An evangelist visits the Naval Academy

usnavalI ran into a minister the other day over at the Naval Academy, a man I’ve known for about 10 years. He was leading a really interesting project, one directly linked to a topic that comes up often on this blog — offensive free speech.

His goal, along with about 50 of his friends, was to do some one-on-one evangelism on the campus, attempting to win friends and influence people. In some cases, he even hoped he could convince people to change their religious beliefs and join his cause.

More than anything else, he hoped to change the hearts and minds of the leaders of the institution so that the leaders could then help change the hearts and generations of midshipmen to come.

It was, pure and simple, a case of religious activists offering a public witness for their faith and their own beliefs, hoping they could win some converts.

At first, academy officials planned to have this evangelist and his followers arrested if they entered the academy grounds and attempted offensive speech with visitors, staff, faculty and the students. After all, the activists were asking for changes in military policies. They were pushing the envelope.

No, this evangelist was not linked to the dangerous work of people like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell — although he worked for both of those men a decade or so ago.

This was the Rev. Mel White, once an evangelical superstar and now one of the nation’s most articulate gay-rights leaders. He had come to the academy with about 50 other gay-rights activists to try to convince campus leaders to reject the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies that require gays, lesbians and bisexuals to be silent about their beliefs and sexual orientation. This was one of the Equality Ride protests organized by Soulforce, which is based in Lynchburg, Va. The main organizer of this rally was Jacob Reitan.

The Washington Post led the rather low-key media stampede that surrounded the event, producing some nice quiet photo opportunities during the misty day before a football weekend on the Annapolis campus. Here is a lengthy chunk of reporter Ray Rivera’s main report:

The protesters wore bright pastel t-shirts printed with the words, “Equality Ride,” which organizers have dubbed the roving protest. The Naval Academy was the second stop in what organizers hope will be a nationwide bus tour to visit college campuses where homosexuality is either prohibited or discouraged.The rally began with a few tense moments. The protesters, mostly students from the Washington area, held hands forming a line along the brick wall outside the academy’s main gate. After a brief news conference, they walked single file through the gate. Reitan was first and, met by two Marine guards, he gave his name and showed his driver’s license. …

(After) a few moments of discussion at the gate today, the guards let Reitan and the rest through. A horde of television cameras and reporters followed close behind. Academy officials insist they did not back down from the arrest threat but that organizers agreed to their terms.

“They came to the gate, they were asked what their intention was and they said they were there as private citizens, and that’s when the decision was made to the let them aboard,” said Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, an academy spokesman.

I ran into White later, while he was working the crowds in the academy visitor’s center and bookstore. He was glad that officials backed down and let people talk. He was very pleased with the heavy media turnout, of course.

At some point, government officials have to realize that people have a right to talk to one another and even to argue and disagree, he said. This doesn’t mean that people — on the right or the left — need to be loud or rude. If you start talking to someone about religion and they don’t want to talk, then you just say, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you” and walk away, said White.

“It’s like all the people who want to censor television,” he said. “You keep trying to tell people like that, ‘Don’t censor us. Just change the channel.’ That’s what this is all about, too. We just want to talk to people and let them know what we think. What’s so scary about that?”

Precisely. The problem, of course, is that one person’s free speech is another’s evangelism or even worse — proselytizing. This is why it’s hard to write speech codes without affecting the left as well as the right.navy chapel int

Rather than talk about something really dangerous — like sex (the Naval Academy) or salvation (the Air Force Academy) — let’s look at another issue. Consider this a parable.

Let’s say some people in authority at a military academy, like teachers or deans, decide to use their clout to change hearts and minds about the environment. Let’s say they show movies about the environment and use standard academy media, bulletin boards and email to publicize the films. Let’s say that, on their own time, they organize meetings — with equal standing to other voluntary assemblies on campus — to discuss environmental issues. Let’s even say that they talk with students about environmental issues and urge students to talk with one another. Perhaps, when students express interest, they even urge students to change their beliefs about environmental issues.

So far so good. Right?

But let’s say that these officials go further and require students to attend these sessions. Let’s say they test students to make sure they have the right beliefs. Let’s say that they even push students to talk during off hours on campus and refuse to back away when students decline to dialogue.

That would be wrong. Right? You bet it would. That kind of behavior is bad — on the left or the right. I would even say it’s wrong in newsrooms.

But what is wrong with talking? What is wrong with free speech and debates about public issues? What’s wrong with people changing their minds on topics, after debates and dialogues in which they are free to take part or to walk away?

I’m glad that White and his associates were allowed to visit the Naval Academy. I don’t think it would have hurt for them to talk to students, if the students had the freedom to walk away. Soulforce teams are planning to visit a number of Christian college campuses later this year. I hope that honest conversations and forums can be held during those visits, without people on either side turning things into tense media events. I hope the press quotes people on both sides accurately.

Free speech is a messy thing and so is religious liberty. But it beats all the other alternatives.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    You use the term “free speech” rather loosely here.

    Whose free speech do you believe is threatened? The students’ ability to discuss religion over dinner or in their rooms? The commander’s ability to lace God into official memos? The ability of evangelical chaplains–who are employees of the government–to suggest non-Christians are going to Hell and attempts to covert the unchurched during non-denominational services?

  • tmatt

    The commander was out of line. Slam him.

    The rest is free speech. Especially forcing chaplains to abandon the tenets of their faith in VOLUNTARY SETTINGS.

    Would you enforce a Universalist standard on a Muslim cleric speaking to an audience that has voluntarily chosen to attend a Muslim service?

  • Michael

    While not bothered by a Muslim in a voluntary Muslim setting, I would be bothered by a Muslim trying to convert people at a voluntary, non-denominational setting (which is closer to the facts of the underlying drama).


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