Military Religion Question Answered: Hensley
Last week, a question was posed about whether a Chaplain’s sermon in Afghanistan was a violation of military rules. The background, and links to the video, can be seen here.
So, did the Chaplain, as the accusers imply, violate military regulations due to the content of his sermon?
The shortest, most accurate answer: No.
However, multiple organizations have implied that he did so.
It is not clear if the presence of the Bibles and exhortations for soldiers to be “witnesses” for Jesus continues, but they were filmed a year ago despite regulations by the US military’s Central Command that expressly forbid “proselytising of any religion, faith or practice”. (emphasis added)
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation consulted on the al Jazeera report, and subsequently re-publicized the al Jazeera video in its entirety–including the footage of Hensley’s sermon–under the guise of exposing a “Constitutional Violation.”
The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers posted a factually incorrect call for the court-martial of Chaplain Hensley, though not by name:
Aljazeera posted a video showing senior US military chaplains encouraging service members in Afghanistan to proselytize local Afghans. They provided local language Bibles as resources to accomplish this task. The video shows one leader standing in front of a crowd giving a sermon encouraging this activity and another in a more intimate setting equivocating about the legality and ethics of proselytism…US regulations against proselytism, especially in combat zones, exist for a reason. Those who violate these regulations put our service members in danger for their own personal agenda. This continuing culture of open evangelism through our nation’s armed forces is unconstitutional and dangers [sic]… (emphasis added)
These groups, and others, have implied that the Chaplain violated military regulations, policies, or the Constitution. In particular, some have claimed his sermon violated General Order Number 1, which prohibits
Proselytizing of any religion, faith, or practice.
Did the Chaplain violate General Order Number 1 by proselytizing?
Proselytizing is converting a person from one belief to another. Though not originally part of the connotation, the word “proselytizing” is increasingly believed to mean a forced conversion. Regardless of which definition is used, the video shows that the Chaplain did not convert anyone.
The next implication, then, is that he incited others to do the same.
Did the Chaplain encourage his congregation to violate General Order Number One by proselytizing?
The publicly available video of the sermon does not show the Chaplain encouraging his congregation to convert Afghans, though some have explicitly accused him of doing so. Accusing the Chaplain of encouraging his congregation to convert Afghans is a misrepresentation of his sermon. He also did not encourage them to convert anyone else in the Area of Operations. He was not directing them to do anything. Rather, he appeared to be preaching on a tenet of the Christian faith. After all, he stated a fact, “That’s what we do,” not an imperative, “Go out and do.”
Thus, the Chaplain’s sermon was in compliance with regulations regarding proselytizing.
But is that even a legitimate question?
The Chaplain’s words were spoken in a voluntary military chapel service. Military regulations on the conduct of religious services include Army Regulation (AR) 165-1, which says (4-4.e.)
Chaplains are authorized to conduct rites, sacraments, and services as required by their respective denomination. (emphasis added)
The Air Force guidance on the equivalent topic is contained in Air Force Instruction (AFI) 52-101:
18.104.22.168. Chaplains will conduct services that are within the scope of their personal faith tenets and religious convictions. (emphasis added)
Those regulations, which are representative of military policy, indicate that military Chaplains can conduct services as their faith requires, even if their faith has exclusive or offensive tenets. This would include speaking on the core doctrine of their faith; for most Christians, conversion is a common topic for theological lessons.
This is not a new controversy, and the military has answered it before. In 2005, the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and Michael Weinstein complained that a Protestant Chaplain preached an offensive sermon during cadet summer training at the Air Force Academy (see Air Force Academy Religious Climate). The military almost audibly scoffed at the accusation against the Chaplain, saying
The freedom to express one’s religious views in a voluntary worship service designated for a particular faith group is a condition of endorsement by a chaplain’s sponsoring organization.
[The] sermons were deemed to be appropriate encouragement to his congregation to share their religious convictions, when invited and in an appropriate manner, consistent with rules governing the federal workplace…
[The Chaplain] was conducting a multidenominational Protestant worship service, not an interfaith service, “in a manner consistent with his ordination as a Christian minister and his training as a chaplain.” Cadets were not required to attend the service.
The point here is not to prove whether or not a Chaplain is allowed to proselytize or deliver an offensive sermon. Rather, these military policies show that those implying Chaplain Hensley’s sermon violated military regulations, the Constitution, or US law are wrong. The Chaplain was preaching about a religious tenet of the Christian faith, an act that is protected by the Constitution and military regulations, not in violation of them. Even though the sermon was filmed, which increased its audience beyond the immediate congregation, it was delivered as a means to provide free exercise for the American servicemembers present.
While detractors may extrapolate any variety of hypothetical illegal activities, nothing in the video shows the Chaplain doing or saying anything that violates any law or regulation.
This hasn’t prevented the typical wild and false accusations, however.
Advocacy organizations varied on how explicitly they accused Chaplain Hensley of wrongdoing. It appears some recounted his story only for apparent “shock value”–letting readers assume that it must be true that Chaplains can’t preach their faiths. Others were more explicit.
- Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called for the Chaplains’ discharge, saying Hensley “must know” that his sermon was encouraging a violation of General Order Number One.
- American Atheists specifically called out Hensley’s sermon as an inappropriate “mixing [of] private religion with an official military mission” for a branch of the government, implying it was a violation of the separation of “church and state.”
- The Muslim Public Affairs Council called for an investigation into Hensley for his “open violation [of] military guidelines,” specifically, General Order Number One.
- al Jazeera said his actions “may well be in direct violation of the US Constitution, their professional codes and the regulations.”
In addition, a few independent personalities called his actions a violation of “church and state” and demanded his court-martial and immediate removal from the military.
Even most of the organizations that just “mentioned” Hensley’s sermon combined its footage with unrelated (and ultimately disproven) allegations that US military Chaplains tried to hand out local language Bibles to Afghans. Together, most organizations have used both examples as “evidence” that the US military is actively proselytizing Muslims in Afghanistan.
While many groups publicized Hensley’s sermon, not a single “religious freedom” organization defended the “religious freedom” of the Chaplain or his congregants. This despite the fact that the Chaplain was fulfilling his duties in ensuring the Constitutionally-protected freedoms of the deployed servicemembers.
What of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation? That requires a whole separate discussion.