Military Religious Freedom A-Ok for Druids, "Meh" for Catholics

Plundering the Deacon’s Bench, again…

The Colorado Springs Gazette reports that the Air Force Academy is now accommodating its Wiccan and Druid cadets with their own chapel:

Add Wiccans and Druids to the list of faiths that have their own chapel at the Air Force Academy.

A circle of stones around an altar was dedicated on a hilltop above the campus Tuesday with earth-centered prayer and speeches about religious liberty at the academy, a school that has long faced criticism as a bastion for evangelical Christianity.

“This outdoor worship space is something we have created to help people of all religions,” Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, the academy’s superintendent, said before a ribbon cutting on the site.

The academy is home to about 10 cadets who regularly attend “earth centered” worship groups. Earth-centered is a catch-all phrase for groups including New Age religion, paganism, Wicca, Druids and ancient Norse beliefs.

This is a bigger deal than it seems. In 2006, an investigative panel found that “officers and faculty members periodically used their positions to promote their Christian beliefs and failed to accommodate the religious needs of non-Christian cadets.” As the New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein reports:

Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady of the Air Force, who led the 16-member group, said in a news conference at the Pentagon that the academy and the Air Force as a whole were struggling to define the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable religious expression in a government institution, a reflection, he said, of a debate under way across the country.

“We believe that people were doing things that I think were inappropriate,” General Brady said. “They had the best intentions toward the cadets. I think in some cases they were wrong.”

He said his panel had referred seven cases of questionable behavior to the Air Force for further investigation but declined to elaborate.

Among the incidents highlighted in the report were fliers that advertised a screening of “The Passion of the Christ” at every seat in the dining hall, more than 250 people at the academy signing an annual Christmas message in the base newspaper that said that “Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world” and an atheist student who was forbidden to organize a club for “Freethinkers.”

The academy has 19 clubs for religious groups. Many of the clubs and educational programs are led by outsiders, some affiliated with ministries in Colorado Springs, the headquarters for many evangelical Christian organizations. The report recommended that the academy supervise those programs more closely because of complaints that some guest speakers had violated Air Force standards of religious respect.

The group found that several incidents widely covered by news organizations were overblown. The report said a chaplain who reportedly exhorted cadets in a worship service to tell their classmates to accept Christ or “burn in hell” was merely using language “not uncommon” for his Pentecostal denomination.

Prosyletizing in military units remains a touchy issue. Perhaps the leading watchdog is Air Force Academy graduate Mikey Weinstein. An attorney, and as he assures skeptics, a “registered Republican,” Weinstein founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation in 2006. The MRRF’s goal: “ensuring that all members of the United States Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom to which they and all Americans are entitled by virtue of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” Toward that end, it’s reported an Air Force colonel for distributing a video housed on the Catholic site, which also included images of President Obama wearing a swastika armband.

In 2009, the MRRF was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Although this particular video came from a Catholic source, Weinstein seems concerned chiefly with the missionary activities of evangelical Protestants. He’s described their theology as “dominionist,” which means, broadly, that they are encouraging soldiers to conquer for Christ. I can’t speak to the accuracy of that statement, but Laurie Goodstein has found that — at least in the Air Force — numbers of evangelical chaplains are multiplying, even as numbers of Catholic and mainline Protestant chaplains are decreasing:

The churches that once supplied most of the chaplains say they are now having trouble recruiting for a variety of reasons. Many members of their clergy are now women, who are less likely to seek positions as military chaplains or who entered the ministry as a second career and are too old to qualify. The Catholic Church often does not have enough priests to serve its parishes, let alone send them to the military.

There are also political reasons. Anne C. Loveland, a retired professor of American history at Louisiana State University and the author of “American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993,” said the foundation for the change in the chaplaincy was laid during the Vietnam War.

“Evangelical denominations were very supportive of the war, and mainline liberal denominations were very much against it,” Ms. Loveland said. “That cemented this growing relationship between the military and the evangelicals.”

In other words, finding an atheist in a foxhole is much easier than finding an a Catholic or Episcopalian at headquarters.

