I share, you evangelize, they proselytize

I share, you evangelize, they proselytize May 3, 2013

Many moons ago, before I came to write for GetReligion, I was a devoted GetReligion reader. And I remember reader Will Linden used to comment something along the lines of:

I share, you evangelize, they proselytize.

Such wisdom in that line. I thought of this when I saw the tweet above.

Let’s look at the definitions of both terms.

1. Convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another.
2. Advocate or promote (a belief or course of action): “Davis wanted to proselytize his ideas”.

proselyte – convert

1. to preach the gospel to.
2. to convert to Christianity.
homilize, preachify, proclaim, proselytize, sermonize

So you can do one and not the other. You can convert but you can’t convert? Sounds confusing. Precisely what do the regulations say?

The Religion News Service piece mentioned above attempts to tamp down some Christian concern that erupted this week. And tamping down is good, in one sense, since there was bad information out there that suggested a policy change by the military. (If you want to get up to speed, you can do no better than this piece from The Tennessean, which lays out the current environment very well.)

Back to the RNS piece. Basically the military already has a regulation against proselytism but some anti-religion activists who are used as consultants by the military have been pushing the military to change how they enforce those regulations against people who “share” their religion.

So while the headlines of “sharing Jesus will totally get you court-martialed” were inaccurate, I’m not entirely sure that headlines definitively stating you won’t get court-martialed for sharing Jesus are on much stronger ground. At least from what I’m reading in the news stories.

From the piece:

Christian conservatives have grown increasingly alarmed in recent weeks over reports and rumors that the Pentagon is considering new policies aimed at discriminating against Christians and disciplining or even court-martialing those who share their faith.

But the Department of Defense on Thursday (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 – will be protected.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen issued a statement:

“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.

The latest statement was aimed at refuting widely circulated reports in conservative media outlets that Christian soldiers could be court-martialed for sharing their faith.

There were two major areas of alarm on the part of Christian conservatives. The alarm was initiated by a news report about a Pentagon meeting that took place. To quote from one news story: “The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is calling on the Air Force to enforce a regulation that they believe calls for the court martial of any service member caught proselytizing.” Then a conservative outlet took that information and mishandled it, turning it into a histrionic piece saying that court martials were coming for the Jesus followers.

But the Pentagon’s statement doesn’t exactly erase either of the two major areas of alarm, right? First, it’s actually true that the Pentagon is taking counsel from a known anti-religious extremist (more on that in my next post), so that part isn’t debunked. And then the Pentagon is reiterating that proselytism is banned and that the range of penalties is unspecified, so that isn’t exactly a debunking either. I mean, how do we know no one is getting court-martialed, exactly? Particularly when Weinstein is involved in the discussion about what’s appropriate and inappropriate behavior?

Heck, we still don’t know what is and what isn’t proselytism, even if the spokesman puts forth his personal definition up there. You can spread the Gospel but you can’t attempt to convert anyone who doesn’t want to be converted? You can preach the Gospel but not do it in an “intrusive” way? I honestly don’t even know where the line is. I don’t mind anyone talking to me about their beliefs, even if they’re things I vehemently disagree with. But I know other people who can’t even tolerate the mention of God (or atheism) without breaking out in hives. How is “unwanted” defined, exactly? If all of these things are handled on a case-by-case basis, are there any guidelines at all? Can they be shared with the masses? And why is the explicitly Christian term for proselytism — evangelism — OK but the generic term for conversion attempts — proselytism — not?

I’d like reporters to ask Pentagon officials how someone can know they’re safe to share the Gospel with their fellow soldiers without going over the line into the banned proselytism. I’d like reporters to ask how this ban is enforced and how enforcement could change over time. What guarantees are in place for people not wanting to be court-martialed?

Again, The Tennessean handled things nicely (unsurprisingly) — noting where critics overstepped the facts but also noting where military regulations were nebulous. Before pooh-poohing the concern or defending the military, a bit more journalism is probably called for.

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23 responses to “I share, you evangelize, they proselytize”

  1. “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.

    Is this a reality? I doubt many Christians are aggressive when they share their faith precisely because they know it’s ineffective. What would be the point of talking to someone who obviously doesn’t want to listen to you? Were the military’s initial concerns based on real incidents or just the assumption that Christians are always intrusive and aggressive when they speak about their faith. In my experience, the most aggressive and intrusive people I have encountered have been atheists. I feel like stories haven’t sufficiently explained how the military suddenly became concerned about proselytization. This story seemed to have come out the blue.

    • We might get into this in my next post on the matter.

      My initial question, though, is about defining evangelism and proselytism as the military does (which looks like it might be different than the dictionary does) and how it’s defined so as to protect religious adherents and those who wish not to be converted.

      I’m less clear about this than when we started!

  2. As a Catholic in the Army in Colorado Springs I was repeatedly told by higher-ranking officers that I wasn’t a Christian and “invited” to various meetings.

  3. My husband is a chaplain for the Civil Air Patrol. I’m not sure what the differences between CAP and the military are in this respect; they usually run pretty close with this sort of thing. The line drawn for him is whether someone already claims a religion. Proselytism is trying to convert someone from the religion they already espouse to his religion. Evangelism is sharing the Gospel with someone who is unchurched.

