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?