Published May 16, 2013
ALPHARETTA (BP) — Two Southern Baptist leaders have issued a statement voicing concern about religious freedom within the U.S. military but also cautioning Christians to refrain from jumping to conclusions about recent incidents in the military that have been perceived by some as threats to religious liberty.
The statement was issued by Russell Moore, president-elect of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board (NAMB). The ERLC is the SBC’s public policy arm. NAMB oversees the endorsement of chaplains to the U.S. military on behalf of the SBC.
“We have no interest in fomenting conspiracy theories,” the statement reads. “We have no interest in misrepresenting our military leaders. At the same time, we do not want to ignore potential threats to religious liberty.”
The statement addresses several reported incidents that have raised concern among Southern Baptists and evangelical Christians in recent weeks.
“These reports have elicited a great deal of concern and confusion among military chaplains, pastors, and congregations,” the statement reads. “In some cases, misinformation has been mixed with fact, with the possible result of furthering already tense relationships between military and religious communities.”
Ezell said he hopes the statement will serve two primary purposes.
“We want our chaplains and troops to know their religious freedoms are a top concern for us,” Ezell said. “We want the U.S. military to know we are a friend. But right now we are a friend who has some serious concerns.”
The statement includes a detailed section listing concerns about how the Department of Defense defines terms like “evangelizing” and “proselytizing” as it relates to military personnel who want to share their faith with others.
“What incidents have taken place, we wonder, that would call for this seemingly arbitrary distinction between ‘evangelizing’ and ‘proselytizing’?” the statement asks. “Proselytizing, after all, includes a range of meaning, encompassing a definition of ‘seeking to recruit to a cause or to a belief.’ With a subjective interpretation and adjudication of such cases, we need reassurance that such would not restrict the free exercise of religion for our chaplains and military personnel.
“After all, who defines what is proselytizing and what is evangelism? What could seem to be a friendly conversation about spiritual matters to one serviceperson could be perceived or deliberately mischaracterized as ‘proselytizing’ to the person on the receiving end. The fact that this has been raised at all in such a subjective fashion could have a chilling effect on service personnel sharing their faith at all.”
The statement further reads, “We ask then, and expect, from our military leaders, and from their civilian command, clarification of a commitment to safeguarding religious liberty, including the right for all servicemen and women to share their faith, short of coercion or harassment. This would entail a less subjective and more precise definition of such coercion and harassment, beyond the ambiguous language of ‘proselytizing.’”
Moore, who will begin his responsibilities at the ERLC June 1, called on the military to engage in a dialogue with Southern Baptists and other evangelicals on such issues.
“We agree that no one should engage in coercion when it comes to sharing their faith with others,” Moore said. “But there must also be room for freedom for our chaplains and military members to be distinctively Southern Baptist and for others to be distinctively Catholic or Jewish or Muslim as the case may be.”
Doug Carver, the retired (Major General) Army Chief of Chaplains who now heads NAMB’s chaplaincy ministry, echoed the concerns expressed by Moore and Ezell while reiterating SBC support for members of the military.
“Those who serve in our Armed Forces have no better friends than Southern Baptists who pray for their safety and work for their ability to worship freely,” Carver said. “We are grateful for all of the sacrifices our military heroes make each day and we are honored to be able to stand alongside them in times of war and peace.”
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