Back to the military God wars

800px Naval Academy chapelHere is the latest news from the still raging culture wars at America's military academies, as reported by the Baltimore Sun.

A national civil liberties group is renewing a push to end mealtime prayer at the U.S. Naval Academy, where a group of midshipmen recently complained to officials that they felt pressured to participate in the longtime practice.

The tradition, believed to date back to the college's founding in 1845, now involves a chaplain's leading grace before a noon meal that all 4,200 midshipmen must attend at King Hall. Midshipmen are not required to pray, though they must stand during the recital, and most bow their heads. Nine students recently approached the American Civil Liberties Union for help in getting the academy to end the practice. In a letter recently sent to the academy's superintendent, Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, the ACLU threatened legal action.

"The government should not be in the business of compelling religious observance, particularly in military academies, where students can feel coerced by senior students and officials and risk the loss of leadership opportunities for following their conscience," Deborah A. Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, wrote.

A spokesman for the academy says that it will stand its ground -- again.

Now, our purpose at this blog is to debate the media coverage of these kinds of tricky stories. However, before you click "comment," please know that my own position on this church-state issue is not what many of you would think. I don't think the academy is on solid footing here. I would have trouble even if it was a "moment of silence" situation. How are Muslims supposed to take part in a standing silent prayer facing West? That's equal treatment?

And here is the problem with the mainstream coverage of these ongoing fights -- click here for a GetReligion flashback on earlier coverage -- about free speech and freedom of association. People are mixing all kinds of apples and oranges together with little or no content about the actual laws involved.

Suffice it to say that there are some evangelicals out there who want to play by the rules and a few who do not. There are also some high-energy people on the religious and/or secular left who want to change the rules or ignore them, tossing "equal access" laws out with the bathwater. You can read story after story about these fights and never find out what is legal and what is not.

If someone at the academy wants to hold a voluntary evangelical banquet and read the whole Book of Acts, that's just fine, as long as other religious and secular groups have the same right. The environmental club can serve veggies and dip while hearing dramatic readings from Al Gore. It's called equal access. Both groups can put up event posters on bulletin boards and send out emails on the academy listserv. If you ban one, you ban them all. It's called equal access.

Now, if there are officers who are forcing people to attend events -- whether its the charismatic Catholic rosary meeting or the gender-equality book circle -- then that is out of line. That should be stopped.

Yet campus ministers have a right to share their faith and even take part in discussions of public affairs over coffee in public places. If students don't want to hear what they have to say, the solution is for the students to have the power to tell them to leave them alone. You don't discriminate against the free-offensive-speech rights of the religious believers to a degree that is stricter than other people who talk about hot-button topics. And officers have a right to quote religious classics in their public speeches if they wish, just as much as they have a right to quote the wit and wisdom of John Stewart or John Stuart Mill. They do not have a right to public evangelism -- unless an event is truly voluntary.

But there is another reality here that must be addressed. America's military establishment knows that there are more Southern Baptists and Pentecostal believers who are willing to serve in Iraq than there are Unitarian Universalists and United Church of Christ folks who are ready to enlist. Someone is going to have to work this out, focusing just as much on the positive rights that religious believers have as well as the rights of the nonreligious and the secular to be left alone, once they have voiced an honest objection.

Consider this passage in the New York Times story that has opened up this new round of debates. We'll walk into this one step at a time:

Three years after a scandal at the Air Force Academy over the evangelizing of cadets by Christian staff and faculty members, students and staff at West Point and the Naval Academy are complaining that their schools, too, have pushed religion on cadets and midshipmen.

The controversy led the Air Force to adopt guidelines that discourage public prayers at official events or meetings. And while those rules do not apply to other branches of the service, critics say the new complaints raise questions about the military's commitment to policies against imposing religion on its members.

Well, what do public prayers have to do with the "evangelizing of cadets"? Apples and oranges, again.

Religion in the military has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, especially because the close confines of military life often put two larger societal trends -- the rise of evangelicals and the rise of people of no organized faith -- onto a collision course.

070630 F 5622M 004That summary statement by Neela Banerjee is right on target. Now, has anyone done any survey work lately to tell us how many traditional religious believers there are, of various faiths and denominations, in comparison to those who are outspoken secularists or religious liberals? That would be a great statistic to show readers the challenges faced by the leaders of the various branches of the military.

Here's another key paragraph:

In interviews at West Point, seven cadets, two officers and a former chaplain said that religion, especially evangelical Christianity, was a constant at the academy. They said that until recently, cadets who did not attend religious services during basic training were sometimes referred to as "heathens." They said mandatory banquets begin with prayer, including a reading from the Bible at a recent gala.

But most of their complaints center on Maj. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, until recently the academy's top military leader and, since early May, the commander of the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. The cadets and staff said General Caslen, as commandant of cadets at West Point, routinely brought up God in speeches at events cadets were required to attend.

In his farewell speech to the cadet corps this spring, General Caslen told them: "Draw your strength in the days ahead from your faith in God. Let it be the moral compass that guides you in the decisions you make."

You know what? There is no law against "bringing up God" in public addresses that people are required to attend. There is no law against quoting Plato or William Shakespeare, either. Again, we do not know enough about what these evangelicals are saying to know if they are crossing any lines into evangelism. The statement above, read in isolation, sounds like a man giving advice based on his own beliefs. In other words, he was not giving orders. Would you want to silence a woman or man from making personal comments about other issues of ethics, personal conduct and even public life?

The issue is not whether people are offended, from time to time. Religious believers are offended all the time by free and offensive speech that goes on around them. The issue is whether coercion is taking place. The issue is whether some religious believers are enjoying rights and privileges that are denied to others.

Banerjee does a good job of quoting people on both sides of the issue. For example:

In interviews on campus, 15 randomly selected cadets said that they did not feel religion was foisted upon them.

"There is a spiritual aspect here that people feel is part of the development of an officer," said Brad Hoelscher, who graduated last month, "but not a specific brand of religion or even religion itself."

Col. John J. Cook III, head chaplain at West Point, said, "No one is pushing them to believe."

However, once again, the reader has no idea what is right, what is legal. As I have said many times here: Religious freedom is a very messy business, but it beats all the alternatives. Reporters should cover the problems on these campuses, because they are real and they are valid stories. But it is also important to note that many of the "problems," in the eyes of those who are offended, are actually legal expressions of the beliefs of others.

Here's a suggestion: Whenever you read one of these stories, substitute the word "environmentalist" or the phrase "gender equality" whenever you encounter the word "evangelical." Does it still sound like a problem?

Be careful out there. Apples are rarely oranges.

Please respect our Commenting Policy