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. 

al Jazeera said:

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: 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.

and elsewhere

[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.


  • Nice try, JD, but MRFF had nothing to do with Al Jazeera using the video of Hensley. In fact, we had no idea that the video even contained this footage until the report aired. We had known for several months that some video filmed at Bagram existed, but did not know the specifics of what was in it or what was going to be shown in the Al Jazeera report. The report that MRFF actually participated in was a separate, more general piece about religion in the military that Al Jazeera English filmed after this for its news magazine program called Fault Lines.

    Since you said in your previous post that it was “as a result” of the Al Jazeera report that “some organizations have accused the Chaplain of violating military regulations,” you can’t now make Al Jazeera one of your “some organizations.”

    Your second example, the statement from the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), doesn’t actually say that Hensley’s sermon violated regulations. It says that Hensley’s sermon was encouraging his congregation to violate regulations. That’s basically my opinion too. But neither MRFF nor MAAF claimed that Hensley himself violated any regulation. If a soldier in Hensley’s congregation was influenced by the sermon to violate regulations, it would be that individual soldier’s violation of regulations, not Hensley’s.

    So, you still haven’t supported the accusation you made in your previous post, although I see that you’ve backpedalled in this post and toned down your accusation to say that these groups have only “implied” that Hensley’s sermon violated regulations. You now say that these groups “and others” have “implied” this. So, who are these “and others?”

  • [The MAAF] says that Hensley’s sermon was encouraging his congregation to violate regulations…neither MRFF nor MAAF claimed that Hensley himself violated any regulation.

    So it is not a violation of regulations to, in your words, “encourage” someone else to violate regulations? Hold that thought…

    Since, in your words, the MAAF didn’t claim the Chaplain violated any regulations, what would be the charge for the court-martial they demand? Despite your attempt to interpret their statement, I realize you don’t speak for the MAAF. But you have represented yourself as able to speak for the MRFF.

    Why has the MRFF, a religious freedom organization, not defended Hensley’s religious freedom against the MAAF call for his court-martial, if you believe that Hensley’s sermon was permissible and violated no regulations?

  • JD… I’m not answering any of your questions until you answer mine.

    Who are the “and others” that you claim have implied that Hensley’s sermon violated regulations. It’s a very simple question. You must have had some other organizations in mind when you made that statement, so why can’t you just name these groups?

  • I was giving you the benefit of the doubt.

    Finish reading the article. It clearly states the answer to your question. If for some reason your computer won’t display the full post, let me know.

  • JD… I’m sure you know that when you go and make changes a post, it changes the post’s date, right? And I’m sure you know that this post now says November 20, although your post about MRFF, dated the November 19, still appears as the more recent post in the list on your homepage, because making changes to a post doesn’t change the display showing the order you originally posted your posts in. And, since Google’s robots hit your page 13 hours ago, by tomorrow morning, Google’s cached version is going to show your post as it originally appeared. I’ll be sure to get a screen shot of that so I can put it on my website and put link to it in my next comment.

  • Slight correction … your post about MRFF is also dated the 20th. But, the order of your posts on your home page still shows that you posted your post about MRFF AFTER you posted this post, so unless you changed this post, you somehow magically managed to put a link in this post to a post that you hadn’t posted yet. Anyway, none of that really matters, because it’s the Google cache that will show your changes. Like I said, Google’s cached version will show this post as it actually appeared this morning.

  • As we all eagerly await Google to update their cache, feel free to actually talk about the subject at hand. Your question was answered. Care to answer mine?

  • Due to your utter intellectual dishonesty in changing your post in an attempt to make my comments appear baseless, I will no longer be posting comments on your blog. The only exception will be to post the screen shot from Google’s cache showing how you changed your post.

  • For the record, this article was posted once and never edited, and your attempted analysis of post dates and orders is in error. Incidentally, in case Google fails to cache this site, you can see the post time in your RSS feed. Facebook also linked to these posts in the wee hours of the morning, showing no changes after your comments. If you have proof of “intellectual dishonesty,” I’d like to see it. As it stands, your comment appears to be nothing more than name-calling from someone who can’t think of anything of worth to say.

    No one belittled you for missing part of the article. Sometimes that happens. Once you realized you missed it, you could have chosen to talk about the subject matter rather than sulk away. Problem is, you’ve spent more effort searching for a “gotcha” than addressing the content.

