By Bob Smietana | The Tennessean
A piece of malware -- and not government censorship -- shut down access to the Southern Baptist Convention's website on Army computers this week.
Conservative Christian activists had accused the Defense Department of blocking www.SBC.net intentionally. They claim the military has become hostile to their view of faith.
But the culprit turned out to be more mundane.
Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a Defense Department spokesman, said the military has software filters to ban pornography and gambling sites and to detect malware, malicious software that can harm other computers. One of those filters caught the malware on the Baptist site.
"The Department of Defense is not intentionally blocking access to this site," he said in an email. "The Department of Defense strongly supports the religious rights of service members, to include their ability to access religious websites like that of the SBC."
That malware has since been removed, said Pickart, and the Baptist site was unblocked Thursday afternoon.
But the incident has revealed cracks in the traditionally close ties between the military and conservative Christians.
Concerns about the Southern Baptist site being blocked were first reported by the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association. The group said it had received complaints from soldiers.
Southern Baptist spokesman Roger "Sing" Oldham called the situation "deeply disturbing" in a statement Wednesday.
Thursday, he said he had spoken repeatedly to Army officials and was convinced the site was not blocked intentionally.
"Though there have been several instances recently in which evangelical Christians have been marginalized by the broader culture," Oldham said, "we think that a rush to judgment that the United States Military has targeted the Southern Baptist Convention as a hostile religious group would be premature."
Oldham said he was glad the military was able to find the problem. He said SBC employees were working on removing the malware and updating the system to better protect it from viruses.
Family group charges 'anti-Christian energy'
Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for government and public policy at the American Family Association, remains skeptical. He says the military is hostile to conservative Christian groups.
"There seems to be this dark, anti-Christian energy in our own military," he said.
Fischer pointed to an incident last year in which evangelist Franklin Graham was barred from speaking at a Pentagon prayer event, and a 2011 dispute over Christian prayers at a military cemetery in Houston as signs of that hostility.
He also forwarded a copy of an email from an officer at Fort Campbell that, quoting the Southern Poverty Law Center, referred to his group and the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council as hate groups.
"This is not an isolated incident," Fischer said.
Ron Crews, of the Alexandria, Va.-based Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, said repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy has made the armed services less friendly to Christians who think homosexuality is a sin.
"It's almost to the point of some discrimination in the military for those who are not able to embrace this new environment," he said.
Crews is relieved that the Baptist site wasn't intentionally blocked. He said tensions between conservatives and the military made it easy to assume the worst.
Southern Baptists traditionally have had close ties to the military. The convention has 541 Army chaplains and about 1,400 military chaplains in total.
About 6,161 out of the 534,635 soldiers in the Army identify themselves as Southern Baptist, while an additional 63,868 say they were part of a Baptist church. That makes Baptists the fourth-largest religious category in the military.
Contact Bob Smietana at 615-259-8228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.