A Foxhole Atheist’s Response to Fort Bragg

***Update***: Justin has started a website about the “Ft. Bragg Freedom Festival” — it includes a potential line-up of speakers.

There’s been an uproar lately about how an Evangelical Christian event took place at the military base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The problem is that military leaders were using their positions to promote this event, and that’s simply unconstitutional.

Americans United for Separation at Church and State explained the problem this way:

The “Rock the Fort” event at Fort Bragg this weekend targets both military personnel and adults and children in the surrounding community for conversion to Christianity. This clearly violates the separation of church and state, attorneys with Americans United informed Army officials in a letter (PDF) today.

“It’s not the Army’s job to convert Americans to Christianity,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “This event is totally unacceptable and must be canceled.

On June 2, a letter from the chaplain’s office at Fort Bragg was issued to local churches. The letter, signed by Chaplain David Hillis, urges clergy to take part in the event and notes that it will take “the Christian message to all of Fort Bragg and the surrounding community!” The letter goes on to state that the event is “evangelistic in nature” and that it “will conclude with a clear Gospel message.”

“The Army has no business entering into a partnership with evangelical churches to help them win new members,” Lynn said. “I urge Army officials to stop this event and make sure no more take place. In addition, the military must end its relationship with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.”

The event went on, anyway.

I received an email from Specialist Justin Griffith, who is stationed at Fort Bragg. He was initially hesitant, but ultimately courageous enough, to sign his name to this message. He’s now working on an event of his own…

Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, home of the famous 82nd Airborne and Special Operations units, was recently the host to an evangelical Christian rock concert. There are about 45,000 people stationed at the base, many of whom are atheist and agnostic soldiers. I am one those soldiers, and I am personally offended at last weekend’s “Rock the Fort” concert organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

[The Post Commander] Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick wrote that he’s confident the planned “Rock the Fort” event doesn’t infringe on anyone’s freedoms.

“I have taken steps to ensure that no soldier in my command is pressured in any way to attend this event,” wrote Helmick, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg.

I personally received several e-mails from my command inviting me to attend this meeting, and I also received numerous verbal invitations. I am the (not so) proud owner of several flyers and posters that were printed up and handed out to all of the soldiers who attended various events around the post. I’m having a hard time understanding how this event isn’t proselytizing to soldiers, family members, and the local population, which is a strict violation of ethics and even the Chaplaincy’s own rules.

Our goal is to organize and promote an event to be held at Ft. Bragg with the same level of support, just like the “Rock the Fort” evangelical Christian event held on 9/25/10. Please join this group and help us plan an event for Skeptics, Free-Thinkers, Agnostics, Atheists, and those who just want to enjoy a day FREE from religion.

Helmick also wrote that Bragg would provide the same opportunity to non-Christian religious groups that want to host similar events.

We are planning to take LTG Helmick up on his word. Please help us out!

We are just brainstorming at this point, and we would like to encourage participation from everyone in the community. We will be holding more meet-ups in the future to refine our approach and to recruit as many like-minded freethinkers as possible. For now, please post your ideas and any areas you’d be willing to contribute. We need entertainment, vendors, sponsors… and most of all we need the expertise of those who have successfully organized and produced a large public festival. Please use this group as a forum for discussion and networking. Thanks!

My personal dream lineup for the event would include They Might Be Giants, Bad Religion, Spoonboy, Jeffrey Lewis, and Tim Minchin handling the music, and a roster of speakers from the blogosphere, lithosphere, and various pro-science (NAS and the NCSE) and separation of church and state groups (ACLU, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation), student organizations like the Secular Student Alliance, and the UNCG Atheists handling the prose. Please help spread the word far and wide, because this will be the first event of its kind held on one of the largest and most famous military bases in the US.

Very Respectfully,
SPC Justin Griffith

While I’d rather the Christian groups stop proselytizing, I think this would be a terrific way to respond.

  • Sully

    Man…. I’d go to that. I don’t live too far away, either.

