to continue meeting with elected and appointed officials in the political arena, to ensure that constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms are maintained. We further pledge to work with persons of good will to ensure that our First Freedom is maintained, in the military and in the civilian arenas, as we render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but not that which belongs only to God.
Well said. There is much wisdom in these lines about how men and women of faith can proudly serve, as free citizens, the defense of a free country.