Joint statement of Southern Baptist concern on religious liberty and the United States military

Recent days have seen a flurry of media stories about various questions of religious liberty within the United States military. Many of these stories have prompted concern among Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians as to whether our Christian servicemen and women, and the chaplains who serve them, are facing hostility from military leaders directed particularly toward evangelical Christianity.

These reports have prompted a time of intense investigation by our respective organizations, as we seek to ascertain clarity about the factual basis and the larger meaning of these reports. The North American Mission Board (NAMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention is assigned with ministering to our military through our function as the endorsing agency for Southern Baptist chaplains. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention is tasked with advocating our cherished Baptist commitment to a free church in a free state.

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We have no interest in fomenting conspiracy theories or faux outrage, seeing that such will serve neither the gospel of Jesus Christ nor our mission to minister to our neighbors with this gospel. We have no interest in misrepresenting our military leaders or their civilian command. The Bible calls on us to pray for and to honor our government leaders (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17).

At the same time, we do not want to ignore potential threats to religious liberty. The First Amendment guarantees of the free exercise of religion and the freedom from an established state religion are grounded in a natural right—the right to a free conscience under God. This right is not granted by the state, or by the state’s armed services, but is to be recognized and protected. Our Baptist forebears, from Thomas Helwys to Roger Williams to John Leland and beyond, were often irritants to the powers-that-be, precisely because they knew religious liberty is too important to be left to the whims of kings or presidents or bureaucrats.

When reports emerged about purported threats to religious liberty, we immediately moved into investigation and action, working with military and political and advocacy leaders across the nation. Gen. Douglas Carver of NAMB, retired United States Army Chief of Chaplains, led the way in investigating and advising us of the current landscape. Here is a recap of the more controversial reports of recent weeks.

  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 http://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.

We reject any and all attempts to sensationalize or misrepresent situations, in this or any other context. Having said that, we are concerned. While rejecting any conspiracy theory linking the reports above, we believe there are in some of these cases elements that are indicative of a troubling lack of respect for true religious diversity in our military. Furthermore, problematic attempts in some sectors of the military to compromise the free exercise of religion have given a sense of plausibility when other such reports emerge, even when those reports are not grounded in fact.

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”? 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.

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.”

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.

Kevin Ezell
President
North American Mission Board
Southern Baptist Convention

Russell D. Moore
President-elect
Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
Southern Baptist Convention

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