So it’s very good to know the Air Force is now making an effort to ensure the spiritual welfare of non-Christians. But Catholics may be harder to help. According to Msgr.Timothy Broglio, who presides as archbishop over all Catholic service members, 275 priests are currently serving over 300,000 troops. That’s a ratio of one priest to 1,100 laymen — not bad, actually, compared to the ratios in many U.S. cities. But the troops who need pastoral care the most are hardest to reach. A friend of mine, a U.S. Navy vet with an impressive network of Catholics in arms, tells me that his friend, who was flying helicopters in Afghanistan, was lucky to make one Mass each month.

Too bad private contractors can’t fill the gap.

– Max Lindenman

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    I doubt anybody, private contractor or not, will be allowed to fill the gap.

    I suspect this is less an effort to establish religious freedom in the military than it is to force Christians out.

    And, no, the fact that Weinstein describes himself as a “registered Republican” doesn’t reassure me one bit.

    The next step will be forceful proselyzation—from Wiccans, atheists, etc.; hey, can’t have those awful “Dominionists” (whoever they are) in the military!

  • Makarios

    @Rhinestone, it is not about forcing Christians out of the military. It’s about Dominionist Christians attempting to take over the military and turn it into a Crusader army. Amongst the numerous problems with this, there is the fact that the First Amendment includes a “no establishment” clause. This doesn’t seem to matter to the Dominionist officers, despite the fact that they took an ostentatious oath to defend the Constitution when they signed on.

    And, FYI, Wiccans, as a matter of principle, don’t proselytize.

  • DaveO

    Weinstein’s mission is anti-Christian, having nothing to do with religious freedom. He works to shut down Christianity, and its mandate of fulfilling the Great Commission. He can not be fore religious freedom while working to prevent religious freedom.

    On the issue of private contractors – many units were using lay ministers because of the lack of RC chaplains. First thoughts: Using a private contractor is very tricky, and open to charges of proselytizing, and the concept of the head of one recognised state (The Papal State) being a contractor to our military. If one goes with individuals, you’ll never be certain of the theology, the certification, and anyone can claim to be a preacher, which could undercut the needs of folks who’re looking for salvation, rites, and so on. For the qualified individual preacher: 8 months waiting to get paid. That’s 8 months of paying your own way before the money begins to flow in.

  • Max Lindenman

    I was being sardonic about private contractors, and I’m not sure I agree about Weinstein. But I have to admit, at times he sounds just as strident and apocalyptic as the people he says he’s opposing.

  • Andrew B

    The most interesting part of this story, I think, is that “pagans” are content to be lumped into a catch-all category. Really, do Wiccans and worshippers of Thor have anything in common? Would it be proper to erect a “Monotheist” chapel, on the assumption that Mormons, Muslims and Sikhs all believe the same stuff?

    Strange times…

  • Maureen

    I know somewhat of the pagan community. The “roll your own religion” folks (even those raised in such a religion) don’t usually have much in common with, say, Hindus and animists from places where that’s really traditional. I imagine that those folks will probably avoid the stone circle like the plague.

    The Wiccans usually hate the guts of the Asatru Norse worshippers and the Satanists, and vice versa. There are often serious differences in practices and theologies (or lack thereof) even within “denominations” or local groups. However, the “roll your own” groups often end up using the same spaces and stores even in the civilian world, so I imagine they find some way to deal with it.

  • kenneth

    As one of those in the “roll your own” (first time I’ve ever heard that one) community, I can tell you that Wiccans and Asatruars don’t hate each other as a general matter. Paganism is indeed an umbrella term for a wide variety of theologically diverse religions, but we work pretty well together on the overarching issues which affect us all, and it’s not unknown for us to hold ritual together at certain large public festivals.

    Nor is it true that we have cold relations with Hindus or native/aboriginal traditions. We have folks doing some very productive interfaith work in this area. Native Americans practicing their religions would probably be very happy to use the stone circle at the academy. For that matter, there’s no reason Catholics could not hold a sunrise Easter Mass there. It’s for everyone, although the pagans I understand have “first dibs” on it.

    I’m not much impressed by the professional whiners who cry “persecution” any time Christians have to follow the law or respect others freedom of religion. Nobody is moving to muscle Christians out of the military. Their position is still quite secure. They’re still holding their services, and they can still “spread the word” in their capacity as private people on their private time. What they can’t do is to use their positions of power to enforce a “semi-official” favored religion while on government time. That concept has been in our Consitution since day one. If it were not, Catholicism would never have gotten a foothold in this country. Weinstein’s agenda is not anti-Christian. In fact part of the problem with evangelical prosletizing on base was that some airmen were being pressured to abandon their existing forms of Christian belief in order to be “saved.”

