When Mainstream Media Miss the Point
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Feb 08, 2007 at 11:52:07 PM EST
When government employees, whether school teachers, mayors or presidents abuse their positions of authority to impose their religious views on others; allow a culture of intolerance and bigotry to fester; and fail to protect the rights of others to believe as they will -- they are failing, arguably betraying, a central ethos of American culture -- respect for the beliefs of others and their right to believe as they will. But some opinion leaders seem to be falling under the sway of the religious right in their refusal to acknowledge abuses of power by government employees; abuses  that are violative of the establishment clause of the first amendment, and in their trampling on the rights of individuals, the free exercise clause as well.

 This was on vivid display at a December discussion of religion and the Founders in Washington, DC titled, The Christmas Wars: Religion in the American Public Square, presented by the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life.

The event came the day after The Washington Post broke the story that the Christian Embassy, a project of Bill Bright's Campus Crusade for Christ, had produced a promotional video featuring seven top Army and Air Force officers in uniform, apparently against Pentagon regulations.


"I found a wonderful opportunity as a director on the joint staff, as I meet the people that come into my directorate," Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack J. Catton Jr. says in the video. "And I tell them right up front who Jack Catton is, and I start with the fact that I'm an old-fashioned American, and my first priority is my faith in God, then my family and then country. I share my faith because it describes who I am."

Pete Geren, a former acting secretary of the Air Force who oversaw the service's response in 2005 to accusations that evangelical Christians were pressuring cadets at the Air Force Academy, also appears in the video. The Christian Embassy "has been a rock that I can rely on, been an organization that helped me in my walk with Christ, and I'm just thankful for the service they give," he says.

The Pew event featured presentions by neo-conservative scholar Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, and Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek, who has written a book on the subject, and initial responses by liberal columnist E.J. Dionne and Michael Cromartie of the neo-conservative Ethics and Policy Center, who helped to organize the event. (Interesting that the liberals are represented by journalists and the conservatives are neo-conservative think tankers.)  Their presentations and the ensuing discussion before an audience comprising, it seems, mostly journalists, is interesting. But for me the most remarkable moment was during the Q & A, when Washington Post reporter Ruth Marcus asked about the revelation of ranking military officers collaborating with  the Christian Embassy in uniform, on duty and appearing in a promotional video for the group.  The panelists successfully evaded the many serious implications of the story, including the inherently coercive nature of religious prosylization by military superiors, pretending that among other things, Marcus is somehow talking about banning military chaplains.

RUTH MARCUS, THE WASHINGTON POST: I wanted to ask about a phenomenon I think is more difficult than the issue of Christmas trees or crèches, an activity that has become more pronounced in recent years - the particular focus has been evangelizing in the military. My colleague, Alan Cooperman, had an excellent, thought-provoking story in the paper yesterday about a group called Christian Embassy.  

They've taken the video off their website, but if you really search the Internet, you can still find it. This video has a number of high-ranking military men - I think they are all men - in uniform talking about how faith is very important for their lives, how proselytizing is important to their lives, and how Christian Embassy has become an integral part of their ability to live their lives fully and do their jobs.

I find myself wishing we could go back to talking about crèches because I find that much easier. As a member of a minority religion, if you gave me a choice between walking into a government building with a crèche in the front of it, with candy canes or no candy canes, or working in a government workplace where almost everybody was gathered at prayer breakfasts or Bible study sessions during the day that did not include my religion, and from which I felt excluded, and professionally disabled, if not incapacitated, I would go for the crèche.

On the other hand, I entirely respect people's commitment to their religion, the fact they don't take off from their beliefs between 9:00 and 5:00. I find it very confusing to figure out how, to use the language of the court, to accommodate that without endorsing it and without discomforting others.

First, Michael Novack dodges the core point of the question, and so moderator Luis Lugo of the Pew Center picks up on the point and directs the question to E.J. Dionne, who was a responder on the panel:

LUGO: The particular concern here is not just evangelism generally but evangelism in the armed forces. There are issues of authority. Can you respond freely to these things when it's your superior officer? It's the specific context that heightens concern about evangelism, and not just evangelism as such, although some people have problems with that too.

Dionne then proceeds to invalidate Marcus' main concern by claiming:  

"If we press this to the limits, we are going to have to get rid of the chaplaincy. Because if someone is using their authority in that way and insisting any limitation on that authority will violate their free-exercise rights, then we are not going to be able to have a military chaplaincy."

MARCUS: I don't think that would solve the problem.

UNIDENTIFIED: Getting rid of the chaplaincy?

MARCUS: Yes, because you would still have evangelical Christians in - and I'm not suggesting we get rid of the evangelical Christians - (laughter) - let me be clear.

DIONNE: You don't have atheists in foxholes, right, or we'll be in trouble.

MARCUS: The chaplaincy may be a place where the problem manifests itself, but you could stay away from the chaplains. It's more difficult if it's the Air Force secretary or your commanding officer rather than the chaplain who is not necessarily in the line of command [above] you.

MEACHAM: E.J., you say if we press it to the limit, we have to get rid of it. If you press any of this to the limit, the American experiment of religious liberty falls apart. We're trying to have it both ways; classically American. We are trying to have a religious disposition - it's at the heart of our public discussion - and yet we want to protect the ability of those who don't want to participate. It's fundamentally in conflict, and it's a tension we're going to have to live with until the last day.

Meacham's response was a little better, he ends up in the same place as Dionne.  While it is true, as Meacham says, that there will always be tensions in a religiously pluralist society, he does not address the matter at hand, rather he says "if you press any of this to the limit, the American experiment of religious liberty falls apart."

Hmm. As much as I admire Meacham's book and the many good things he has to say about religion in American history, this is a precise evasion of the question. The context of senior Army and Air Force officers discussing how prosylzation is central to their work as military officers is better understood in terms of the recent prosylization scandals at the Air Force Academy and the culture of religious bigotry and coercion that has festered in the armed services, and especially in the Air Force for a long time.    

A few weeks later, The Washington Post got it right in an editorial:

With its extensive, inside-the-Pentagon footage and interviews with senior officials and high-ranking officers in uniform, the video conveys a sense that the group's mission has been endorsed by the Pentagon; it carries no disclaimer. Robert Varney, the group's executive director, says the Pentagon chaplain's office gave permission for the filming and that it's no surprise that military officers, interviewed at work in the Pentagon, were in uniform. But following a complaint by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the video has been removed from Christian Embassy's Web site and the Pentagon is reviewing the matter. As it does so, it would be wise to consider not only whether the video and the Christian Embassy's other activities comply with the letter of Pentagon rules but also with the spirit of the Constitution its personnel are sworn to protect.

(For political background, see Jeff Sharlet's post at The Revealer: Inside Christian Embassy.)

Funny that none of the Pew panelists seemed to understand that while military officers have a right to believe as they will, they do not have a right to coopt public institutions for purposes of prosylization, nor may they abuse their positions as officers to impose their beliefs on others.

Four leading thinkers on matter of religion and public life at a presigious, foundation funded event in front of their colleagues from the media and think tankery; an event where they publish a transcript -- and not one can even acknowledge the abuses of power exposed in The Washington Post the day before the conference, even after prompting by the moderator.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Feb 09, 2007 at 01:09:47 AM EST

DIONNE: You don't have atheists in foxholes, right, or we'll be in trouble.

Why do so-called "liberals" like E.J Dionne have to parrot right-wing myths?

"I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair" - JFK, Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association
by hardindr on Fri Feb 09, 2007 at 07:29:19 AM EST

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