Dr. Warren Throckmorton Christian Blog and Commentary

Department of Defense Statement on Religious Proselytizing

Social media sources have blown up over the last week with worries that the military is preparing to purge Christians and court martial believers for sharing their faith. To counter these inaccurate reports, Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen told me in an email that the DoD does not target religious groups and respects the religious liberty of all service members. Speaking on behalf of the DoD, Lt. Cmdr. Christensen's full statement is here (in italics):

"The U.S. Department of Defense has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution. The Department makes reasonable accommodations for all religions and celebrates the religious diversity of our service members. 

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). 

If a service member harasses another member on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, or disability, then the commander takes action based on the gravity of the occurrence. Likewise, when religious harassment complaints are reported, commanders take action based on the gravity of the occurrence on a case by case basis. 

The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions and respects (and supports by its policy) the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs. The Department does not endorse any one religion or religious organization, and provides free access of religion for all members of the military services. 

Christensen also told me that this statement reflects existing DoD policy and does not reflect any recent change.

On April 30, Fox News pundit Todd Starnes told his listeners that military leaders met with Military Religious Freedom Foundation leader Mikey Weinstein in April to discuss military regulations against sharing one’s religious faith (For a DoD statement on that meeting, click this link). From there, some religious groups and conservative media sources spread concerns that the military was about to go on a purge of Christians who spoke openly about their faith. For instance, Breitbart News posed this headline: Pentagon May Court Martial Soldiers Who Share Christian Faith.” Family Research Council has a petition with the title: Urge Pentagon to Scrub Plan to Court-Martial Christians.

As the DoD statement clarifies, the concern over Christians being targeted seems to be unwarranted. Starnes mentioned an Air Force Instruction as one of the sources of concern. However, a look at the full regulation (in italics below) does not seem so ominous:

2.11. Government Neutrality Regarding Religion. Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. For example, they 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. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order, and discipline. Airmen, especially commanders and supervisors, must ensure that in exercising their right of religious free expression, they do not degrade morale, good order, and discipline in the Air Force or degrade the trust and confidence that the public has in the United States Air Force.

2.12. Free Exercise of Religion and Religious Accommodation. Supporting the right of free exercise of religion relates directly to the Air Force core values and the ability to maintain an effective team.

2.12.1. All Airmen are able to choose to practice their particular religion, or subscribe to no religious belief at all. You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.

2.12.2. Your right to practice your religious beliefs does not excuse you from complying with directives, instructions, and lawful orders; however, you may request religious accommodation. Requests can be denied based on military necessity. Commanders and supervisors at all levels are expected to ensure that requests for religious accommodation are dealt with fairly.

The regulation does not forbid expressing one’s faith to others but does require superior officers 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.” Why would anyone oppose this common sense directive? Using one’s position of authority to compel religious speech or practice should be forbidden and is a protection against manipulation for all soldiers. For instance, this regulation could come into play if an atheist superior officer constantly mocks the religious views of subordinates, implying favor to those who are like-minded.  This regulation only covers imposition of religious beliefs and specifically mentions coercion from a military leader as an illustration. Simply expressing one’s religious beliefs is a matter of free speech. However, this can cross over to become a problem when differences are not respected and the cohesion of the group is threatened by religious rivalries and disputes. The military has a compelling interest in maintain such cohesion and Christians should support these regulations as best of for all concerned.

Religious programming is allowed to take place but the source of information about religious matters must come through the chaplains, as indicated by this 2011 memo on the regulation cited above:

So all the talk about chaplains being unable to do their jobs is unfounded. While they cannot treat military members as a captive audience for their advancement of their sect, they can offer information and spiritual guidance to those who seek it. As noted by the DoD statement above, telling others about one’s faith is fine; forcing one’s faith on to others, especially those in a subordinate position, is not. 

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