The Air Force, faith and a very dangerous ‘f-word’

If anyone is interested, here is an short update on GetReligion’s recent move to Patheos. The RSS feeds seem to be working for the vast majority of users. We are still trying to get some art issues — past and present — worked out. A few tweaks continue, thanks to the patient Patheos staff. Some people think we have moved to a liberal site. Some people think we have moved to a conservative site.

Par for the course. Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

At least once a day, I have found myself wondering to what degree I need to take into account the fact legions of new readers have not followed the six million words or so published on this blog since 2004. There’s quite a bit of history here, including some insider lingo and subjects that are so familiar that we rarely pause to explain them.

Now then, what we have here (a phrase I use quite a bit, actually) is a perfect example of one of the white stags that we have been hunting for a long time. Yes, your GetReligionistas dream of a day when many mainstream journalists will repent of their sins and decide to heed the following wisdom from the pages of the news bible known as The Associated Press Stylebook:

“fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

This leads us directly to an oh-so-familiar passage in an NBC News report that, online, ran under the strange headline, “Air Force rules limit size of tattoos, role of gospel.”

So is that the role of the Christian Gospel among inked-up folks or are we talking about the gospel of tattooing? Or neither?

Whatever. This is another update from the religion wars in the U.S. military, a zone in which some evangelical officers do not seem to know how to take no for an answer, when starting discussions of faith, and some activists on the secular left seem to be seriously uncomfortable with equal-access laws and other traces of First Amendment rights among people in uniform (please note the word “traces” in that sentence).

Thus the lede:

Just days before retiring as Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Norton Schwartz issued a document designed to dictate the conduct of U.S. airmen worldwide — all violations enforceable by military law. For the first time, amid regulations on tattoo size and flag handling etiquette, it laid down the law on religious proselytizing by leaders: Don’t do it.

Section 2.11 of the 27-page Air Force Instruction AFI 1-1 Standards of Conduct is the latest salvo in a battle over religious bias and Christian proselytizing in the military branch. It calls on officers and supervisors to “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.”

Now, if you care about church-state issues, the first thing that pops into mind is the following question: What does “proselytizing” mean?

Well, the story never tells us, which is a big problem. The definitions that can be found with a few clicks of a mouse tell us that this is a word that transcends doctrine and, amazingly enough, even religion.

pros·e·ly·tize

1. To induce someone to convert to one’s own religious faith.

2. To induce someone to join one’s own political party or to espouse one’s doctrine. … To convert (a person) from one belief, doctrine, cause, or faith to another.

So what is going on here, according to NBC? What does the word “proselytize” mean in this news report? Sure enough, a timely usage of the “f-word” tells us pretty much what we need to know.

As in U.S. public institutions more broadly, there has been a long string of battles between those in the military who want to root out religious content and others, mainly fundamentalist Christians, who argue that to do so impinges on religious freedom.

The conflicts have arisen over military leadership promoting Christian religious meetings through official channels, military courses incorporating Biblical material in coursework, officers trying to convert non-Christians and allegedly favoring “born again” Christians and using Christian doctrine and imagery in logos and official military materials and Christian prayer in official events.

The military has been sued for using Christian doctrine to recruit new members, and pressured to change logos and review course materials that incorporate Christian doctrine, and more recently, those that are anti-Islam. In 2006, after complaints by non-Christians that they were being pressured by evangelicals to convert, the Air Force issued guidelines cautioning superiors from pressing their personal religious views on subordinates. But months later they eased the guidelines after Christian conservatives argued that the guidelines restricted freedom of religion.

In this context, it is almost impossible to figure out what the word “fundamentalist” is supposed to mean. Apparently, in the world of NBC News, Christian doctrines about spreading the faith only apply to the world of Protestant Christianity defined by the Fundamentals of the Faith documents in the early 20th Century.

Please do not misunderstand: There is a serious story here and, based on the reading I have done, there are evangelicals in the Air Force who have abused their powers in the name of evangelism. But there were others who did not, yet appear to have been targeted as wrongdoers.

The key, for journalists, is to connect “faith to facts.” Readers need to know what the words mean and, most of all, they need one or two examples of behaviors that have been ruled out of bounds and those that have not. Like what?

It is wrong for an evangelical officer (or a pagan officer) to do ________.

It is not wrong for an evangelical officer (or a pagan officer) to do ________.

If an active Orthodox Jew invites a secular Jew to a Seder, is that “proselytizing”? If a gay Episcopalian, a chaplain, invites a conservative Anglican of a lower rank, also a chaplain, to a workshop on healing homophobia, is that “proselytizing”?

Like I said, this is a serious story and, when reporting hot-button stories of this kind, it is crucial that reporters talk to informed, qualified voices on both sides of the issues (and some of the folks in the middle, on this one). NBC News did not do that. No way.

Which explains that non-journalistic use of a dangerous “f-word.”

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.

  • Deann

    Regarding the Associated Press Stylebook, gospel is only capitalized when used in reference to any or all of the first four books of the New Testament: the Gospel of Luke. Lowercase in other references, such as “He shared the gospel with her.”

  • tmatt

    Deann:
    Corrected.
    However, I still think the wording in that headline is mixed, at best.

    I mean, the headline refers to the Christian Gospel, as in message and scripture.

    We’re not talking about a style of something, such as gospel music.

  • http://www.spiritofthescripture.com/blog Joshua Tilghman

    I agree. This bit of news leaves much to be desired. I think when the news is presented this way it kind of scares people of faith away from even sharing what they believe personally in the work environment.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    It would clearly be improper for a superior officer to give an order to a subordinate to participate in a religious service or activity. However, it is recognized in connection with criminal investigations that, in certain contexts, words from a superior can be reasonably perceived by a subordinate as coercive in intent, and in such cases a violation of the rights of a suspect under the Uniform Code of MIlitary Justice such that any confession or admission of guilt given would be barred from being entered into evidence.

    For a military superior to talk about religion with a subordinate, he or she would need to ensure that the conversation was entirely outside the context of work decisions, and that the focus was not on the subordinate or his or her behavior. There are lots of times and places in military service when soldiers are waiting and converse to kill the time. They could be talking about sports, or their hometowns, their families, or even politics. And they could be talking about their own religious experiences. If the context makes it clear that this is not a one way conversation, that it is a free discussion among people and they can change the topic at will, I think a superior would be justified in sharing a personal view on his or her own religious experience, one that does not criticize anyone else. And similarly if a soldier were to ask his commander about teh faith that animates him or her, it would be justified to answer. It is not unusual for people who participate in armed combat, in which their own lives are at risk and they may take the lives of other men, to think about the questions that religion addresses. They are entitled to discuss those questions even with their superiors, especially if the subordiniate takes the initiative. And when a comrade has been killed, it is especially appropriate for a commander to express his or her own faith as it applies to the circumstances. The key point is that the superior officer examine his or her own thoughts and intent and ensure that there is no hint of coercion in what is said, and that everyone knows that his or own views are respected. It requires sensitivity, and such occasions may be rare.

    Formal occasions and communications are not within that zone where religious expression by a superior is non-coercive. The other side of this is that peers should feel free to express themselves because they lack coercive power.

  • tmatt

    Raymond:
    You have shared your opinions on the issue at hand, but not the journalism.
    What does your comment have to do with THE ARTICLE I ADDRESSED and the journalism in this situation?


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