Rock the Fort Revisited (part two of two)

I’d like to repeat the following paragraph from last week’s article before we begin: If you have been following this website for a while, you have probably noticed the purposeful avoidance of discussing the Rock the Fort controversy. Yes, it’s true that we’d like to stand on our own as an event, and distinguish ourselves as ‘not just a counter-event.’ However, in order to establish this difference, we need to explore exactly what and why the Rock the Fort event was offensive. If we are claiming to take the high road (and we are), we must first explain the low road.

Jason Torpy, president of MAAF, had an article about Rock the Fort that we discussed last week. This week, we will be covering Rob Boston’s piece on the controversy, titled ‘Army of God?’. He writes for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU). It is quite a lengthy piece and covers more than just the Rock the Fort concerts, going in depth about things like Billy Graham Evangelical Association’s speakers being banned from the pentagon, and the pervasive evangelism in the US Air force Academy.

AU article on Rock the Fort

Let’s take a look at some of the most salient bits.

Titled “Rock the Fort,” the event, sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), would include music and a special children’s program and would, [Army Chaplain, David] Hillis vowed, be “evangelistic in nature” and “conclude with a clear Gospel message.”

The Web site of the BGEA quoted another Fort Bragg chaplain, Antonio McElroy, who said, “I think we are trailblazing here in many ways. I don’t think there has been an outside concert of this magnitude with an organization like BGEA and our chaplains partnering with local churches to come together for one purpose – and that is to glorify God and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That’s pretty questionable in my opinion. There’s a degree of plausible deniability in some of that language. But I think those statements probably cross the Separation of Church and State line. On their own, I’d turn the other cheek, so to speak.

However:

The Graham site also told partnering churches, “The Rock the Fort outreach is designed to channel new believers into your church, so you can encourage them to further spiritual growth. The future of the church lies in reaching and discipling the next generation.”

Attorneys at Americans United had a hard time sharing the chaplains’ enthusiasm. To them, the more pressing issue seemed to be why the U.S. Army was helping the Graham Association and local churches win new converts.

Why indeed? I don’t understand how converting more people to Christianity is going to help win a war on terror, or even improve the lives of soldiers. Soldiers who aren’t Christians are fine just how they are: heroes. Their support network of family and friends are likewise fine just how they are.

Todd Stiefel, an ally and supporter of Rock Beyond Belief had this to say:

“‘Rock The Fort’ is leveraging the financial and human resources of the U.S. Army and the BGEA to convert the children of minority faith families to evangelical Christianity,” Stiefel, a member of Americans United’s National Advisory Council, told Church & State. “Their attempts to turn the U.S. Army into ‘God’s Army’ are un-American, illegal and a propaganda windfall for the Taliban and al Qaeda.”

Why exactly is this a breach of the separation of church and state? The AU article puts it into concise terms.

With information about the event in hand, AU attorneys swung into action. On Sept. 23, they faxed a letter to John McHugh, Secretary of the Army, and Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick, commanding general of Fort Bragg, pointing out that Army sponsorship of an evangelistic rally is a clear violation of church-state separation.

AU attorneys noted that Army involvement in the event went beyond traditional chaplain duties

“‘Rock the Fort’ is not an event designed to minister to the needs of soldiers unable to otherwise access religious services; rather, it is an event designed to proselytize soldiers and community members into the worship of Jesus Christ,” observed AU in a letter to military officials. “The Army has, thus, overstepped this constitutional line by sponsoring this event.”

“But no soldiers were required to attend! What is your deal, Rock Beyond Belief!”

Helmick and other base officials dodged AU’s complaint. In a statement issued to the media, Helmick asserted that the event was legal because no soldiers were required to attend.

AU said Helmick was missing the point. No branch of the government, AU asserted, should be in the business of helping certain types of churches win new converts or sponsoring events that have the aim of persuading people to adopt specific religious beliefs.

This is one distinction that can certainly be made between Rock Beyond Belief and Rock the Fort. This is one high-road that we are certainly claiming. We have no interest in putting on a ‘de-conversion’ or ‘de-baptism’ event. (Yes those exist).

The article goes on to mention the other 800 pound gorilla in the room. Franklin Graham.

Americans United also expressed alarm that the Army was working so closely with the Graham ministry. Although theFranklin Graham rock the fort organization still carries the name of its founder, evangelist Billy Graham, its current chief executive officer is his son, Franklin Graham.

Franklin Graham is a controversial figure who has repeatedly made disparaging comments about non-Christian religions.

Graham has called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” Last year he told CNN, “True Islam cannot be practiced in this country. You can’t beat your wife. You cannot murder your children if you think they’ve committed adultery or something like that, which they do practice in these other countries.”

Graham has also said, “We certainly love the Muslim people. But that is not the faith of this country. And that is not the religion that built this nation. The people of the Christian faith and the Jewish faith are the ones who built America, and it is not Islam.”

He also took a potshot at Hinduism, telling USA Today, “No elephant with 100 arms can do anything for me. None of their 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can have some big ‘Kumbaya’ service and all hold hands and it’s all going to get better in this world. It’s not going to get better.”

Graham’s rhetoric is so intemperate that earlier this year, the Army disinvited him from speaking at a Pentagon prayer breakfast. In light of this history, AU said it makes no sense for officials at Fort Bragg to continue working with the BGEA.

This is just crazy. That’s probably not going to help us win the hearts and minds over there in the sandbox. Thanks, Franklin, way to support the troops.

I’d also recommend you reading the much longer full article over at AU‘s website.

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