Establishing Stealthy Religion Redux

Christopher Hitchens has a piece up in Slate pointing to yet another law weakening the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment that managed to sneak through Congress last week.

That was a very narrow and underreported squeak in Congress last Friday. For some while, the vote on the nation’s defense budget was held up by a preposterous wrangle over the rights and duties of military chaplains. Now, a reluctant compromise has been reached, and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2007 has been passed in time for the House and Senate to leave town. But imagine how the media might have covered this argument if it had taken place in an Islamic republic: Lawmakers arguing seriously over how much religious instruction and rhetoric should be permitted in the ranks and how explicitly monotheistic that instruction and rhetoric ought to be. See how these primitive societies lack our freedom and tolerance!

The contested proposal had come from three conservative Republican House members: Todd Akin of Missouri, Randy Forbes of Virginia, and Walter Jones of North Carolina, all of whom wanted military chaplains to be able to specify the name of Jesus when offering prayers. They felt that nondenominational invocations were not enough, and that identifiably Christian views should be available from identifiably Christian pastors. At the very last moment, they agreed to withdraw this proposal (which was supported by Focus on the Family and other evangelical groups). But they did so in exchange for a deal, whereby the Air Force and Navy “guidelines” on religious expression are to be abrogated. This compromise is in many ways worse than the original proposal that sectarian observances be financed, in our armed forces, by public money.

As Hitchens points out, the irritations involved in this issue go back a couple of years. In 2004, an Air Force Academy chaplain complained that the number of evangelical Christian pastors in the military was increasing. These pastors were using their position and influence to proselytize both Christian and non-Christian troops. This was both upsetting and not terribly good for the moral of the Jewish and agnostic members of the armed forces. The BBC reported last year

One man leading the charge is Mikey Weinstein, a graduate of the academy who served in the Reagan White House.

His eldest son is also a graduate, and his youngest son had been there just a few months when he complained of abuse from evangelical cadets.

Mr Weinstein said his son had complained of being called an “f-ing Jew” and was told Jews were responsible for “executing Jesus”. 

Mr Weinstein said 117 people had given him examples of abuse. Only eight of them were Jewish, he said – the rest were Catholics, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Methodist.

“They’re not used to being preyed upon… by their evangelical brothers and sisters. But that’s exactly what’s happening.”

MeLinda Morton, the pastor who initially complained, was transfered after complaining to a post in Japan and later left the service. At the same time, Democratic congressman Steve Israel got involved and things cooled down just slightly. At least for a time. This year the issue heated up again in Congress. This might have delayed the entire National Defense Authorization Act 2006,  necessary for funding the military. But since having an unfunded military during a war might not be the best idea, Congress chose to compromise. Hitchens points out that the middle ground is somewhere between a rock and a hard place for people who believe in the Establishment Clause.

Even the strongest fighter in war to keep the military and the church separate seemed defeated. According to the New York Times

“The provisions in today’s bill represent a full step forward and a half step back,” said Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “We removed dangerous language undermining religious freedom and military effectiveness, but I am distressed that instead of moving forward with unequivocal religious tolerance in the military, we are reopening old loopholes that permitted some acts of coercion and proselytizing.”

I won’t point you to the votes. This isn’t like the vote I discussed yesterday, it was a minor point in the funding of the military and the vote went accordingly.

Nevertheless, I’d like to make a couple of asides here.

Colorado Springs is home to both the Air Force Academy and the New Life Church, Colorado’s largest mega-church with over 12,000 members. Coincidence? I think not! This church is run by Pastor Ted Haggard who claims to have a hotline into the White House, telephoning with Bush at least once a week. You might also remember him from Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Root of All Evil’ television program. Reverend Ted was the one who spoke to Dawkins with a smile on his face that clearly said “You Sir will burn in Hell and I shall rejoice, dancing on your grave.” I still get goose bumps thinking about that scene. Ick, Ick, Ick! I have read a number of articles about how ‘uncomfortable’ living in Colorado Springs is becoming.

Perhaps more ironically, one of Colorado’s most distinct pieces of architecture is the Air Force Chapel. This is one of the most beautiful modern buildings I know and the view from I-25 when driving north is truly breathtaking. Somehow, I find the conflict over this building, designed to be non-denominational, more than depressing.

Anyway, just think the next time you see a stealth bomber, maybe it’s carrying not bombs but bibles to attack the First Amendment.

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