WASHINGTON—After a dizzying few days of statements and counterstatements, religious liberty advocates are worried that a recent meeting between military officials and an anti-Christian group may threaten the freedom of religious expression within the U.S. armed forces.
The controversy began last week when Mikey Weinstein—the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a group that, despite its name, aggressively seeks to curtail the rights of Christians trumpeted an April 23 meeting he had inside the Pentagon. The private discussion, which reports say included senior Defense Department officials and several generals, revolved around an updated U.S. Air Force guide on religious tolerance.
Weinstein’s objective is to make it standard practice in the military that a service member who proselytizes his or her faith should face court-martial. He told Fox News he’d like to see “hundreds of prosecutions to stop this outrage.”
In a provocative piece at The Huffington Post, written before his Pentagon visit, Weinstein, who served in the U.S. Air Force, said, “[W]e face incredibly well-funded gangs of fundamentalist Christian monsters who terrorize their fellow Americans by forcing their weaponized and twisted version of Christianity upon their helpless subordinates in our nation’s armed forces.”
After the meeting, a column appeared in The Washington Post, largely sourced by Weinstein, which portrayed him as heroically taking on and lecturing the Pentagon brass. That piece, in the newspaper’s On Faith section, opened by suggesting that, while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has Pentagon budget concerns, “there are much more serious issues he must deal with. Religious proselytizing and sexual assault are at the top of the list.”
In the article, Weinstein called proselytizing “a national security threat” and a form of “spiritual rape.” He said the Pentagon should “punish” acts that he called “sedition and treason.” According to the Post article, Pentagon officials assured Weinstein that a booklet would be published in a few weeks that “will be a panacea to all religious issues.”
The article put many religious conservative groups on the offensive. These groups were not shocked by Weinstein’s already heavily promoted animus towards Christianity but by the private audience he was able to demand inside the Pentagon and by the announcement of this booklet.
The Family Research Council started a petition drive asking Hagel to protect and not attack the religious freedom of troops. The petition gained more than 110,000 signatures within its first 72 hours.
In the aftermath of the media upheaval, the Pentagon released a statement Monday: “Religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense. Court-martials and non-judicial punishments are decided on a case-by-case basis and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome in specific cases.”
But that clarification troubled conservative groups even more, causing some to write news release headlines warning that sharing ones faith in uniform could lead to a court-martial. Other groups and military veterans were left wondering who would decide the definition of proselytizing and would that definition muzzle chaplains and other religious service members.
Lt. Gen. (Rt.) Jerry Boykin, an executive vice president with the Family Research Council, said the Constitution protects an individual’s right to express and exercise his or her religious beliefs. And for Christians living their faith, he added that means being able to talk about it.
“This restriction would essentially eliminate the need for chaplains,” Boykin said. “If a chaplain cannot express his faith according to his theology and doctrine, what are chaplains there to do? That’s why they were brought in … to be able to express their faith and provide spiritual counsel and mentoring to people in armed services.”
Boykin hopes that the military will emphasize its already established and accepted restrictions against religious coercion.
“Coercing people to believe what we believe is not a part of the Christian faith,” he said.
That was the sense that Douglas Lee, the president of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, got last year when he reviewed a new 27-page document on Air Force culture standards.
The section under the title “Government Neutrality Regarding Religion” instructs leaders to “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. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity.”
The document’s next section states that supporting the right of free exercise of religion “relates directly to the Air Force core values.” The policy paper does not bar proselytizing, and Lee, a former chaplain who represents more than 2,000 current chaplains, thought the document’s guidelines were fair and acceptable.
But Lee and others have growing concerns over why Pentagon officials are meeting with individuals who have such strong animosity toward Christians.
While debunking early reports that called Weinstein a paid military consultant hired to write policy, Lee’s group has asked Defense Department officials to explain what they hoped to gain from Weinstein’s recommendations. Lee worries that Weinstein’s broad interpretation of the existing standards will be unleashed on the military.
Just as importantly, Lee wants a similar seat at the Pentagon table for faith-groups like his. This equal time will be of even greater necessity if the Pentagon does consider a formal definition of proselytizing and attempts to restrict the ability of a person to share his or her faith in certain ways.
“The church needs to understand that at the heart of this issue is that somebody is trying to contain and minimize a certain group of faith people in the military because he thinks they are trying to take over,” Lee said. “People with an angry agenda are trying to influence the military.”
On Thursday, the Pentagon issued another clarifying statement claiming the Defense Department “will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution.”
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a military spokesman, said, “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).”
But that clarification wasn’t good enough for Rep. Louie Gohmert, R- Texas, who spent four years in the military. He said the damage caused by the military’s messaging is already done, and that lawmakers likely will look at these recent developments when they return to Capitol Hill next week.
“That has never been the constitutional standard, what might bother some other person; that is absurd,” Gohmert said. “I’m hearing from people in the military who are quite upset because it means they have to supposedly lay down their lives to protect every other religion except Christianity, and that is not why they went into the military.”
It seems the Pentagon’s most recent statement will kick off a confusing debate over the differences between evangelizing and proselytization. That discourse will be watched closely by evangelical denominations that endorse chaplains as well as those of faith who are already in the military or who are thinking about joining the armed forces.