By Religion News Service, Associated Baptist Press, and BJC staff reports

Widely circulated reports in conservative media outlets that Christian soldiers could be court-martialed for sharing their faith have alarmed some Christians in recent weeks.

But the Department of Defense on May 2 sought to debunk that speculation, saying that while aggressive proselytizing is barred, evangelization is still permitted and the rights of all believers — and non-believers — are secure.

“The U.S. Department of Defense has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said in a statement. “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),” Christensen added.

He also said that “when religious harassment complaints are reported, commanders take action based on the gravity of the occurrence on a case by case basis.” He did not specify what the range of penalties could be.

Whether the push back will be successful in dispelling suspicions, even within the ranks, is uncertain. Even as Christensen released his statement, Rear Adm. William D. Lee of the U.S. Coast Guard warned of threats to faith within the military while speaking at National Day of Prayer observances on Capitol Hill.

“I am not talking about proselytizing; I am vehemently against that,” the admiral said in remarks that drew a standing ovation. “I’m talking about gently whispering the gospel.”

After the Pentagon’s statement, two Southern Baptist Convention leaders issued their own statement asking the military to clarify what it means by making “proselytizing” a punishable offense.

Kevin Ezell, head of the SBC North American Mission Board, which oversees chaplains, and Russell Moore, president-elect of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, released a 1,500-word statement of concern May 6 about the media reports.

The leaders said that, while some of the reports alleging hostility toward evangelical Christianity were mistaken or exaggerated, others contained elements “indicative of a troubling lack of respect for true religious diversity in our military.”

Baptist Joint Committee Executive Director J. Brent Walker said this issue does not need to cause “a battle in the culture war to break out.”

“It’s really pretty simple. Military personnel should be allowed to share their faith when it is welcomed. But uninvited proselytizing should not be permitted, especially when it follows the inherently coercive chain of command,” Walker said.

The current controversy seems to have originated with Fox News contributor Todd Starnes, who on April 30 wrote about a Pentagon meeting on harassment and tolerance issues; among the attendees was the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Mikey Weinstein.

Weinstein is known for his inflammatory rhetoric about religious believers and Christians in the military in particular. He told The Washington Post after the April 23 meeting that proselytizing in the military is akin to “spiritual rape,” among other things.

The Fox News report on Weinstein’s remarks also cited a statement from Christensen, the Pentagon spokesman, who reiterated the preexisting policy against proselytizing. But the Starnes piece went on to claim that the policy also applied to evangelizing, or sharing the gospel. In addition, the story highlighted court martial as a possible penalty.

Outlets like Breitbart.com then amplified the reports with stories such as “Pentagon May Court Martial Soldiers Who Share Christian Faith.” The Washington-based Family Research Council then launched a petition drive — which had more than 160,000 signatures a week later — to urge the Pentagon “to scrub plan to court-martial Christians” according to the petition’s headline.

But this latest dust up did not occur in a vacuum.

In recent years the U.S. military has become a battleground in the culture wars as the growing pluralism of the armed forces, along with increasing assertiveness of both Christian and secular activists, have led the Pentagon to clarify and develop policies of neutrality.

The Obama administration’s 2011 decision to end the military’s “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy on gay service personnel caused friction.

Then in early April it was reported that during a U.S. Army Reserve presentation, an outside contractor had included Catholics and evangelicals in a PowerPoint show listing possible “extremists.” While the Army removed the offending slide, the incident was reported as another example of anti-Christian bias in the military.

Just three weeks later, when some soldiers and chaplains complained that they were blocked from logging onto the website of the Southern Baptist Convention, Christian conservatives accused the military of targeting evangelicals for censorship.

Even after it turned out that the problem lay with a malware issue in the SBC’s own website, the May 6 statement released by Ezell and Moore addressed the issue, saying previous incidents give “a sense of plausibility” to claims that the website was blocked due to “hostile content.” The Family Research Council and others insisted the incident revealed a troubling pattern of military antipathy to Christians — a charge that critics said was akin to crying wolf.

“Conservatives are supposed to stand for truth against relativism. But that seems not to be the play in this case,” wrote RealClearReligion columnist Jeffrey Weiss. “Truth that doesn’t fit a predetermined narrative is stood on its head and square-peg-crammed into a round hole.”

The activist group Alliance Defending Freedom claimed victory May 2, saying the Pentagon had “backtracked” on its previous position, but said it was still going to pursue legal channels to investigate “this gross error.”

This article is the cover story for the May 2013 Report from the CapitalClick here for the next article in the magazine.

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