The military and the J-word, again

WhiteHouseNC053A long, long time ago, the journalist Stephen Bates wrote a stunning book entitled "Battleground: One Mother's Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of Our Classrooms." You knew it was an amazing book because the back cover was full of praise from scholars, journalists and acitivists on the left as well as the right. His thesis: Our public schools have become so biased against traditional forms of religion that they are, ultimately, undercutting the foundations of America's heritage of public education. They are driving away millions of parents and, thus, their children. I thought of this book while reading veteran Godbeat reporter Julia Duin's story in the Washington Times about a hunger strike by Navy Lt. Gordon Klingenschmitt, who says he is one of many U.S. miltary chaplains who face discrimination because he refuses to stop saying traditional Christian prayers in public. In other words, he continues to say the word "Jesus." (You may recall the excellent New York Times story on this issue that drew GetReligion praise.)

What is the connection?

When I was interviewing Bates about his book, he used two terms that I recalled from my graduate studies in church-state studies -- "civic toleration" and "theological (or doctrinal) toleration."

What the American founding fathers wanted was "civic toleration," the belief that all faiths or non-faiths would be equal in the eyes of the state. This did not, however, mean that the state would -- to use modern language -- practice "viewpoint discrimination" and deliberately favor some forms of religion over others. The state would not say that some religions are right and others are wrong.

The problem, said Bates, was that American public schools seem to think that it is their duty to teach "theological toleration," which teaches that all religions are the same in the eyes of God. This means that faiths that actually teach that their beliefs are true, and others are false, are -- well -- wrong. This means that they must change what they teach, in order to have any role in the public square. In practice, this leads to state recognition and even support for faiths that take an approach that says that "many religious roads to lead to the same god, gods or God." The state then has trouble tolerating the faiths that it has ruled are not tolerant enough. This is church-state entanglement of the worse kind.

Bates had a memorable way of putting this. He said this is like people who say, "You know, there are people who just don't love everybody the way that they should and I really hate people like that."

This brings us back to Duin's report about Klingenschmitt, a chaplain who has fought for the religious rights of Jews, Muslims and others under his care, but refuses to pray in a manner that he believes is less than Christian and, thus, heretical. He is backed by a conservative ecumenical group called the National Clergy Council (see photo). According to Klingenschmitt, he is about to be fired. Conservatives want President Bush to step in and defend the free-speech rights of chaplains.

Thus, Duin reports:

Seventy-three members of Congress have joined the request, saying in an Oct. 25 letter to the president, "In all branches of the military, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christian chaplains to use the name of Jesus when praying." About 80 percent of U.S. troops are Christian, the legislators wrote, adding that military "censorship" of chaplains' prayers disenfranchises "hundreds of thousands of Christian soldiers in the military who look to their chaplains for comfort, inspiration and support."

Official military policy allows any sort of prayer, but Lt. Klingenschmitt says that in reality, evangelical Protestant prayers are censored. He cites his training at the Navy Chaplains School in Newport, R.I., where "they have clipboards and evaluators who evaluate your prayers, and they praise you if you pray just to God," he said. "But if you pray in Jesus' name, they counsel you." Muslim, Jewish and Roman Catholic chaplains are likewise told not to pray in the name of Allah, in Hebrew or in the name of the Trinity, he added.

If you search for this story on Google, you will discover that, so far, only Stars and Stripes is interested in it (other than the usual assortment of conservative news outlets). Once again, offensive free speech now seems to be more important to conservatives than to those formerly known as "liberals."

As the New York Times noted, the Navy is facing lawsuits filed by 50 or so Christian chaplains. Thus, the issue will not go away. Let's hope that more MSM newsrooms notice this fact.

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