    The fact that Catholicism’s “problem” in the military is the existence of a mere 275 chaplains puts you in pretty good stead. We pagans have exactly zero, and it’s not for lack of trying. The military and its evangelical contingent have all sorts of wonderful little procedural hoops they use to keep the “wrong” religions out. It took us over a decade of lawsuits to secure our right just to be buried with proper honors (our symbols on a tombstone).

  • kenneth

    To emphasize a point I understated, it turns out that MOST of Mike Weintstein’s clients are not militant atheists or “roll your own” pagan hippie types at all. They are practicing mainstream Christians who are getting harassed for not being “Christian enough.”

  • Max Lindenman

    Thanks for the link, kenneth.

    Just to be clear, I don’t doubt for a moment that there are some religious bullies in the armed forces — maybe quite a few. Air Force investigators themselves said there were.

    What I do hesitate to believe is that very many of them subscribe to a dominionist theology. In my eyes, dominionism is pretty off-the-wall. To impute it to anyone is a very serious thing. Weinstein doesn’t strike me as dishonest, but he does seem like a very intense, very combative guy who might well resort to hyperbole to make his point.

    I’ll admit I haven’t researched the subject exhaustively. One reason is, I haven’t been able to find any independent source to corroborate Weinstein’s charge. If you know of any, please, post a link.

  • kenneth

    Dominionism is WAY off the wall, but it’s not as rare as you might think. Evangelicals are a minority, and true dominionists a minority within that minority, but they’re out there, they’re very well organized, and they’re very determined to maximize any leverage they have in whatever setting they occupy.

    That there would be a dominionist culture in the military is not the least bit surprising. The denial of pagan veteran’s proper burial rites, which was blatantly illegal, dragged on for a decade in no small measure because of statements by the likes of George W. Bush and Rep. Bob Barr, who flat out said that Wicca is not a “real” religion and has no place in the military. Whether or not they self-identify as dominionists or sign onto the whole Rushdoony platform is beside the point. They clearly buy into the core belief, which is that America was founded by and for Christians, very specific kinds of sectarian Christians, and that anyone else has no standing before the law, only the indulgence of the “Real Americans” like themselves.

    Moreover, it’s very clear that dominionism in its many forms has acquired a near-mainstream credibility and presence in political circles. It is clearly a dominant force in the Tea Party movement, which sets much of the tone and agenda of the Republican Party these days.

    One of Mike Huckabee’s confidants and men he admires is David Barton. Consider this little tibit, written as an amicus brief in a case now pending before the 9th Circuit Appeals Court in California. Barton is arguing in favor of a policy of the California Corrections system which only recognizes five faiths as legitimate. The policy is being used to deny chaplain status to Patrick McCollumn, a pagan who is very well qualified and dedicated. Barton reveals his dominionist leanings, and it certainly doesn’t seem to upset Huckabee:

    “The true historic meaning of “religion” excludes paganism and witchcraft, and thus, does not compel a conclusion that McCollum has state taxpayer standing … paganism and witchcraft were never intended to receive the protections of the Religion Clauses. Thus, in the present case there can be no violation of those clauses … Should this Court conclude that McCollum has taxpayer standing … this Court should at least acknowledge that its conclusion is compelled by Supreme Court precedent, not by history or the intent of the Framers.”

    Nor can I dismiss these as the rantings of a handful of nuts in conservative politics. I experience this sort of ugliness on a daily basis in every forum where Evangelicals and conservative Catholics exist in any numbers. They routinely say things about my faith and those of Native Americans and Hindus (and of course Muslims), that nobody would dream of saying openly about, say, Jews.

    Could Weinstein be a little over the top himself in his approach? Quite possibly. I was in the media a long time and I know it’s part and parcel of being an activist. You have to be a bit of a firebrand and a showman to get noticed. But there’s very clearly a pattern of troubling problems and a very consistent one over time. It happens often enough and is severe enough that it clearly creates a corrosive atmosphere in an institution that depends on teamwork and trust.

