Divisive religious proselytization is a recurrent problem in the US military. But it's especially dangerous on the front lines, in the face of potential enemies similarly preached to in religiously exclusionary terms.
Bible Belt Meets Persian Gulf
Credit: Military Religious Freedom Foundation
August 22, 2020

Religious proselytizing, which threatens unit cohesion, morale and discipline, is a recurrent threat in America’s military today, which the Military Religious Freedom Foundation deals with on almost daily basis. But it’s arguably the most threatening where confrontation with potential enemies Is most imminent. Which is why alarm bells went off on August 13, when an email from a US Navy member with a special operations unit in Qatar (under the U.S. Special Operations Command Central, aka “SOCCENT”) raised these sadly all-to-common concerns to MRFF founder and President Mikey Weinstein.

“To be straightforward, I am deeply concerned about the recent preferential advertisement of Christian-oriented religious services by the Chaplain, [LCDR] Terry L. Moran and his Religious Affairs NCOIC [RP1] Thomas Keble,” the email stated, going on to explain:

Since the beginning of July, emails which previously only included information about on-base events such as Dining Facility menus, theater times and special events have begun to include notifications of Bible study meetings with topics like “Know Your Enemy,” two or three times per week. These emails are exclusively for Christian religious studies. I have not, to date, seen any form of religious outreach to non-Christian troops.

The chaplaincy exists within the military to minister to the troops spiritual needs, not to proselytize, a distinction that goes all the way back to the Continental Army under Washington. It has its own channels of communication, distinct from the chain of command, precisely to avoid blurring the lines between the two key religious clauses in the First Amendment—the ‘no establishment’ clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) and the ‘free expression’ clause. (“or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).

So when a chaplain uses a general information email, sent out under command authority, to promote religious activities, it’s a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment— which all members of the military, incluing chaplains are sworn to defend—as well as a violation of specific military regulations spelling out how the First Amendment applies in the specific context of military service. But it also undermines the very function that the chaplaincy is supposed to serve, as the author of the email so clearly understood:

As I’m sure you know, being deployed adds significant stressors to the lives of those who serve. The Chaplaincy is supposed to function as relief and respite for servicemembers. It cannot perform that function if it demonstrates through word and action that it serves some troops more fully than others.

I’m not naive — I know some will say that in reaching out to you, I’m trying to tear down the Chaplaincy, but that’s not what I want at all. I want it to succeed. I want it to be a source of support and peace far from home for all servicemembers, not merely a select few.

As usually happens in such cases, the initial complainant was not alone—MRFF quickly gained a total of 11 clients (6 self-identified as Christians) seeking help in gaining protection—and Weinstein wrote the SOCCENT commander, Rear Admiral Frank M. Bradley on August 15, alerting him to the situation and requesting immediate action:

In short, Admiral, one of your chaplains downrange, Lt. Commander Terry L. Moran, has clearly overstepped the Rules of Engagement, re: his official duties, by repeatedly proselytizing his ENTIRE unit with a bevy of clearly sectarian Christian-only E-mails. We at MRFF have faced these exact same situations many times but never before in your command, sir.

Weinstein quickly established the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate behavior at issue:

Chaplains have every right to communicate with their fellow armed forces members via E-mail but, if they wish to frequently blanket EVERYONE in their respective units, they must keep their communications secular. If Chaplain (LCDR) Moran wishes to send out E-mails which are targeting a Christian-only SOCCENT audience, that is also quite fine as long as he is sending such sectarian, Christian-ONLY messages to those SOCCENT personnel who have either asked to be so included on them or are otherwise part of his regular Chaplain-serving constituency such as those he has established a close pastoral relationship with or those who might regularly attend his services etc.

In contrast, Weinstein emphasized what was being wrongly done instead:

Unfortunately, Chaplain (LCDR) Moran and his Religious Affairs NCOIC, RP1 Thomas Keble are doing the exact opposite of what is permitted.

Their persistent sending out of these obviously Christian-only, unsolicited E-mails to ALL SOCCENT personnel is totally violative of the No Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, all germane, construing Federal caselaw on same, a plethora of DoD and Military Branch-specifc Directives, Instructions and Regulations, the Core Values of the several Military Branches and the UCMJ.

And Weinstein requested the immediate cessation of such proselytizing emails, followed by a clear summary of harmful threat at stake:

Our terrific U.S. military is a VERY diverse workplace. One of DoD’s greatest strengths IS its diversity. By sending out his Christian-ONLY E-mails to ALL SOCCENT personnel, Chaplain (LCDR) Moran is seriously and most deleteriously degrading the good order, morale, discipline and unit cohesion of his SOCCENT comrades.

Although MRFF has not heard back from Admiral Bradley or his staff, the situation in Qatar appears to have changed dramatically as a result, according to the most recent email from their initial client:

Last week I emailed you, letting you know that at SOCCENT there was a Navy chaplain who was emailing (ie. proselytizing) the entire org-box with invitations to Christian Bible studies. I passed along that I felt this was harmful to the good order, morale, discipline and unit cohesion of the many servicemembers at SOCCENT whose religious tradition is other-than-Christian….

I can tell you now, that those Christian proselytizing messages have stopped being distributed to our official, military inboxes. From myself and the other SOCCENT servicemembers (many who are actually practicing Christians themselves but yet clearly saw how wrong this was) who felt second-class for our form of belief, thank you for your help!

That was the good news. But it still left something to be desired, as the client went on to note:

I am somewhat disappointed that there was a silent cessation of emails, and not the extension of an olive branch for non-Christian members. It is against the oath we swore to the U.S. Constitution and many regulations to offer sectarian Christian services to the exclusion of others, but I am still disappointed that Chaplain (LCDR) Moran seems to have taken his ball and gone home, rather than used this as an opportunity to offer the Chaplaincy to all of SOCCENT, no matter their belief or even lack thereof.

Without the recognition of wrong-doing, and efforts to make amends, there is evidence of learning, no assurance that similar, or even worse violations will not happen again. Which leaves MRFF’s clients in a potentially precarious state—albeit, much less so, knowing that MRFF is looking out for them. As the client explained:

I'm sorry that I had to reach out to you, but SOCCENT is a tight-knit community, and as they say in the military, "if you stick out, prepare to be hammered." This was what drove me and my fellow SOCCENT Spartans to reach out to you all at the MRFF, fear of reprisal from the official SOCCENT chain of command. I know you understand, and we all appreciate that MRFF is willing to take the heat for servicemembers.

In response, Weinstein told Crooks and Liars:

When the SPEC OPS command climate is THIS toxic that it forces these TRULY elite American warriors (most of whom are Christians) to reach out and ask MRFF to fight for them to protect the sworn oaths they all took to support and defend the United States Constitution, it’s a truly repulsive and critically dangerous state of affairs indeed.”

More needed to be done, Weinstein said:

Navy Chaplain (Lt. Commander) Terry Moran should be justly, visibly and swiftly punished by the United States Navy for his savaging of the U.S. Constitution and his clearly illicit attempts to subordinate his sworn oath to same for the greater glory of his personal fundamentalist Chrisitian proselytizing and missionary efforts to SOCCENT personnel, the majority of whom he militarily outranks."

At the very least—because the silent resolution of this matter remains both passive and tacit, rather than active and explicit—it’s important that this quasi-resolution be publicly known, to further guard against the possibility of it proving only to be ephemeral. As has oft been repeated, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

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