Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

On proselytism, evangelization, and the First Amendment

One of the issues raised in the various posts by Bob Hockett, Michael Scaperlanda, Patrick Brennan, and MOJ-friend Paul Horwitz is the challenge of defining "proselytism."  The word (like "discrimination", perhaps) has acquired a connotation of "persuasion, advocacy, or communication of an aggressive, underhanded, intolerant, insulting, or disrespectful kind."  Of course, it need not be involve any of those adjectives.  A few years ago -- as part of a very enjoyable lecture series organized by Patrick -- I did a paper called "Changing Minds:  Proselytism, Religious Freedom, and the First Amendment," in which I tried to underscore the fact that "proselytization," correctly understood, should not and need not involve any unworthy tactics or dignity-denying premises, but can and should be understood as an invitation -- and invitation to "come over," and to change not only one's mind, but one's view and way of life.  Here's a bit from the abstract:

Running through and shaping our First Amendment doctrines, precedents, and
values is a solicitude for changing minds - our own, as well as others'. Put
differently, the Amendment is understood as protecting and celebrating not just
expression but persuasion - or, if you like, proselytism. There are, therefore,
reasons grounded in our Constitution and traditions for regarding proselytism
and its legal protection not as threats to the common good and the freedom of
conscience, but instead as integral to the flourishing and good exercise of that
freedom. This same solicitude for persuasion and freedom pervades the writing of Pope John Paul II, who regularly insisted that the Church's evangelical mission
does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes - thereby
inviting the exercise of human freedom - she imposes nothing. The claim here,
then, is that proposing, persuading, proselytizing, and evangelizing are at the
heart of, and need not undermine, not only the freedoms protected by the
Constitution, but also those that are inherent in our dignity as human persons.

With respect to the recent and ongoing argument here at MOJ about "Mikey" Weinstein and the DoD, it seems to me that -- putting aside what I regard as the facts that Weinstein is a hateful bigot who should no more be a part of even merely symbolic consultation with our government than should Fred Phelps and that it is entirely appropriate, on this site or any other, to express concern about such consultation -- it seems to me really important that any regulations and policies designed to (quite appropriately) protect our men and women in the service from abuses of superiors' authority (whether those abuses involve unwanted and aggressive religious messages, or take any other form) not reflect a premise or presumption that the content of traditional religious teachings and practices is substantively objectionable and therefore not-to-be-discussed-or-advocated in the armed services and also not reflect a premise or presumption that evangelism itself -- the invitation to "come over" -- (as opposed to abusive instances of it) is objectionable, even among members of the service.


Garnett, Rick | Permalink


                                                        Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

It seems like there are two different issues here: what connotations we, as a society, should attach to the word "proselytism", and what that word means as (potentially) a term of art in military law.

It would have been nice to see, in the latest installment in Patrick Brennan's tirade, an acknowledgment of the fact that the military regulations may be using the word in a different way than he understands it.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | May 2, 2013 3:06:37 PM

I don't see that the definition of the word "proselytism" has had much if anything to do with the conflict that has taken place here on MOJ. Judging by the 2007 article from the Air Force Law Review that Elizabeth Brown links to in another thread, the Pentagon is not misusing the word, not implying that proselytism per se is objectionable, and not threatening anyone with court martial merely for proselytizing.

Posted by: David | May 2, 2013 4:27:25 PM

There was the one quote (which seems to have been taken greatly out of context by Fox, Breitbart, and Brennan) suggesting that proselytism is against regulations.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | May 2, 2013 4:49:16 PM

Proselytism can take many forms, for example, in the case of Jason Collins, an NBA basketball player, who, unlike his identical twin brother who also played NBA basketball, but is married and has children, decided to reveal his sexual orientation, and has become an overnight sensation, a hero, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, an upcoming appearance on Oprah, and a call from President Obama, all in one week.

Sometimes proselytism can be unjust, when it is not grounded in truth, as when someone wants to make it appear as if those of us who do not condone same-sex sexual acts or any sexual act that does not respect the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the human person are denying someone their personhood, when in fact, we simply desire that they, like all persons, be treated in public and in private, with Dignity and Respect.

Posted by: Nancy | May 2, 2013 7:38:10 PM

A request for clarification led to this 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)."


That is a somewhat nuanced usage.

Posted by: Joe | May 2, 2013 8:32:04 PM

Based on Joe's quote, my worry would be how the military interprets this regulation in the middle between obvious abuse and perhaps more extroverted efforts at "sharing one's faith."

When does sharing one's faith sharing shift from evangelization to proselytization? (As the military uses these terms)

I can imagine some serious grey areas here.

Posted by: CLS | May 3, 2013 12:11:24 PM

Line drawing in cases of "unwanted, intrusive" in various contexts raises such questions, including sexual harassment law. It bear noting that the military personnel as a whole is majority Christian and there is still a notable sectional focus toward the Southern states, resulting in at least a slight conservative majority presence in many places. This very well might be likely to result in any close calls going to the side of evangelism than the other way around.

Posted by: Joe | May 3, 2013 3:19:24 PM

Yes, I wasn't complaining about this necessarily, just pointing out where I foresee future difficulties. A

Posted by: CLS | May 3, 2013 5:04:13 PM

sure enough

Posted by: Joe | May 4, 2013 12:21:28 AM

Christianity will always be set apart from those who no longer desire to identify themselves or others as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, but rather as objects of sexual desire, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transexual, polysexual, in direct violation of God's Commandment regarding lust and the sin of adultery.

Posted by: Nancy | May 4, 2013 9:28:37 AM

Groping through the fog of “gray areas” is what keeps lawyers employed.

What must a person do to clearly indicate that further proselytization is unwanted?
On whom is the evidentiary burden placed? The one who is victimized by unwanted evangelism?
How clear are the rules regarding non-judicial actions the military must complete before formal charges can be contemplated?

Full-employment for military lawyers is assured.

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | May 6, 2013 12:21:02 PM