    If allowed to persist, it will, over time, drive some of the brightest and most qualified people away from military service. It will also lead to a concentration of people in the armed forces who do not reflect the makeup of our nation. It’s also clear from the statements of dominionists that they are not entirely on board with the notion that the military has to answer to civilian authority and the rule of law. That has obvious and enormously troubling implications for the long term health of any democracy.

  • Max Lindenman

    I guess I hadn’t looked at things from a pagan perspective. If it were one of mine being denied his burial rites, then I doubt I’d be too picky about whether or not this or that politician signod to the “whole Rushdoony platform,” as you call it. The difference between an according-to-Hoyle dominionist and a fundie who also happened to be a neocon would look academic.

    Speaking as a (somewhat clumsy) wordsmith, I’m just concerned that “dominionist” not become another one of those labels, like “fascist” or “communist,” that gets chucked like a clump of mud at whoever the speaker might want to discredit. I understand the game of building buzz — I worked in sales and marketing, and we dealt in our own half-truths. But now that I’m out (finally!) I can make free to be the stickler and pedant I’ve always been at heart.

    You know, today I’m finishing up an article about Catholic dominionists. (They preferred terms like “integral nationalist,” but it amounted to the same thing.) I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Charles Maurras or Jean Ousset; if not, it’s probably because Catholics are aobut as eager to turn their pictures to the wall as Norse pagans are to expunge Heinrich Himmler form the rolls. I don’t blame them, but I won’t let them get away with it, either.

    It’ll be up on Patheos. Hope you’ll stop by to read it.

  • kenneth

    One point I hope to convey is that this is not a uniquely pagan issue at all. It has particular significance for me because our religions happen to be in that dodgy transition between tiny minority faiths and well-established ones. Nevertheless, the principles of religious freedom and Constitutional non-establishment of religion are crucial to all of us.

    Every time people have been allowed to hijack the machinery of government to promote or enforce sectarian religion, it’s been an ugly outcome. Catholics with any sense of history know that well. Not so very long ago, Europe was a slaughterhouse as various sides employed government to enforce the “real” Christianity. In much more recent times, Catholics were marginalized in their own countries in Ireland and the United States.

    Religious extremists of all varieties have always been with us, but various social and economic upheavals of the past few years have given them a new traction and a glint of mainstream appeal we have not seen in many years. Conservative Christians, both Catholic and Evangelical, have constructed a narrative of late which says that Christians are being “persecuted” in America and need to “take their country back.” That has some dark connotations in some quarter, and at any rate is patently absurd.

    “Persecution” is now defined as anything Christians don’t happen to like – a court ruling that goes against them, a nasty pop culture reference etc. or the mere fact that they have to share the public sphere in any way with others who don’t think like them. That notion of “persecution” cheapens the real thing – the death and disenfranchisement suffered by Christians in the Middle East or the real persecution of Roman times.

    A variant on that theme is the over-broad use of “political correctness” which is used to denote disgust any time our government is forced to actually live up to its mandate of fair treatment for all citizens, including unpopular minority groups.

    There is much suggestion in various forums, including this one, that the stone circle is “political correctness run amok.” Well, no. It’s our nation’s law and heritage being followed. It’s a fairly modest physical accommodation for a group of soldiers who are small in number, but equal in consideration to any other faith group. That sort of fairness, and freedom from religious coercion of any kind is within all of our rights to expect and demand from our military, regardless of which way the demographic winds blow. I would demand no less on behalf of Catholics if the command structure happened to be dominated by Muslims or hardcore atheists.

  • Rich Fader

    Cadet Skippy is still not allowed to perform military functions skyclad.

  • kenneth

    Depending on Skippy’s physique, that may not be such a bad thing! (Then again, they ARE in intense conditioning programs. I might rather see skippy skyclad than some of the end-stage Jerry Garcia lookalikes I see going commando at some festivals!

    Truthfully, skyclad practice is not all that common in most traditions nowadays in the States. It tended to be a traditional British Wiccan thing, and a fair amount of it goes on at summer festivals, but not so much in the normal run of things in people’s home temples or backyards.

    Besides, cadets get plenty of good communal naked time in barracks. I don’t know if they’ve changed it recently, but it seems like those places never used to have stalls between their showers or even toilets!