Chambersburg, a small Pennsylvania town not far from here, has for the last month or so been the site of a minor conflict between the borough council and a local atheist group, the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers (PAN). As I mentioned in a previous article, the source of the conflict was the borough’s long-standing policy of allowing holiday displays at the Center Square fountain, and the PAN’s wish to take advantage of this policy by putting up a sign marking the winter solstice and paying tribute to atheist members of the U.S. armed forces. A local garden club had been displaying a nativity scene at the fountain for years. At no point did the PAN ever ask that the nativity scene be removed, only that their sign be included with the other displays. So the borough council did what any body of calm, rational people would do:
It banned all public displays from the fountain. The PAN has since filed a complaint.
This local controversy got me to thinking, not just about the (apparently eternal) conflict between religious interests and those who see the necessity in maintaining a strictly secular state, but about those atheist veterans of the military in whose faces the Chambersburg Borough Council took a piss. As it turns out, there are atheists in foxholes.
Quite a lot of them, too. In an excellent article published last month on the website of Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens quotes a Pew poll that found the percentage of unbelievers in the military to be higher than in the general population. Though it seems their numbers have done nothing to guarantee them equal treatment with the Christian majority. Hitchens goes on:
A screening of Mel Gibson’s incendiary, Jew-baiting homoerotic extravaganza, The Passion of the Christ, had flyers in its favor placed on every seat in the Air Force Academy dining hall. A Pentecostal chaplain warned cadets that they should accept Christ or “burn in hell.” About the latter incident, the air-force investigative panel decided to be lenient, on the perfectly good grounds that such language is “not uncommon” in this denomination. And that, I suspect, is part of the problem to begin with: unexamined extremist Christian conservatism is the cultural norm in many military circles. One Lutheran chaplain at the academy, Captain Melinda Morton, resigned from the service after being transferred for protesting that the evangelical pressure was “systematic.” And, despite the tolerance for Pentecostal hellfire rants, by no means all forms of expression could be indulged; a nonbelieving cadet was forbidden to organize a club for “freethinkers.”
Though, according to members of just such a freethinkers club based at the Air Force Academy who met with Hitchens in Colorado Springs last spring, things are no longer quite that bad.
Two of the group, one Baptist and one Mormon, had given up their faith since enlisting at the academy. The others fluctuated between doubt and agnosticism and straight-out unbelief. They were good-humored, outspoken, and tough-minded: the sort of people who make you proud of being defended by a volunteer military. According to most of them, the situation had improved since the last scandal, or rather because of it. In an acronym-dominated world, the school’s SPIRE (Special Programs in Religious Education) could now include meetings for unbelievers, but even so an S.C.A. (Scheduling Committee Action) had to be approved before they could be allowed to meet with your humble servant in a pub overlooked by Pike’s Peak. It seemed weird to me that people willing to fight and die for the United States should be treated as if they were children (or do I mean members of a “flock”?).
Those twenty-some servicemen and –women were allowed to meet with Hitchens, but it should be noted that the academy chaplains still wouldn’t allow them to meet on the base.
One way to get rid of this institutionalized discrimination would be to allow for the appointment of equivalents of chaplains to serve the needs of nonreligious members of our armed forces. Is “atheist chaplain” an oxymoron? A much, much better way to solve this problem would be to just get rid of chaplains in the military altogether. Let’s eliminate the position throughout the government while we’re at it. I have never understood how government-employed chaplains are not a naked violation of the separation of church and state.
The Father of the Constitution agrees with me. One last quote from Hitchens:
James Madison was the co-author with Thomas Jefferson of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which became the basis of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Not accidentally the first clause of our Bill of Rights, this amendment unambiguously forbids any “establishment of religion” in or by these United States. In his “Detached Memoranda,” not published until after his death, Madison even wrote that the appointment of chaplains in the armed forces, and indeed in Congress, was “inconsistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principles of religious freedom.” He could never have foreseen a time when state-subsidized chaplains would be working to subvert the Constitution, and violating their sacred oath to uphold it. Let us be highly thankful that we have young soldiers and sailors and air-force personnel who, busy and devoted as they already are, show themselves brave enough to fight back on this front too.