Welcome to my million-dollar foxhole in the sky.
An Air Force Academy graduate
and an amateur scientist
The United States military has a deeply blemished record with regards to respecting the religious liberties of its members. The number of instances in which uniformed officers have overstepped the bounds of their commission is so great that citing a comprehensive list, even by sort, is hardly worth the minutes it would take to compile. Here is a brief list compiled for a previous project:
Trijicon ACOGs, marked with Bible verses used in combat and distributed to Muslim allies
Distribution of bibles by deployed soldiers during combat operations
LTC Brown, promotes active evangelism in combat zones
Pentagon officials and many uniformed general officers publicly express, that their Christian faith directly influences their policies
President Bush describes our conflicts overseas as a crusade and uses bible verses on cover pages of security updates
LTG Boykin expresses his belief that we are in a religious war against Islam
This list hardly begins to encompass the full extent of Christian and religious exceptionalism in the US military. The greatest perversion of this cultural phenomenon is that those who are committing these crimes against the US Constitution are those who have sworn an oath to defend the same. The commissioning oath of office contains the explicit directive to defend the Constitution against domestic enemies. So what happens when a domestic threat to the Constitution is identified? Do those who have sworn to defend the fundament of this country step up, whole-heartedly, and fulfill their obligation? The simple answer is no, not usually. In truth there is considerable opposition to the defense of the establishment clause and most policies related to it. Recent history is filled with examples, but this is not about history. This is about today.
It is common practice to require service members to take part in religious ceremonies in all branches of the military. Many service members object to such requirements. The majority of objectors do not speak up out of fear of reprisal and social repercussions, but there have been a brave few to take a stand. These objections have been treated very lightly, at times mockingly. Recently a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point requested religious accommodation in advance of one such ceremony. This is his request:
“I’d like to make a request for religious accommodation for this week’s Thayer Award Dinner. This dinner will certainly be opened by an invocation and concluded with [a benediction]. The function of the invocation is to appeal to a god to preside over the duration of the event, and a benediction is intended to remind those in attendance to maintain their god in their thoughts as they go about their lives after the event. I am not a patriarchal monotheist, and each of these ceremonies [is] explicitly monotheistic, usually invoking “our heavenly father,” in the form they are delivered at USMA. I fundamentally disagree with participating in religious ceremonies because of my personally held beliefs, and therefore would like to be excused from taking part in this event. Please review the attached DOD instruction on the topic, and pass this up the chain of command if necessary.”
His request was denied. He was required to attend the ceremony. These videos were recorded on 18 October 2012, at West Point, NY:
The question here is not whether being forced to attend religious ceremonies makes people uncomfortable, or is unnecessarily divisive, or even if it is disrespectful. It is certainly all of those things. The question is whether or not it is legal.
In the case of Engel v. Vitale (1962)the Supreme Court of the United States decided that state sponsorship of prayer in public schools was not a practice which could be legally defended while respecting the US Constitution. The purpose of this case was to determine whether the reading of a non-denominational invocation, specifically the Regent’s Prayer, was passable in a public institution. The specific prayer read as follows: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.” The similarities between this prayer and the ones delivered above are substantive. What is the difference between “Almighty God” and “our creator divine…master of all”? The state endorsed supplication of a higher power, regardless of its name, remains an imposition of theology over other ideologies. In 1962 the SCOTUS determined that even though the Regent’s Prayer (or prayers like it) did not recognize a specific god, religion, or sect of any religion that it remained a religious act sponsored by the state. There is no room for an honest misinterpretation of the outcome of that case, at least not by a rationally coherent and literate adult. Unfortunately, the clarity of the outcome of this case remains beyond the grasp of many, whether by blameless or intentional ignorance. 50 years after it was determined to be unconstitutional, mandatory prayer continues to thrive in the ranks of our military.
If this were a standalone act, it would be of little consequence. Unfortunately it does not stand alone. It is a cultural artifact which continues the tradition of religious exceptionalism which causes unnecessary conflict in the lives of many service members today. Why is it acceptable for an officer in, the execution of their formal duties, to give an order to a cadet or soldier to see a chaplain? It is not, but it happens. Why is it acceptable for the cadre of basic training units to punish those who do not wish to attend religious services with tedious manual labor and approbation? Why can they openly admonish those who do not believe, calling them “heathens” while ordering them to separate formations? It is not, but it happens. Why is it acceptable for our military to deny service members the freedom to self-identify as “Humanist” on their dog tags? It is not. This is a very short list of the challenges which irreligious citizens of the United States face in service to their country. By removing mandatory religious ceremony from the military, it may be possible to make one more step in moving the practices of this nascent, experimental government towards the ideals espoused in its Constitution. This is not a theocracy; it is a Republic of free citizens. Help keep it that way.
***CDT Blake Page is not speaking in his official capacity as a cadet, service member, member of the SSA or member of the MRFF***
Posted on behalf of USMA Cadet Blake Page, Oct. 18, 2012.