Military Religion Question Answered: Beliefs

The recent Military Religion Question of the Day involved accusations that an Air National Guard Chaplain, LtCol Dan Hornok, was “blatantly proselytizing” in a commentary he published on an Air Force website.  The article and initial commentary can be seen here.

The basic questions were:

  • Was the Chaplain “blatantly proselytizing?”
  • What if the writer had not been a Chaplain?
  • What do the Chaplain’s words—and the critic’s—say about the spiritual environment in the military?

Was the Chaplain “blatantly proselytizing?”

The shortest, most accurate answer: no.

First, it is necessary to determine the precise accusation.  Ignoring the unnecessary adverb, to “proselytize” means to “convert, attempt to convert, or recruit.”  In a religious connotation, “convert” means to “cause to adopt a different religion.”  After parsing the dictionary, it appears the Chaplain stands accused of causing, or attempting to cause, others to adopt a (different) religion.

By what means did he attempt to convert his readers?  Ignoring the context of the article, as the critic did, the offensive quote was

God sent his son Jesus into the world so that through his death on our behalf, we could have a personal relationship with him. Lest we forget, Christmas speaks of that birth and of the happiness that came from that

The offensive quote was declarative; that is, it served to “make known, or explain.”  It was not imperative or injunctive (expressing a command).  It wasn’t even inductive, meaning it did not attempt to persuade, lead or influence.  Thus, the critic accusing the Chaplain of impropriety would contend that the Chaplain was attempting to convert his readers by the statement of facts; specifically, Biblical beliefs.  Such an accusation is ludicrous and is an insult to the intelligence of the article’s readers.

The next question was slightly academic:  What if the writer had not been a Chaplain?

In short, it is irrelevant.  While the expectation is somewhat higher that speech of religious content would come from a Chaplain, there is no restriction in the US military that would have prevented a non-Chaplain from writing an identical article.

To make the point clear:

No military regulation, Constitutional provision, or other public policy restricts the expression of religious belief by military officers in official publications.

The final question, however, is quite important.

What do the Chaplain’s words—and the critic’s—say about the spiritual environment in the military?

Chaplain Hornok’s article is a wonderful example of the official culture of spirituality within the US military.  The US military holds the religious liberties of its members, as protected by the US Constitution, sacred.  It vigorously protects their rights to free exercise, expression, and personal belief, qualified only by military necessity.

As a result of those freedoms ensured by the spiritual climate in the military, the Chaplain was able to speak from his personal spiritual paradigm and make his beliefs known.  However, in another example of the institutional religious environment in the US military, he expressed his personal religious beliefs in a way that was inoffensive to other belief systems.  This is a careful balance of religious freedom and sensitivity to others’ beliefs, a sometimes difficult balance that Hornok achieved quite well. 

The critic’s words speak less to the spiritual environment that exists in the military, and more to the environment some would like.  Over the past few years there have been implications that the mere statement of religious belief by a military officer, even as a personal biographical descriptor, was impermissible.  (For example, the complaint against the US Air Force Academy by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State specifically cited “faculty members [who] introduced themselves to their classes as born-again Christians.”)  The critic in this case appears to believe that an officer publishing a statement of a religious tenet is an attempt by that officer to convert others to his belief.  The only logical solution to that complaint is to prohibit military members from making any religious statement—a suggestion that would be laughable were it not an affront to the Constitution.

Notably, however, while no lawsuit has successfully achieved that end, some have skillfully waged public relations campaigns to achieve similar goals.  While it is unlikely the critic’s complaint would stand up in court, it is far easier to try it in the court of public opinion, especially when the US military is the defendant.  Historically, the US military is averse to negative public perception–even when that perception is based on misinformation.  The “scandal” at the US Air Force Academy several years ago, for example, was directly responsible for the Air Force writing (and re-writing) “religious guidelines” for its Airmen–even though the investigation found no institutional Air Force issues.  In this specific situation, if critics can successfully stigmatize benign public religious statements by military officers, the military may very well restrict such statements–even though they are permissible by any current standard.