  • http://biofortified.org Anastasia

    Wow, what a wonderful response! I wonder how the numbers of attendees would compare to the evangelical event. I am very curious to learn what LTG Helmick says in response to SPC Griffith! Will he be willing to allow the organizers the same access to facilities, security, printing, and all the other things that the evangelical concert got? I wonder how much Ft Bragg spent on the evangelical concert.

  • Samiimas

    I really, truly hope this happens just so I get to watch every single person who defended the Christian concert turn around and make up excuses why Atheists can’t do the exact same thing. gonna be hilarious.

  • TychaBrahe

    Hemant, you should be one of the speakers. In fact, I volunteer to pay your airfare.

  • Richard Wade

    I have taken steps to ensure that no soldier in my command is pressured in any way to attend this event,” wrote Helmick, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg.

    Rest assured that there will be plenty of pressure from officers and from the religious leaders in the community to not attend the evil, godless, unamerican Satanfest.

    I hope, however that it is a big success.

  • http://sa.mu/el samuel

    Are there any Jainists in foxholes?

  • Julien

    Shoot, if the event happens and Tycha pops for the ticket, I’ll pop for a hotel room – just email me (I assume you can see the emails on the posts, but if not let me know).

    That being said, this is the sort of thing I have a lot of trouble explaining to my Christian friends, wonderful people as they are. They, like Lt. Gen. Helmick, don’t actively proselytize, but they just don’t realize the amount of subconscious pressure they exert – the expectation to bow your head before dinner, the casual invitations to this or that Church group or religious volunteering event, telling you that they’re praying for you when you get sick.

    Unfortunately, I have to disagree with you, Hemant, when you say that you “think this would be a terrific way to respond.” I don’t think this will put them in our shoes at all. I think it will make many in the Christian community defensive, and further entrench the ‘us vs them’ mentality. I also don’t think the current plan is inclusive towards other religious minorities – what rabbi is going to support an atheist concert? That being said, I fully support the soldiers’ right to this concert, and will support it in any way I can.

  • Kamaka

    Helmick also wrote that Bragg would provide the same opportunity to non-Christian religious groups that want to host similar events.

    Well, secularism is not a “religious group”, now is it?

    I just can’t believe these christo-bullies are gonna let this happen. They’ve already proven that they think they are above the law of the land.

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=105314959531054 JG

    TychaBrahe, we need more people like you (: please e-mail me!

    Hemant, he’s totally right, btw. You should come out and speak. Bring Jen McCreight too, I know you guys are tight. This event is likely to be many months away, we need time to get confirmations from everyone.

    A proper website will be up and running in the next few weeks. But please use the FB group for now. We desperately need event-organizers who have experience. Plus if you happen to have any influence with any luminaries, we’d appreciate your help.

    I’m probably going to be reading a ‘nastygram’ or two when I go back to work on monday, so please everyone, keep things respectful and civil if you decide to make contact with officials on Ft. Bragg.

  • Jordan

    Being an officer in the Army myself, I am completely surprised that these sort of things have not broken the headlines until now. It’s no surprise to me given the de facto institutionalized Christianity in the armed forces. The Officers’ Christian Fellowship (a very (too) prevalent organization among the officer corps of all armed services) states as its purpose:

    “OCF’s purpose is to glorify God by uniting Christian officers for biblical fellowship and outreach, equipping and encouraging them to minister effectively in the military society.”

    Officers are commissioned to wield command authority to support and defend the Constitution – not to use their positions to coerce subordinates.

    I could go on and on, but I’ll be succinct: this sort of activity is far more common that the public and the media perceives it to be.

  • Heidi

    Wow, Tycha, that’s really generous!

    I vote for Seth McFarlane to appear. Anybody know him?

  • Luther

    I disagree. The proper response is a Courts Martial for those planning the religious event – hopefully resulting in jail time and misconduct discharges.

    Having a counter event says the original was OK. Neither are OK if they are supported by the taxpayer or endorsed by those in charge.

  • Baconsbud

    I see the commanders words are the typical remarks made by those pushing an agenda. They say one thing but to people who believe in religion, it means something completely different. I would love to see someone call the commander on his words. I believe he will string it on until someone replaces him.

