While religion, particularly Christianity, played a key role in the settling of this country, the framers of the Constitution were concerned enough by the potential dangers of its influence on the government to mandate a separation of church and state. With a republic that is now growing rapidly in ethnic and religious diversity, the wisdom of their efforts is increasingly apparent.
But religious proselytizing in off-limits settings is always hard to prevent, especially where there are captive audiences like the military academies. A nasty bit of it took place not long ago at the Air Force Academy where non-Christian cadets found themselves under evangelical pressure from members of the staff. In response the school issued guidelines discouraging public prayer at official events and meetings, a stance that has not been adopted by its sister institutions, the Army and Navy academies.
Those two institutions of higher learning, which also are completely funded by federal taxpayers of all religions, are more intractable when it comes to banning religion from day-to-day mandatory activities outside the classroom, causing accusations that neither service has a strong commitment to follow the separation clause of the Constitution.
Nine midshipmen at the Naval Academy have asked the American Civil Liberties Union to help them persuade the school to end mandatory prayer at lunch. So far they have been turned down, setting the stage for a potential lawsuit based on an appellate court decision that barred pre-meal prayer at the Virginia Military Institute, a state college.
A survey by a national newspaper found allegations by cadets and even officers that at West Point evangelical Christianity is a staple in the institution’s regimen and that the message being sent to cadets was that if one wanted to succeed in the Army, a show of faith is necessary.
The religious tradition goes back to the very founding of these schools and the expression of devotion to God was taken for granted. But for much of their histories there was little problem because most Americans counted themselves Christians except those relatively few who practiced Judaism and were too intimidated to protest.
Public institutions from elementary to secondary to college included prayer in their daily routines until the middle of the last century when the Supreme Court banned references to God in classrooms and official activities. Even the observance of religious holidays like Christmas was barred; setting off a major howl of protest that still hasn’t subsided entirely.
There has been justifiable concern that evangelism of whatever stripe is disruptive in a military that relies on the teamwork and tolerance of its members for success. Forcing a specific religious value system on those who don’t agree with it is never conducive to harmony. Also, the constitutional prohibition that prevents public schools from sponsoring prayer and Christmas decorations should apply here.
Why should the most public of all colleges — the service academies — be exempt from the same constitutional restrictions? These schools are totally funded by taxpayers and those who attend them are actually paid by public money to do so. The Air Force Academy’s scandalous proselytizing brought the proper response, although it may not have gone far enough according to some observers. Army and Navy officials responsible for the oversight of those two institutions should try to understand that religion is a private matter and that every one has his own brand. Forcing those who don’t believe to observe one variety is what those who founded this country tried to escape.
Some officials apparently deny that cadets or midshipmen are pushed into participating in anything religious. But the mere reference to "God" at a mandatory prayer session carries a far different implication. In a recent farewell address to the cadets, a former West Point superintendent urged the assembled corps to draw their strength from their faith in God. While that seems harmless enough to most of us, it still is an intimidating factor when added to an accumulation of such talk to those who have no specific religion or don’t believe in a higher being.
As a card carrying Methodist, I personally would not be offended by this. But as a longtime observer of the workings of government, I must agree that this is a country with no established religion and that should be adhered to in the conduct of the public’s business. If we rely only on those in our military who subscribed to our Christian tenets or any other religious belief, our national security would be in grave doubt.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)