I waited a few days to comment on this story for two reasons. First of all, I was on the road and had limited access. Then I wanted to wait a day or two to see if any other media chased what I thought was a very significant story. Alas, this seems to be another one of those stories that is only of interest to "conservative" media. For the life of me I cannot understand why, unless you want to say that the separation of church and state is merely a "conservative" issue.
The key story comes from Julia "There she goes again" Duin over at the Washington Times. According to a number of sources, the White House has agreed to pressure the Pentagon into letting military chaplains continue to voice public prayers that are appropriate in their own faith traditions, rather than requiring a kind of generic language that promotes a tax-dollar-funded civic faith that pleases people who believe that followers of all the world religions are basically on the same path to the top of the same mountain where they will someday learn that they have been worshipping the same God or gods or whatever (if you will allow me to be blunt about it).
Evangelical Protestants activists have, of course, been asking President Bush to clarify this situation with an executive order. Now, apparently, they have agreed to let the White House work quietly behind the scenes. Pay close attention because this gets complicated:
The administration struck a deal ... with Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, said the Rev. Billy Baugham of the Greenville, S.C.-based International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers. Since October, Mr. Jones has arranged for letters from 74 members of Congress demanding an executive order to end reported religious discrimination against evangelical Christian chaplains.
Claude Allen, White House domestic policy adviser, promised the congressman that President Bush will take up the issue personally with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said Mr. Baugham, who was involved in the discussion.
"He asked Jones if he'd be satisfied with less than an executive order, and Jones said 'yes,'" he said.
Mr. Jones' office, which confirmed that the conversation had taken place, says chaplains should be able to pray to whomever "their faith tradition" demands, including named gods, saints or prophets.
One of the most interesting details, for me, is an anecdote about a Muslim chaplain candidate who was corrected for praying in the name of "Allah, the most blessed and beautiful." That turned into an safer appeal to the "most generous and eternal God." One wonders how many Muslims will be willing to edit their faith in this manner.
In another case, a chaplain was taught how to add disclaimers at the end of his prayers, turning them into dual-source appeals to a generic god followed by language making it clear that only the speaker was praying to Jesus. All of this is, to say the least, precisely what church-state law calls the "excessive entanglement" of government in the free practice of religion.
Of course, some on the left side of the church aisle are pleased with the God-lite language because it accurately reflects their theology. This is interesting, since these are normally the people who do not want to see tax dollars spent to proclaim a specific approach to religious faith.
But wait, you say, if chaplains voice public prayers that are faith specific, doesn't that mean that tax dollars are being used to support a specific faith at that precise moment in time? Isn't the government, in effect, funding religious confusion and allowing offensive religious speech in the public square?
Yes, that is what it means. The problem is that there are only two options, if people insist on using religious language during civic ceremonies in a diverse public square. Oh, I guess you could just fire all the chaplains and make the military go totally secular. There are people who want that.
Someone is going to have to clarify all of this because the issue is not going to go away on its own. Meanwhile, this is an important story and other news organizations need to cover it. For one thing, it's interesting that the evangelicals have let the Bush White House off the hook again, when it comes to taking a public stand (photos from IFCA.org).