I share, you evangelize, they proselytize

Many moons ago, before I came to write for GetReligion, I was a devoted GetReligion reader. And I remember reader Will Linden used to comment something along the lines of:

I share, you evangelize, they proselytize.

Such wisdom in that line. I thought of this when I saw the tweet above.

Let's look at the definitions of both terms.

pros·e·lyt·ize 1. Convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another. 2. Advocate or promote (a belief or course of action): "Davis wanted to proselytize his ideas".

Synonyms proselyte - convert

e·van·ge·lize 1. to preach the gospel to. 2. to convert to Christianity. Synonyms homilize, preachify, proclaim, proselytize, sermonize

So you can do one and not the other. You can convert but you can't convert? Sounds confusing. Precisely what do the regulations say?

The Religion News Service piece mentioned above attempts to tamp down some Christian concern that erupted this week. And tamping down is good, in one sense, since there was bad information out there that suggested a policy change by the military. (If you want to get up to speed, you can do no better than this piece from The Tennessean, which lays out the current environment very well.)

Back to the RNS piece. Basically the military already has a regulation against proselytism but some anti-religion activists who are used as consultants by the military have been pushing the military to change how they enforce those regulations against people who "share" their religion.

So while the headlines of "sharing Jesus will totally get you court-martialed" were inaccurate, I'm not entirely sure that headlines definitively stating you won't get court-martialed for sharing Jesus are on much stronger ground. At least from what I'm reading in the news stories.

From the piece:

Christian conservatives have grown increasingly alarmed in recent weeks over reports and rumors that the Pentagon is considering new policies aimed at discriminating against Christians and disciplining or even court-martialing those who share their faith.

But the Department of Defense on Thursday (May 2) sought to debunk that speculation, saying that while aggressive proselytizing is barred, evangelization is still permitted and the rights of all believers – and non-believers – will be protected.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen issued a statement:

“Service members can share their faith (evangelize), but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs (proselytization),” Christensen added.

He also said that “when religious harassment complaints are reported, commanders take action based on the gravity of the occurrence on a case by case basis.” He did not specify what the range of penalties could be.

The latest statement was aimed at refuting widely circulated reports in conservative media outlets that Christian soldiers could be court-martialed for sharing their faith.

There were two major areas of alarm on the part of Christian conservatives. The alarm was initiated by a news report about a Pentagon meeting that took place. To quote from one news story: "The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is calling on the Air Force to enforce a regulation that they believe calls for the court martial of any service member caught proselytizing." Then a conservative outlet took that information and mishandled it, turning it into a histrionic piece saying that court martials were coming for the Jesus followers.

But the Pentagon's statement doesn't exactly erase either of the two major areas of alarm, right? First, it's actually true that the Pentagon is taking counsel from a known anti-religious extremist (more on that in my next post), so that part isn't debunked. And then the Pentagon is reiterating that proselytism is banned and that the range of penalties is unspecified, so that isn't exactly a debunking either. I mean, how do we know no one is getting court-martialed, exactly? Particularly when Weinstein is involved in the discussion about what's appropriate and inappropriate behavior?

Heck, we still don't know what is and what isn't proselytism, even if the spokesman puts forth his personal definition up there. You can spread the Gospel but you can't attempt to convert anyone who doesn't want to be converted? You can preach the Gospel but not do it in an "intrusive" way? I honestly don't even know where the line is. I don't mind anyone talking to me about their beliefs, even if they're things I vehemently disagree with. But I know other people who can't even tolerate the mention of God (or atheism) without breaking out in hives. How is "unwanted" defined, exactly? If all of these things are handled on a case-by-case basis, are there any guidelines at all? Can they be shared with the masses? And why is the explicitly Christian term for proselytism -- evangelism -- OK but the generic term for conversion attempts -- proselytism -- not?

I'd like reporters to ask Pentagon officials how someone can know they're safe to share the Gospel with their fellow soldiers without going over the line into the banned proselytism. I'd like reporters to ask how this ban is enforced and how enforcement could change over time. What guarantees are in place for people not wanting to be court-martialed?

Again, The Tennessean handled things nicely (unsurprisingly) -- noting where critics overstepped the facts but also noting where military regulations were nebulous. Before pooh-poohing the concern or defending the military, a bit more journalism is probably called for.

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