So. Baptists Cautiously but Firmly Warn Military to Respect Religious Freedom

The Southern Baptist Convention issued a joint statement Monday urging Christians to avoid sensationalism and misrepresentations, while also raising issues of concern regarding recent reports that the U.S. military may be violating the religious freedom of Christians.

"We reject any and all attempts to sensationalize or misrepresent situations, in this or any other context. Having said that, we are concerned," the statement says. "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."

The impetus for the statement was four separate recent incidents: 1) In a presentation at a U.S. Army training briefing, evangelical Christians were listed alongside other religious sects and the terrorist group al-Qaida under the heading "Religious Extremism." 2) The Southern Baptist Convention's website was blocked on military bases. 3) U.S. military officials met with Mikey Weinstein, who has made anti-Christian inflammatory remarks, on religious issues in the military. And 4) military spokespersons announced that Christian soldiers could be punished for "proselytization."

The statement notes that many of the news reports on these issues contained a mix of misinformation and facts.

Regarding the presentation labeling evangelicals as extremists, the statement notes that the Department of Defense looked into the situation and corrected it. With the SBC website issue, military officials explained that the website was blocked because of a malware issue, not for ideological reasons. The military clarified that Weinstein was granted a meeting with Pentagon officials at his request, but did not serve in any official capacity. And military spokespersons clarified that sharing one's faith is not a punishable offense, but "proselytizing," which they defined as unwelcome coercion, would violate the military's code of conduct.

Of the four incidents, the one that causes the most concern is the declaration that "proselytizing" is a punishable offense. The signers agree, the statement says, "that no one should coerce religious beliefs on anyone else," and would strongly object if the military did allow coercive conversion for any religion, including Christianity. They are concerned, though, that the distinction the military is making between "evangelization" and "proselytization" is too arbitrary and could invite a "subjective interpretation" that ends up restricting the free exercise of religion.

"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," the statement says.

The SBC statement asks military leaders to clarify their commitment to the religious liberty of service members and pledges to continue meeting with military leaders to discuss the issue.

The statement is signed by Kevin Ezell, president of SBC's North American Mission Board, and Russell D. Moore, president-elect of SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

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