Written by Bob Smietana, The Tennessean
A Pentagon ban on proselytizing has left some conservative activists fearful that Christian soldiers - and even military chaplains - could face court martial for sharing their faith.
The Defense Department said this week that proselytizing - trying to get someone to change faiths - is banned. Its statement does not define proselytizing or address the role of military chaplains. It also does not rule out court martial for those whose share their faith too aggressively.
News of the ban came after an activist met with Air Force officials to demand that soldiers who spend too much time talking about Jesus be booted from the military. If superior officers try to convert those under their command, they should face a court martial, said Mikey Weinstein, president of the Albuquerque, N.M.-based Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
Weinstein's demands caused a stir on Twitter after the Pentagon told Fox News about the ban on proselytizing.
Ken Klukowski, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, said a ban on proselytizing is impossible to enforce. Soldiers are free to talk about their faith, he said. \
"Any halfway decent lawyer would tell you that a ban is unconstitutional," Klukowski said.
But new rules published last year by the Air Force warn leaders to be careful in talking about faith.
"For example," the rules state, "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."
Joe Carter, a former Marine and editor for the Gospel Coalition, a Birmingham, Ala.-based group, said coercion has no place in faith.
However, Carter said, Jesus told his disciples to spread the faith in Matthew 28, in a passage known as "The Great Commission." That's an essential part of the faith for many Christians, he said.
"We don't want your boss saying you have to go to a Bible study," he said. "But what if he just invites you?"
Bob Jenkins, director of public relations for Fort Campbell, an Army base near Clarksville, said he was not aware of any new rules about proselytizing and could not comment. He did say that his office often announces religious events on base as it does any other community activity.
"I have never heard of any commander endorsing one faith over another," he said.
The public affairs offices of four branches of the military were not aware of any military personnel who were prosecuted for proselytizing. That's in part because the military code of justice doesn't ban the practice.
The Air Force's public affairs office, using the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defines proselytizing as "to induce someone to convert to one's faith," said Capt. Jody Ritchie in an email.
"When on duty or in an official capacity, Air Force members are free to express their personal religious beliefs as long as it does not make others uncomfortable," he said in an email. "Proselytizing, as defined above, goes over that line."
Late last week, conservative activists accused the Defense Department of censorship when some Army computers blocked the website of the Southern Baptist Convention. The furor died down after the problem turned out to be a computer virus on the Baptist website.
But the military's changing demographics may make the proselytizing controversy harder to resolve. According to Department of Defense statistics, the largest faith group among active-duty personnel is nondenominational Christians. They are often evangelicals who actively share their faith.
The second largest group: those with no religious affiliation, who may be less interested in converting.