MRFF: Chaplain’s Sermons Permissible, Sort of

A recent Military Religion Question of the Day involved a sermon delivered in Afghanistan by Chaplain (LtCol) Gary Hensley.  The question and subsequent answer have already been discussed.  The discussion noted that groups used Hensley’s sermon as proof of religious impropriety in the military, though their accusations were demonstrably false.

The relationship of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to this incident, however, requires further illumination. 

In the original article on this question, MRFF researcher Chris Rodda said:

What Hensley said was during an actual religious service, so of course it was permissible. (emphasis added)

Oddly, though, the MRFF never publicly said that.  In fact, as noted in the prior discussion, MRFF founder Michael Weinstein is on the record supporting the opposite perspective about the USAF Academy Chaplain in 2005, saying the Chaplain’s sermon, which was during an actual religious service, “certainly did” violate regulations and the Constitution.

One would think that with all the accusations against Hensley, a military religious freedom organization would vociferously come to his defense–if it truly believed his actions were permissible.  On the contrary, until Rodda’s admission, the MRFF had joined those who have criticized Hensley.

As noted in the prior discussion, the MRFF re-publicized the al Jazeera video that linked Hensley with the local language Afghan Bibles, categorizing the video as a “Constitutional Violation” that was “caught on camera.”  Nowhere in its distribution did the MRFF say Hensley was permitted to preach as he did.  In fact, in their fundraising release that also highlighted this video, they made a point of including an article about the “MRFF involvement” in the case.  The article, which never mentions the MRFF, addresses the entire video, including allegations of local language Bibles.  However, the title and opening lines of the article are entirely about Hensley’s sermon:

US Soldiers in Afghanistan Told to “Hunt People for Jesus…So We Get Them into the Kingdom”
Military officials at Bagram are caught on tape urging US soldiers to evangelize in the Muslim country.

New video evidence has surfaced showing that US military forces in Afghanistan have been instructed by the military’s top chaplain in the country to “hunt people for Jesus” as they spread Christianity to the overwhelmingly Muslim population…

Despite the fact that Hensley’s sermon was entirely permissible–and Constitutionally protected–the MRFF did not dispute the article in which author Jeremy Scahill said that Hensley’s sermon was not a legitimate exercise of religious liberty, but a scandalous promotion of an evangelical Christian agenda and a threat to US troops:

Trying to convert Muslims to any other faith is a crime in Afghanistan. The fact that the video footage is being broadcast on Al Jazeera guarantees that it will be seen throughout the Muslim world. It is likely to add more credence to the perception that the US is engaging in a war on Islam with neo-crusader forces invading Muslim lands…

This is certainly not the first scandal where US military forces or officials have been caught on tape promoting an evangelical Christian agenda.

The MRFF chose to use an article that explicitly accused Hensley of wrongdoing in its fundraising, despite the fact that Hensley’s sermon was protected.  Even more telling was Michael Weinstein’s response to the video; while lengthy, it is intentionally unedited:

This video clearly shows that fundamentalist, evangelical Christians within the U.S. military are putting their fellow soldiers at extreme risk by attempting to convert Afghans to Christianity. These inciteful actions are grossly offensive to not only Muslims in Afghanistan and across the world, but to all those who hold faith in the U.S. Constitution. The United States’ armed forces are not on a mission to impose a Christian God on those who believe in Muhammad. We are fighting a fundamentalist terrorist threat in Afghanistan that is hell bent on destroying America’s rights and freedoms. Al Qaeda, the Taliban and others continue to run rampant in Afghanistan and are looking for every opportunity to recruit more terrorists and justify their anti-American rhetoric.

It is a travesty and an utter outrage that the Pentagon does nothing to end these practices and refuses to punish those in blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution and military ethics. We once again demand the Pentagon put an immediate stop to these outrageous practices that threaten our national security and hope, in the interim, these actions do not inspire current and future terrorists.

Never once did Weinstein say anything about the Afghan language Bibles, which Chris Rodda maintains was the only thing with which the MRFF was concerned.  Nor does he use a single word to qualify his derision and state that the Hensley sermon, included on the subject video, is not the object of his wrath.  In fact, his use of the plural–given that there were only two significant situations on the video, the Bibles and the sermon–seems to indicate his disdain was aimed at Hensley.

As a member of the MRFF, Rodda’s assertion that the sermon was “permissible” comically contradicts the MRFF to date, even in its most publicized productions.  For example, if Hensley’s sermon is “of course…permissible,” why does the MRFF use his sermon as a fundraising prop?

Of the two “scandals” in the al Jazeera footage, only the segment on Hensley’s sermon is used to raise funds for MRFF:


Still from MRFF video.  (See video.)

For those that can’t see the video, the MRFF leaves no doubt that they consider the sermon, which they quote, one of their listed “violations.”  (From a sound bite on “government paid missionaries,” the voice over lead-in is “Oh there’s more, listen to this guy!”)

The MRFF is using Chaplain Hensley’s sermon as a casus belli against “Christian proselytizing in the military”–despite the fact that even the MRFF’s own researcher says his sermon is “permissible.”

It is unconscionable that the MRFF refused to defend Hensley and his display of American Constitutional liberties in action.  Instead, they are attempting to cash in–at the cost of the religious freedom of US troops.  (More accurately, it is Weinstein who is “cashing in,” since about half of all MRFF donations go to him personally, allowing him to pocket more than $250,000 last year alone.)

Weinstein has yet to lead his organization in such a way as to prove it is a legitimate “religious freedom” organization.  To date, his actions have demonstrated that those have been mere political buzzwords obscuring another agenda.