  • aerie

    It’s rampant & unchecked in the Air Force Academy as well. Most of us are familiar w/ Mikey Weinstein, AFA alum & founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Mikey’s pissed & rightfully so.

    From the article: “The academy, in a news release, announced that a review of the allegations began in early September and has so far uncovered nothing. The review is being led by the superintendent, senior chaplain and staff judge advocate, spokesman Master Sgt. Christopher DeWitt said.”

    I don’t trust a word that comes out of these three godbots.

    The link:
    href=”http://tinyurl.com/AFAchristianity

  • aerie

    Sorry, my ‘link’ button is not working for whatever reason.

  • Shawn

    I recommend the Atheist comedian Keith Lowell Jensen and possibly the Coexist Comedy Tour.

  • The Ramohds

    Some Scandinavian Black Metal will properly balance things out.

  • http://blaghag.blogspot.com/ Jennifurret

    @JG

    If could figure out money and scheduling, I’d totally come. Unfortunately those are two huge “if”s. Regardless, what you guys are doing is super awesome, best of luck!

    I also like that Hemant and I are apparently “tight,” hehe.

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=105314959531054 JG

    @jordan, Thank you for your encouragement. I really wish everyone had some idea of what we really go through behind the scenes.

    @Jen

    We should totally talk (: based upon the responses I’ve had so far, we might be perfectly poised for a visit from you guys!

  • Amy

    Hemant, please come. My husband is stationed at Bragg and I would LOVE to attend an event like this. Between “Rock the Fort” and the Palin Wagon rolling through base last year, it’s just about more than I can take.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    Hemant, you should be one of the speakers. In fact, I volunteer to pay your airfare.

    Hemant, please come. My husband is stationed at Bragg and I would LOVE to attend an event like this. Between “Rock the Fort” and the Palin Wagon rolling through base last year, it’s just about more than I can take.

    I’m in touch with Justin and we’ll see if we can work something out :) A lot has to happen first, but the ball is rolling.

  • Susan Robinson

    I joined the facebook page and suggested they try to get Bill Maher too.

  • beautdogs

    Hot damn. Bring on whatever bands are supportive, but if Hemant and Tim Minchin are there, so am I!

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=105314959531054 JG

    Thank you to all who have posted suggestions on who should attend, I am trying to get in contact with as many of them as possible. Feel free to drop your favorite an email blast on our behalf, as well.

    @shawn The Coexist Comedy tour website seems to be broken, but contacting the other comedian now. Thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=105314959531054 JG

    @julien

    We have already received a fair amount of support and interest from a few religious groups. Obviously, the local Unitarian congregation is an easy fit. We are striving to be as inclusive to any and everybody as is reasonably possible.

    @julien And TychaBrahe

    Thank you for the very generous offers. I’m sure Hemant has your email information, like you hinted at. If you would like to email me too for some reason, moons.are.people.too (at) gmail

    A website will be up in the next few days with a lot more details.

  • Gareth

    Advice from another Army officer, and you may have done this already: talk to JAG. Also, talk to the Chaplain’s office. Not to consort with the enemy but to get any tips on how their event was executed and TTPs that they found useful. And more to the point, to get an idea of how your event is perceived by them. Not that the Chaplains have any say in this, but if they have the CG’s ear then you may want to ensure that they are feeding him your IO message and not one that they make up.

    If this is going to occur on base (and I have no idea if the religious event was held on base) then you want JAG on your side. Not for protection against raging officers out to stop you but just to have all i’s dotted and t’s crossed. Attention to these types of details will help to smooth any wrinkles as they develop.

    And cheers to you for doing this, not at Bragg right now but would definitely go were I there.

  • muggle

    Eh, not sure this is a good idea. I think I’d rather fight it out in the courts or whatever legal platform it is in the military. Not sure this won’t weaken any steps AU is taking. Has anyone gone to MRFF?

    Still, the thing is two wrongs don’t make a right and how can you argue the other guy’s wrong to do this, then turn around and do it yourself — even as a form of protest.

  • Robert

    So if this is a totally voluntary event, what is wrong with allowing the Christian soldiers exercising their rights to worship?

    If an atheist or agnostic gets offended, isn’t normally their position that people do not have the right not to be offended?

