Image © Austin Cline
America's secular government is not compatible with a religious military that has a religious mission. If the military is used in any way to promote, foster, or encourage religious beliefs, then it will be acting to undermine not just secular, civil government, but also a religiously pluralistic society in America. The American military must remain neutral with respect to all religions, treating people of all religions and no religion equally. How can atheists or religious minorities trust the military to protect them or to protect secular government, for example, if the military is also promoting Christianity?
Evidence that President George W. Bush may not regard the military as a secular, civil institution came from a successful lawsuit on behalf of Pagan and Wiccan veterans who wanted to have a symbol of their religion on government-provided headstones.
Cheryl Locke, a Pagan for 20 years, blamed President George W. Bush for Pagans being denied military grave markers. “The current administration has issues,” Locke, Kansas City, Mo., said.
A comment by Bush during the 2000 election fuels Locke's belief. “I do not think witchcraft is a religion and I do not think it is in any way appropriate for the U.S. military to promote it,” Bush said.
Source: KC Community News
It's bad enough that the President of the United States thinks that Wicca and Paganism aren't really religions, but it's much, much worse for him to suggest that it is appropriate for the military to promote "real" religions. For many Christians, the entire concept of "genuine religion" is restricted solely to Christianity — and only specific forms of Christianity — and maybe Judaism:
Executive Pastor Jeremiah Johnston of First Family Church in Overland Park agreed with Bush that Wicca should not be recognized. “We live in an age where almost every cult wants to hijack the word 'church' and parlay themselves into an acceptable religion,” Johnston said.
“The history of the pentacle has been connected with occultic ramifications. Obviously, some who embrace Paganism disassociate from that reference. The position of First Family Church is that religion apart from Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is devoid.”
If we want to try to be generous to George W. Bush, we might imagine that he simply misunderstands the reasons why the military is involved with religion. Military chaplains, for example, exist to serve the religious needs of service members who are forced to be far from their homes and churches — chaplains are not paid or trained to evangelize their religion to these service members. Other Christians seem to have this misunderstanding of what military chaplains are for, so it wouldn't be surprising if George W. Bush labored under this misunderstanding as well.
At the same time, though, this belief often seems to be accompanied by the belief expressed by Jeremiah Johnston: a denial that there is validity to any religion that is not conservative, evangelical Christianity. Thus, even if we imagine that George W. Bush holds the first view, that wouldn't exclude the second — on the contrary, it may even make it more likely. The President of the United States is supposed to be the President of all American citizens — not just the ones who voted for him and certainly not just his most reliable "base," the people who will stick by him no matter what he says or does. This means that he's supposed to be the president of atheists as well as of Americans of all religious faiths.
Paula Zahn Now addressed the problem of religious bigotry in the military when they looked at the case of Pat Tillman:
ZAHN: There is some new outrage out in the open tonight over the death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Congress this week is investigating the military's handling of Tillman's death. He was killed in Afghanistan three years ago, and, at first, hailed as a hero who died under enemy attack. Only later did the Army admit Tillman died from friendly-fire. And now we're hearing about shocking, insulting, and religiously insensitive language an Army investigator used to describe Tillman's family.
Only now? The "religiously insensitive language" was made public last year. This example of anti-atheist, religious bigotry is old news now, but we're seeing it discussed in a lot of different places suddenly. I'm happy that it's finally getting some attention now, of course, but I'd like to see some acknowledgement from others that they are coming late to the story and that the information was out there long ago.
It should be noted that the Tillman family hasn't said whether they are atheists or not. They may be, or they may not be. They aren't Christians and whatever their beliefs are, they seem to tend towards secularism and humanism rather than supernatural religion. Pat Tillman's brother Rich certainly seems to be an atheist because at his brother's funeral, Rich said: "Pat isn't with God. He's f -- ing dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's f -- ing dead."
Ultimately, though, it doesn't really matter if Pat Tillman was an atheist or not, or if anyone else in his family is an atheist or not. The fact that they are not Christians and are perceived as atheists by Christians in the military was sufficient for them to be treated as inferior to Christians. The religious, anti-atheist bigotry is there regardless of whether it was directly at genuine atheists. For Christian Supremacists, it doesn't matter whether someone is really an atheist or not; all that matters is that one isn't a real Christian.
JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It came as a shock. Halfway through a day of testimony about the Army's mishandling of the death of Pat Tillman, Tillman's mother, Mary, shared her outrage at remarks from one Army investigator that Tillman's family found highly insulting.
MARY TILLMAN, MOTHER OF PAT TILLMAN: He said that we were -- we would never be satisfied, because we're not Christians, and we're just a pain in the a**, basically. He also said that it must make us feel terrible that Pat is worm dirt.
MCINTYRE: The offending comment was posted on ESPN.com last summer. It suggested the Tillman family's dissatisfaction with the Army was due in part to a lack of religious faith. And it quoted Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, who conducted the second investigation into Tillman's death.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) LIEUTENANT COLONEL RALPH KAUZLARICH, U.S. ARMY: Well, if you're an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what -- what is there to go to? Nothing. You're worm dirt. So, for their son to die for nothing, it's pretty hard to get your head around that. (END AUDIO CLIP) [emphasis added]
Nothing will bring their son back, but this doesn’t mean that it’s pointless to pursue justice. Maybe if a few of those callous and careless military commanders who caused Pat Tillman’s death — not to mention the dishonest ones who actively participated in the apparent cover-up — had their heads delivered to the public on a platter there will be fewer such incidents in the future. Nothing can bring Pat Tillman back, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t do things to make sure that there aren’t more cases like his in the future.
