Friday, June 27, 2008

Onward Agnostic Soldiers

If someone were shooting at me, I'd probably want to pray.  But actually there are atheists in foxholes, who shouldn't be forced to join me.

Soldiers in uniform deserve the right to practice their faith, but don't need religion pushed down their throats.  

The New York Times ran a headline this week reporting that "Religion and Its Role Are in Dispute at the Service Academies."  Nine midshipmen at the Naval Academy in Annapolis recently asked the ACLU to petition the school to drop daily prayers at weekday lunch, where attendance is mandatory.  The cadets said that "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.'"  The Academy's top commander, Major General Robert Caslen routinely included prayers and Bible readings at events where attendance was required.

The incident recalls troubles at the Air Force Academy, where officers made anti-Semitic remarks, sponsored an official showing of "The Passion of Christ," and displayed a banner in the athletic room cheering on "Team Jesus."

That kind of proselytizing crosses the line.  But exactly where to draw that line was a question the Founders struggled with. George Washington, for instance, followed the customary practice of appointing chaplains to serve units of the Continental Army.  But he made sure the priests and ministers were chosen by the men themselves, and resisted a move from Congress that would have appointed chaplains at the brigade rather than regimental level--fearing that making appointments to larger units, high up the chain of command, would provoke resentment among the ranks. 

When the Rhode Island Regiment chose Rev. John Murray to be their chaplain, other clergy objected.  Murray was considered a heretic, because he was a Universalist (rejecting the doctrine that God sends people to hell).  But Washington let the selection stand.  The General wasn't concerned with Murray's orthodoxy.  He believed the men should choose their own spiritual leaders. 

James Madison made it clear that he didn't believe in military chaplains at all.   Even a chaplain who reflected the faith of the majority would inevitably leave religious minorities feeling excluded.

America need to honor all its women and men in uniform, and that means honoring their deeply held convictions, whether Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist or Hindu, pagan or humanist.   John Adams noted that the troops in the Revolutionary War included warriors of all denominations, including "Deists and Atheists."  

If atheists fought to establish this country, shouldn't they be welcome at Annapolis and West Point?    


moreover said...

I'm surprised about the John Adams quote. It's probably my lack of reading in US history (I'm German) but that Atheists were even mentioned I had not expected. In the context of pervasive religiosity at the time to even say the word, much less identify someone with it, must have been dangerous. At the same time, the horrors of religious war and prosecution were not really over yet, and may have given many people pause to wonder about the benevolence of that unseen postulate.

If only America fought fewer wars, then we could honor men & women in uniform in alternating years: even years for all military ranks, odd years for all English majors in McDonalds uniforms, hospital employees and meter maids (although the latter, I'm told, eat their young).

Revolutionary Spirits said...

Of the Continental Army, Adams wrote, "There were among them, Roman Catholicks, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists." A "Horse Protestant" was nominally Protestant, but had about as much appreciation for reformed theology as Oliver Cromwell's pony.

moreover said...

I WAS indeed wondering about those Horse Protestants!
Hey, are you aware of this website? They're not exactly active as they've been formed around a 2005 rally on Veterans Day.
They write:

“There are no Atheists in foxholes!”

It’s a claim that is repeatedly made by many politicians, media pundits and especially preachers. But is it true?


There ARE in fact many “Atheists in foxholes” who have served and are serving our country proudly, in all branches of the armed forces. In fact, nearly thirty million Americans do not profess a religious belief. This group includes many people who describe themselves as Atheists, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists or with other appellations.

Isn’t it time that we acknowledged and saluted them?"