    Even if the post had been edited, you could still have helped your cause if you were able to rebut the claims of this and the other article. It appears, though, that you can’t. In the absence of an opposing argument, it seems you were looking for a way to “save face” and leave. Grandstanding is unnecessary; no one requires you to comment here.

    The MRFF is increasingly proving itself to be an organization with a single-minded agenda, unfazed by its contradictions with itself, the Constitution, and the truth. It calls itself a “religious freedom” organization, but it opposes religious freedom, as indicated by the MRFF’s own researcher. In the end, the MRFF is merely a tool, one that Michael Weinstein uses to forward his personal agenda of opposing Christianity, gaining publicity, and increasing his personal wealth.

  • JD… I concede that it was a browser problem, and you didn’t change your post. When I first read the post, nothing beginning with your bulleted list through the rest of the post appeared. It was suddenly all there when I came back, and I jumped to conclusions, which I shouldn’t have done. I had cleared my browser cache in the meantime because I was having a problem with other sites loading slow, so I now realize that whatever was causing that problem is why the post here might not have loaded entirely. (This doesn’t mean I don’t still think you’re intellectually dishonest, because you’ve shown that on many other occasions, just not this one.)

    That said, your examples still don’t support your accusations.

    All Americans United said was that Hensley’s sermon might give other chaplains the idea that it is perfectly permissible to try to convert the Afghans.

    American Atheists mentioned both the Bible issue and Hensley’s sermon, and their statement that this is “mixing private religion with an official military mission” could have been meant in reference to either or both of these things.

    MPAC called, in general, for an “investigation of U.S. military chaplains encouraging soldiers to convert civilians in Afghanistan to Christianity,” and said, referring to “converting Afghans to Christianity,” that “This type of open violation military guidelines.” You selectively quoted this to make it appear to be a direct statement calling for an investigation of Hensley specifically, when MPAC was clearly referring to converting the Afghans in general.

    Although all are worded a bit differently, the opinions of all three of these organizations appear to be essentially the same as that of MRFF — that Chaplain Hensley was encouraging the soldiers to commit violations such as the proselytizing of the Afghans, and creating a climate in which the soldiers think they can get away with such things. And, if Hensley wasn’t referring to the Afghans, then he was encouraging his congregation to proselytize their fellow troops, which is still encouraging them to violate military regulations.

    You also link to a diary entry on Daily Kos written by someone who has no connection to any organization. Calling this person an “independent personality,” implies that they are some sort of prominent voice, rather than just some Daily Kos user expressing their opinion. This is beyond ridiculous, and just shows how far you have to reach to grasp for straws in your attempt to support your claims.

    It actually is a violation of the UCMJ to encourage others to violate regulations, so the real question here is how this applies to what a chaplain says during a religious service. But, this would naturally lead to a subjective interpretation of whether or not the chaplain was merely expressing a theological viewpoint or encouraging his congregation to violate regulations. But, MRFF did not pursue this because, as I previously said, our focus was on the far more tangible violation of the soldiers having the Dari and Pashtu Bibles. Does this mean we approve of a chaplain encouraging proselytizing? Of course not. Just because it could be argued that it might be permissible if it was meant as a theological view in a religious service doesn’t mean it’s not part of the larger problem, and we would not defend anyone who is contributing in any way, even indirectly, to the problems we’re seeing at places like Bagram, which is what Hensley certainly appears to be doing.

    As far as MRFF using the clip of Hensley in one of our videos goes, a clip showing a prominent chaplain encouraging his congregation to proselytize illustrates a big aspect of the problem we’re fighting, which is something we think people need to see to get the big picture. If the same chaplain had said the same thing in a chapel here in the U.S., he might be given the benefit of the doubt that he meant the soldiers should go out and proselytize on their own time among the civilians in their community, but since this sermon took place in Afghanistan, he could only have meant to proselytize either the local Afghans or their fellow troops, either of which is prohibited.

  • Chris,

    I hope you had a good Thanksgiving. Personally I’m thankful my family was able to make it out to see me as it was my first hosting of a major holiday.

    I haven’t done the detailed study of this particular case, however I have a problem with your organization’s “problem” with the “big picture.” If you define ‘proselytize’ as ‘forced’ or ‘coerced’ then I agree with your stated “big picture problem.” However, my impression of your organization is that it wants nothing less than atheism by individual members while they are at work. That position alone is counter to the Constitution because individual members are allowed freedom of religion within the confines that it does not impede another member’s freedom.