As an aside, it is worth noting that while the critic incorrectly accuses the Chaplain of “blatantly proselytizing,” he does not say that such “proselytizing” is wrong–with regard to military regulations, the Constitution, or any other standard.  He simply leaves his readers to draw the “blatant” conclusion.  Thus, he attempts to stigmatize a legitimate activity without even justifying the accusation.

The Situation Exposed

To return to the dictionary, “blatantly” means “obviously,” and as shown, the Chaplain’s commentary was not ‘obviously attempting to convert.’  It was obviously a statement of personal religious belief, and nothing more.

The critic in this case is Michael Weinstein, creator and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.  The statements quoted above were posted under his name on his public Facebook page (static version), and appear to be a part of the second leg of his stated method of “litigation and agitation” to impose his political agenda on the US military.  As noted above, if he can successfully “agitate” the military to the point that public expressions of religious beliefs are stigmatized, the military may become hypersensitive to such incidents and restrict them as a result.

This incident once again highlights Weinstein’s double standard: he criticizes Christian military members for acts in which other faiths also partake.  Statistically, Chaplains of other faiths are less likely to quote their faiths in military publications simply due to their fewer numbers.  That doesn’t mean they fail to do so, however.  In one example, Chaplain (LtCdr) Abuhena Saifulislam, a US Navy Imam, has had a veritable series of articles on the Islamic faith published in local military publications.

Compare, for example, this statement by Chaplain Hornok (in the commentary):

The Bible tells us that 2,000 years ago, God sent his son Jesus into the world so that through his death on our behalf, we could have a personal relationship with him.  Lest we forget, Christmas speaks of that birth and the happiness that came from that.

with this one by Chaplain Saifulislam:

In the Qur’an, people are asked to look around them for the signs of God in the natural world…This order and balance are neither haphazard nor random. The world, and everything in it, has been created with a perfect plan, by the One who knows all. Islam is a natural faith, a religion of responsibility, purpose, balance, discipline and simplicity. To be a Muslim is to live your life remembering God and striving to follow his merciful guidance.

Any reasonable reader would conclude that both Chaplains were simply describing their systems of belief.  Yet, for some reason, Weinstein considers the first “blatant proselytizing” and has said nothing about the second (or the multiple other articles that Saifulislam has written on the tenets of his faith).

Context is also important.  Though Weinstein links to the article, his selective quote removes the qualifiers within the commentary.  Similarly, Chaplain Saifulislam published the statement that “Allah is the proper name of the One True God,” but the context on either side of that statement is quite relevant to the reason he was writing.

Instead of being an innocent display of myopia, however, this obsession with one religion (while ignoring others) is simply the latest example of Weinstein’s ‘laser-beam’ focus on Christianity.  In fact, while his organization is named for “religious freedom,” he readily admits that the reason he created the MRFF was to fight Christianity:

Hello, I’m Mikey Weinstein. I started the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to fight back against the rampant and virulent spread of dominionist, fundamentalist Christianity that is infecting the United States Armed Forces…

His singular focus appears so obsessive that he even managed to lay some blame for the Fort Hood massacre at the feet of Christianity.

In the end, despite Weinstein’s accusations to the contrary, military members—including Chaplains—are permitted to speak and write about their religious beliefs, even if their religious beliefs are part of an exclusive faith system.  Neither Chaplain Hornok nor Chaplain Saifulislam is wrong to write public commentaries that describe their belief systems, even when they do so from their uniformed, official military positions.

As ongoing events continually demonstrate, the US military can learn much about itself and its adversaries through discussions about culture and religion.  These conversations should be encouraged, not silenced.  The military is proudly diverse; it is made up of members who espouse varying belief systems.  The US military reflects the society from which it is drawn–and that society holds sacred its human liberties.

Instead of stigmatizing the public expression of belief systems, the US military (and the US public) should proudly highlight the religious freedoms present in our country and in our military that allow such expressions—freedoms that exist to this scale only in the United States of America.