What’s really got to be sticking in the craw of these people is the contradiction between the real Pat Tillman and the mythological Pat Tillman they tried to create. The real Pat Tillman was an atheist who, after getting to the Middle East, perceived the truth and described the invasion of Iraq as “so f***ing illegal.” The mythological Pat Tillman was a hero who could be used a recruitment poster for the neo-conservative attempt turn the Middle East into a haven for democracy. The real Pat Tillman was inconvenient and his death was a reminder of how poor military decision-making could be. The mythological Pat Tillman could hopefully invigorate the relgio-nationalist cause.
I much prefer the real Pat Tillman, but unfortunately they killed him. It’s a good thing that his family remembers the real Pat Tillman and want to make sure that its his memory which survives rather than the fake one constructed by the military. Fortunately, it appears that some in the Congress are willing to pursue this:
REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D-CA), GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Did you examine these comments as part of your investigation?
THOMAS GIMBLE, ACTING INSPECTOR GENERAL, DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE: Well, we did not investigate those comments. I saw the comments in the paper. And, frankly, I was shocked by them, too. But we didn't investigate.
BRIGADIER GENERAL RODNEY JOHNSON, COMMANDING GENERAL, ARMY CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION COMMAND: Sir, I don't know of any regulation prohibiting that, but I find it totally unacceptable.
WAXMAN: Is there anything such as a conduct unbecoming a member of the United States armed services?
JOHNSON: There is such a charge as conduct unbecoming an officer, yes, sir.
WAXMAN: Yes, well that sounds like it's a pretty unbecoming statement for an officer to have made.
The possibility of justice and truth coming out is only real because we have a Democratic Congress now — when Congress was in control of the Republicans, they exercised absolutely no oversight over what Bush's administration did. They didn't care about whether lies took precedence over truth, or whether anything was being handled competently. If lying about Pat Tillman served the cause of promoting war, then lying is what they did and the rest of the GOP fell neatly in line to support it. "Conduct unbecoming" hardly scratches the surface of what the nation has endured...
The Pentagon officially acknowledges the existence of just 5,000 atheists in the U.S. military, but they also recognize the existence of 100,000 under "no religion." How many of them are atheists who don't bother to list themselves as such or, perhaps, are afraid to list themselves as such in a military culture where Christian Supremacism is so accepted? Kauzlarich faces no disciplinary action for his statements and he is in Iraq leading soldiers, some of whom are surely atheists. How likely is it that they would identify themselves as atheists to him given his attitude towards non-Christians?
ELLEN JOHNSON, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN ATHEISTS: ...of course, he's trying to distract attention from the investigation into how Pat actually died. But his point was that he -- and he said, Christians will have family members who die from friendly fire, and they get past it, because they think that their sons and daughters are going to go to a better place; they're going to go to heaven; therefore, they get past it.
But this family can't get past it, because -- and I think he called them atheists -- they don't think that there is a heaven or a hell. So, his point is that atheists take death a little bit more seriously. And I'm all for that. I agree. We atheists say the this is the only life you will ever have. You really have to make the most of it. We do take death very seriously. We don't take it lightly. We want to know -- we want to have these kinds of accidents investigated.
And I think more people should agree with us and be like us, and the world would be a much more peaceful place.
Kauzlarich was trying to insult and denigrate the Tillman family, but in reality he inadvertently praised them by saying that they took death so seriously. Perhaps this provides a bit of insight into the disturbed thinking of religious theists who don't take death very seriously — it certainly suggests that Johnson has a point when she says that the world would be more peaceful if more people took death as seriously as the Tillmans. People who don't take death seriously ultimately don't take life seriously — not their own life and not others'. This makes it far easier to simply take away others' lives.
ZAHN: Mary Tillman has said that it was pretty clear to her that a lot of these remarks made to her family were made to them with the kind of tone she was talking about, because they're not Christians. Do you think there is a pro-Christian bias in the military? We just saw some of Jamie's numbers up there on the screen.
JOHNSON: As the president of American Atheists, we know it. Christian extremists are all throughout the military. ...In fact, there are Christian extremists who are delivering Bibles at the military entrance and processing stations all throughout the country, the Gideons who are in there handing out military Bibles with camouflage tops on them. [...]
ZAHN: Is there pressure, you think, that's put to bear on people who are non-believers to subscribe to these views?
JOHNSON: The atheists in the military have to attend -- you're obligated to attend ceremonies where there are organized prayers. It's causing conflict. Our brave men and women are fighting wars outside of the United States. They shouldn't have to be fighting a war when threatened in the service with their own government over this. They're -- they're -- they feel like they have to go along, or they -- they -- they will lose their position, they will lose their rank, they will be reprimanded for it.
They're in a very difficult position. And they have to go along with this. And they wouldn't like it. I mean, you can put the shoe on the other foot and say, what if Christians were told that they had to listen to Muslim prayers or Jewish prayers or anything like that, or somebody talk about atheism? They wouldn't like that either. [emphasis added]
Conservative, evangelical Christians certainly wouldn't like it if faced with religious coercion and supremacism from others, but I don't believe that they think in such terms. The Golden Rule might be "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," but they don't interpret that as meaning "don't force your religion on them because you wouldn't want them to force their religion on you." Instead, they interpret it as meaning "Do everything you can to get them to recognize the Truth in your religion because you would want to know the Truth if you weren't already a Christian."
This brings us back to the comments from Bush and Johnston: people like them regard their religion as the True Religion while all other faiths are "devoid" and are not "acceptable." It's appropriate to use coercion and the state to promote True Religion, but not to promote False Religion. Therefore it's appropriate to use coercion and the state to promote Christianity to non-Christians, and especially to atheists, without any thought about how one would feel if the same happened with another religion. This is the natural, expected thought process of Christian Supremacism.