Let's start with a bit of background. Last week, a federal judge ruled that a law authorizing a National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. That day is marked in early May and observances can continue until all appeals are exhausted. There's a group called the National Day of Prayer Task Force. It focuses on Christian events and they worked with the Pentagon chaplain's office on a National Day of Prayer event to be held next month. They had invited noted Christian evangelist Franklin Graham to give a prayer. Mikey Weinstein, who runs the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and was also in the news years ago when he fought evangelical influences at the United States Air Force Academy, complained about his invitation and by Thursday, the invitation was rescinded. (And I'm not sure if it's coincidence or not, but President Barack Obama is actually meeting with Franklin Graham and his more famous father, the Rev. Billy Graham, today!) The coverage has actually been all right, although very shallow. Here's the Associated Press story:
Evangelist Franklin Graham's invitation to speak at a Pentagon prayer service has been rescinded because his comments about Islam were inappropriate, the Army said Thursday.
Graham, the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, in 2001 described Islam as evil. More recently, he has said he finds Islam offensive and wants Muslims to know that Jesus Christ died for their sins.
Army spokesman Col. Tom Collins said Graham's remarks were "not appropriate."
"We're an all-inclusive military," Collins said. "We honor all faiths. ... Our message to our service and civilian work force is about the need for diversity and appreciation of all faiths."
Except those faiths that criticize other faiths, I guess! Now, I personally hate the idea that our government would be involved with deciding which religious expressions are appropriate and which aren't appropriate. Or that our government would favor those religions that aren't evangelistic or religions that see no problems with other religions. And I think this whole debacle is a great example of and argument against civil religion.
But there's one point that I'm not sure is properly conveyed in the coverage.
I happened to have dinner last night with someone who is a church and state expert specifically as it relates to the military chaplaincy. He was saying that the military perspective for this situation is not about deciding which religious expressions are appropriate and which are not appropriate. Rather, the military is only interested in supporting religious expressions that, in essence, support the military.
Other reports moved the story forward a bit. This Christian Science Monitor story looked at the reaction of the two groups that opposed Graham's invitation. It began:
Muslim and military groups are applauding the Army's decision to disinvite evangelist Franklin Graham to a prayer event because of his comments about Islam.
Which is true except that the story only cites one Muslim group (Council on American-Islamic Relations) and one military group -- which is actually the military watchdog group referenced above.
And Religion News Service advanced the story by noting the reaction from some conservative Christian groups. It said they "blasted" the decision:
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said Graham's "deeply held biblical convictions" were not a reason to deny him the speaking opportunity.
"The fact that he has theological differences with Islam -- differences wholly in keeping with the teachings of the New Testament -- and that he has expressed them publicly, is now being used by anti-Christian zealots in a manner offensive to the freedom of religion guaranteed by the very Constitution military leaders are sworn to uphold," Perkins said.
So you get a flavor of some early reaction. But again, I'd really like some meatier discussion of the competing interests at play. You have multiple interests. The military cares about cohesion and member morale. Others care about free religious expression. Others are concerned about how well suited the military or other government entities are to handle fair treatment of different religious groups.
There are many ways to interpret the Army's treatment of Graham and many ways to misinterpret the treatment. I hope we see some stories that dig down a bit more.