    • How do you decide who’s “unchurched”, anyway? Is it “No Religious Preference” on the dog tags?

      Not that you’d know from reading any mainstream articles, but (a) until fairly recently it wasn’t even possible to put “Atheist” on dog tags, and (b) even today many atheists report resistance when they try to declare themselves atheists, especially when first being recruited.

      Say… would an atheist still count as “unchurched” anyway?

    • Well, we’ll look at some of that ongoing relationship in my next post. As many religion reporters have noted for going on seven or eight years, this group has the ear of even some of the highest folks in the military.

        • When the top leader in the entire Air Force personally responds to an email from Weinstein in a matter of minutes — something he doesn’t do for any other average citizen — it seems fair to say he has “the ear of” Air Force leadership.

          By the way, the last JAG of the Air Force — the person who was replaced by LtGen Harding, the JAG Weinstein met with at the Pentagon in April — was LtGen Jack Rives. He retired — then enthusiastically endorsed Weinstein’s cause.

          I’ll avoid including links to avoid the comment filter, but its public information. So yeah, he has their ear.

  4. Also: That isn’t Christensen’s “personal definition.” He speaks for the Pentagon. The plain meaning of his language is that if you don’t attempt coercive methods of evangelizing, you won’t run afoul of the rules.

    • So were his words the way the regulation has it? And how are each of those words defined? How is coercion defined? What protections are in place for people to not be coerced? What protections are in place for non-coercive sharing?

      I have family members in the military so I know how ambiguity can lead to problems in enforcement, or lack of consistency in enforcement.

      And I even have a family member who faced some of the legendary evangelical pressure at the Air Force Academy back in the 1990s, so I understand that regulations and enforcement can be different things, too.

  5. This appears to be part and parcel of the Air Force Academy problems which GR has reported on for years. The issues which I recall being covered here were fairly clear and the examples likewise. One that comes to mind was where getting a weekend pass was available only to those who attended a revival on base. Others were about forced attendence at specific events that conflicted with religious beliefs, like Jews having to go to Sunday services. Or mainline Protestants told to attend Evangelical churches or loose promotions. GR has covered these issues for a long time.

  6. I’m from Singapore, and a deliberate employment of vague no-nos has been used to effectively enforce self censorship with regards to sensitive issues. Over here, we call them out-of-bound (OB) markers, and they worked pretty well in the past to keep journalists and academics compliant as you never know what might be viewed as a ‘wrong’ opinion and so most people would opt to play it safe. The government has loosened up a lot more now as criticism online has flourished and pushed back against the OB markers. But I dare say in a military environment where regimentation is strict, the same employment of vague rules to force most Christians to opt out of sharing their faith altogether would work pretty well too. Perhaps journalists can try to spell out the consequences of vague regulations in a military setting, and better inform readers about how the vagueness of rules, rather than the rules themselves, would impact proselytization.

  7. Grant Gallicho brings up another point “taking council” and “has the ear of” are presented as negatives of the same kind as the use of evangelizing versus proselytizing. Do I hear the voice of a snake with an apple in the background? There are less judgmental expressions that could be used such as “met with”, “listened to the opinion of”, “considered the input of” and so forth. I want decision makers to listen to multiple perspectives so I see nothing wrong in that per se. Now if someone is closed to hearing different voices, then there is a problem.

    The Tennessean article you recommended was very good unlike what appears to be fear-inducing slanted reporting from Fox. But that Fox story did bring out one point which was the complaint that listening to the other side is listening to evil and to even listen is a sin (although not expressed that way precisely).

    One important point in the Tennessean article was

    Late last week, conservative activists accused the Defense Department of censorship when some Army computers blocked the website of the Southern Baptist Convention. The furor died down after the problem turned out to be a computer virus on the Baptist website.

    We need to guard against excessive fear and leaping to conclusions. Of course, fear sells news stories so we see a lot of it.

    Another way to consider the problem is to change the frame-of-reference. Let’s consider politics. What is acceptable behavior in the military around political parties? If my superior officer invited me to a Obama rally, then I would say it’s over the line because of the power relationship between a superior and a subordinate. But if a fellow soldier has a Romney for President poster up, then it’s ok because there’s no power relationship involved. That’s the way I read those military regulations in fact – avoid an abuse of power.

    If any news story can take a step back to put the religion issue along side politics and other issues, it’s gone a long way to being a good story.

    • Wait — are those terms negative? I think they’re only positive or negative based on your view of the person in question. But I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say he’s influential — as you can see in my next post on the matter.

      And agreed on The Tennessean and the Fox News stories.

    • If the person has the poster up at work, or at his residence on base, that is as inappropriate as the superior officer “inviting” you to a political rally. Both cases are against military regulations.

  8. If you don’t know the difference between evangelizing and proselytizing, you shouldn’t be in the business of sharing your religion with others in the first place. Evangelizing is sharing the truth as you see it. Proselytizing is trying to get someone to join your religion. Now picture a commanding officer sharing the religious truth as they see it. Could be a grey area, depending on the circumstances (casual conversation vs discussion of a commendation / promotion). Now how about proselytizing. Never okay.

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