    Additionally, matters of religion can be official business. To successfully befriend a person from another culture, it is expected to ask and answer questions of deep personal identity. What could be more personal than to a religious member than answering a question of faith?

  • Dealer…

    Glad your first time hosting a Thanksgiving went well. I spent the day at a friend’s house — my mom goes up to New Hampshire to my sister’s for Thanksgiving, and then spends Christmas down here at my place. That way she gets around to see everybody on one holiday or the other in spite of us all having crazy schedules.

    Something that may surprise you is that the overwhelming majority of service members who contact MRFF for help or to report potential violations are actually Christians themselves. Our opponents try to paint us as a bunch of atheists who want to rid the military of all religion, but that’s simply not the case. The problem is a subset of Christians — the fundamentalists and dominionists — who see the military as a mission field and see being deployed to Muslim countries as an opportunity to convert Muslims. These people also go after Catholics and mainstream and liberal Protestants within our military, telling them that they’re not “real” Christians or not Christian enough.

    There’s also been a major twisting of the definition of “proselytizing.” There is nothing in the definition of this word that says it has to be by force or coercion to be considered proselytizing. The dictionary definition of proselytizing is simply to “convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another.” The people who want to be able to proselytize, which is explicitly prohibited by CENTCOM’s General Order 1, have changed the definition of proselytizing by adding the element of “forced” conversion in an attempt to be able to say that what they are doing isn’t proselytizing.

  • Chris,

    I’m glad you had a good holiday too.

    Webster’s (from online) has two definitions of proselytize: one with the root of ‘induce’ and one with ‘recruit.’ That said, the root of the issue with Hensley is the audience to whom he was speaking. The assumption for Protestant congregation in the military is Calvinist denominations. The common root of those denominations is the idea that individuals have no determination on God’s grace: so that an individual cannot boast, God has all the glory. The logical continuation of this is that it is not man’s place to turn hearts and souls to God. Someone without this background can interpret the Jesus’s command to go to the world and spread the word as blanket approval to say what you want, when you want to.

    Contrasting that, Jesus said that the first command was to love Him, followed by love your neighbor. Loving them also means respecting them. Throwing your religion in someone else’s face is not love. Unfortunately many Christians suffer from a lack of courage in discussing their faith, even when an appropriate situation presents itself (it may surprise you that I’m usually in that category). My command to ‘spread the word’ is to live my life in a way that brings me closer to Him. Through that life, others should notice and ask questions–that is when I can bring it up. I allow Him to present the appropriate time, allow Him to change hearts: all I have to do is be honest, open, but not forceful with His effect on my life.

    And, I was surprised by the way, although in retrospect I shouldn’t be. The command to love your neighbor as yourself is very difficult and one I struggle with the most. There are plenty of easier commands (mentally at least) and many people (including me for most of my life) chose to dwell in.

  • *i should have proofread (2nd paragraph, 5th sentence):

    My interpretation of His command to ‘spread the word’…

  • I agree with Rodda that the term “proselytize” has begun to pick up a connotation of “coercion” that is not in the original definition, but I disagree with her explanation of the source of the change. The connotation has changed because the word is so often associated with incidents in which coercion is implied, not because “those who want to proselytize” are looking for a defense.

    Few Christians, even “fundamentalist” ones, would say their goal is to “proselytize,” or “convert.” Instead, they believe their calling is to “evangelize,” which means “to preach to.” The former implies that the Christian is “converting,” the latter that the Christian is “providing the information” from which another might make a decision.

    Yes, there is ample room for argument over nuance, since evangelism might lead to conversion. But nuance or not, the two are not one and the same. (Just like Maxim doesn’t violate GO1, as I pointed out here.)

    While evangelism can often be direct conversation, it can also be (and is arguably more often) more subtle, to which Dealer alludes. For example, being a “witness” for Jesus can be as simple as living a Christ-like life–and never once making an unsolicited comment about faith. This “life evangelism” is a foundational Christian concept. An article describing that very concept was published here. Still, people quoted Hensley’s comment about “being a witness” as if it was a bad thing.

    Though there are qualifiers about wisdom and discretion, evangelism, which includes both “passive” witnessing and voluntary, solicited sharing or discussion of faith, is not a violation of GO1.

    The problem is a subset of Christians — the fundamentalists and dominionists

    Weinstein said it was fundamentalist evangelicals, not dominionists.

    Either way, please provide your source that indicates Chaplain Hensley, Chaplain Furner, and Sgt Jon Watt are fundamentalists, dominionists, or evangelicals.