Fact Check

Ban on Military Proselytizing

Will U.S. soldiers and chaplains face court-martial for professing Christianity?

Published May 1, 2013

Claim:   U.S. soldiers and chaplains will be facing court-martials for professing their Christianity.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, April 2013 ]

Is this true?

In a stunning attack on the speech rights and free religious exercise of U.S. soldiers, the Obama administration has released a
statement confirming the unthinkable: Any soldier who professes Christianity can now be court-martialed and may face imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge from the military ... even if they are a military chaplain.


Origins:   In April 2013 a number of conservative sources reported that the rights of free speech and religion among military chaplains and troops were under threat from a new administrative directive enabling the court martial of "any soldier who professes Christianity." Although there is something to the underlying issue, the reporting of it has included a good deal of speculation and exaggeration.

The issue at hand is one of proselytizing within the military, a controversy about which the Deseret News and The Tennessean noted:

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.

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.

The latest salvo came this week when conservative blogger Todd Starnes wrote on Fox News and the Christian Post that the Pentagon confirmed that "religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense."

The regulation is not new. In August, the Air Force issued a policy telling its chaplains that they must balance an airman's right to religious exercise with a prohibition against government establishment of religion. A violation of the policy could result in a court-martial.

As noted, the Air Force's regulation against proselytizing is not a new one; the debate is over whether it will be enforced, and to what extent. At the heart of the controversy is a reported meeting on the issue between Pentagon officials and Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, Joe Wilson, a former United

States ambassador, and Michael L. Weinstein, a civil rights attorney who heads the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). That Michael Weinstein should have been included in such discussions is vexing to many conservatives, as he recently penned an opinion piece on the subject in which he referred to "fundamentalist Christian monsters who terrorize their fellow Americans by forcing their weaponized and twisted version of Christianity upon their helpless subordinates" and was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that "This is a national security threat. What is happening is spiritual rape. And what the Pentagon needs to understand is that it is sedition and treason. It should be punished."

The Washington Post reported:

The proselytizing [Weinstein] referred to is primarily from "dominionist" or fundamentalist evangelical Christians. Weinstein's organization has 33,000 clients, and 96 percent are Christian. These clients come to him to complain about having their religious freedom undermined in some way.

The most recent outrage, he said, was reported by a West Point cadet who wrote to Weinstein to say that after the Boston bombings, an active-duty instructor said in class that he would "bet his life on the Muslims having been behind it like they always are. It's always the Muslims and everyone knows it, and everybody is afraid to say it. Well, I am not."

That's just one of many complaints.

The stories are legion. Most complainants don't want to be identified for fear their careers would be destroyed or, worse, for fear for their safety, even their lives.

For his part, Weinstein maintains:

Neither MRFF nor any other genuine religious freedom organization of any repute has ever championed — and never would champion — that evangelical Christians, as a whole, should be ousted from the government or the military. We demand only that people of all faiths (or no faith) obey their solemnly sworn oath to the Constitution and follow the military's regulations regarding religion.

Neither the Air Force nor the Department of Defense has proclaimed that "Any soldier who professes Christianity can now be court-martialed and may face imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge from the military." LCDR Nate Christensen simply issued a non-specific statement in response to the controversy noting that there is an existing rule in place which could be enforced (to varying degrees), depending on circumstances: "Religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense, Court martials and non-judicial punishments are decided on a case-by-case basis and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome in specific cases." The Air Force is expected to distribute an instructional document in the next few weeks affirming that "Leaders at all levels 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" and that noncompliance could potentially result in court-martial.

On 2 May 2013, the Pentagon clarified its position on this topic. As summarized by Stars & Stripes:

It’s OK to evangelize. But it’s not OK to proselytize.

That’s what the Pentagon said Thursday, attempting to clarify its position on religious speech in uniform as controversy swirled up around press reports over possible prosecutions of troops for sharing their faith.

What it comes down to, officials said, is that discussing matters of faith and religious practice with a willing audience is allowed, but pushing religious beliefs on those who don’t want to hear it is a form of harassment forbidden under Defense Department policies.

Last updated:   6 May 2013


    Brown, Matthew.   "Rhetoric Heats Up in Debate Over Proselytizing in the Military."

    Deseret News.   1 May 2013.

    Carroll, Chris.   "Pentagon: OK to Talk About Faith, But Not to Push Beliefs on Pthers."

    Stars & Stripes.   2 May 2013.

    Quinn, Sally.   "U.S. Military Should Put Religious Freedom at the Front."

    The Washington Post.   26 April 2013.

    Smietana, Bob.   "Pentagon Ban Raises Specter of Court Martial for Soldiers Sharing Faith."

    The Tennessean.   1 May 2013.

    Starnes, Todd.   "Pentagon: Religious Proselytizing Is Not Permitted."

    FOXNews.com.   30 April 2013.

    Weinstein, Michael L.   "Fundamentalist Christian Monsters: Papa's Got a Brand New Bag."

    The Huffington Post.   16 April 2013.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

Article Tags