  • p.s.

    robert, the problem isn’t the worshiping. The problem is government sponsored worshipping. It’s unconstitutional, simple as that.

  • Robert

    So these soldiers who live on Fort Bragg can’t worship at Fort Bragg without it being unconstitutional? They can’t have Christian chaplains in the military without it violating the constitution? Of course not.

  • p.s.

    well first of all, military chaplains are fairly unobtrusive to those not interested in their services. And they aren’t necessarily christian, from what I understand (government can’t favor a particular religion). Chaplains are also forbidden to proselytize if someone of a different faith comes to them, which unfortunatly seems to be one of the goals of this particular event:

    The letter, signed by Chaplain David Hillis, urges clergy to take part in the event and notes that it will take “the Christian message to all of Fort Bragg and the surrounding community!” The letter goes on to state that the event is “evangelistic in nature” and that it “will conclude with a clear Gospel message.”

    If the church wants to spread their message, thats fine, but they should do so with their own resources.

  • Pingback: Hemant Mehta, @FriendlyAtheist shows his support for the Ft Bragg Freedom Festival | Ft Bragg Freedom Festival

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=105314959531054 JG

    @p.s. thank you for handling that (:

    @garret
    I’m going to JAG first thing monday morning. And you are completely right about going to the chaplains. I’m afraid that Ft. Bragg is such a large base, that my unit (or any one unit) probably doesn’t have the direct ear of the post commander. It can’t hurt to have them on my side (or at least putting out information that I provide, rather than making it up as you said). Thanks for the advice.

    —————
    The site isn’t finished yet, but I thought I’d share it with readers for bookmarking.
    http://ftbraggfreedomfestival.com

    It’s coming along though. Should be done this weekend, and it’s functional as is.

  • Kassandra

    Oh get over it! Everyone is entitled to there own opinions. If you want to hold an atheist concert then DO IT but stop shitting about it being in “retaliation” to a Christian concert. If thats why you are doing it what is the point? Then you become no different then them… they are bible thumping and you? You may not thump a book but you walk around with the exact same mentalities. That every way but your own way is wrong and no one should get a say about what they believe but unless it agrees with what you believe. You will get high ranking officers to ram the your own beliefs down everyones throats “just like the Christian concert did” (which it really doesn’t even seem like they did). You are all hypocrites. The whole lot of you… at least Billy Graham lived an stood by what he talked!

    –I’l be seriously surprised if this even gets through moderation- it may not be Christian but it is after all not in line with your beliefs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=105314959531054 JG

    @Kassandra

    This is not in retaliation. A retaliation would be to have an ANTI-THEIST evangelical ‘Atheism is the only correct answer’ type of event. What we are aiming for: a day of secular entertainment. What we are NOT aiming for: an anti-religious event, or divisive and offensive activities, or just being a ‘counter-event’.

    We are simply celebrating our diversity and pride. While at the same time, many of us are coming out as atheists and trying to remove the ‘bad-word’ vibe attached to the label.

    ——-bonus rant for you——–
    Are you aware that if a soldier is having marital problems, or even emotional problems, one of the first places he/she is sent is the chaplain?

    Are you aware of the pervasive nature of religious events and functions paid for with US Taxpayer money?

    Are you aware that many troops are either directly forced to attend these events or they are given the option to ‘stay in the barracks to clean up all day’.
    Are you aware that during boot camp, the only real break a soldier gets is on Sunday to go worship? (Guess what happens if you opt not to go. I hope you guessed ‘clean shit up’, because then you would be right.)

    Are you aware that during EVERY formal ceremony (for me this is 1-2 times a month), a prayer is lead by a chaplain where you are ORDERED to stand and bow your head?

    Are you aware of the level of support for the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy amongst religious military members?

    Are you aware that Atheist websites do not moderate their comments nearly as heavily as the places you are used to posting?

  • Pingback: Hemant Mehta, @FriendlyAtheist shows his support for the Ft Bragg Freedom Festival | Ft Bragg Freedom Festival

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=105314959531054 JG

    Ack. Sorry for the spam there. Some weird setting in wordpress. changing it now.

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