Saturday, May 19, 2007

Faith-based Initiatives

Former counsel to Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal who for ten years served as Air Force Judge Advocate, Mikey Weinstein, founder of a group called Military Religious Freedom Foundation said "We have a Christian Taliban within our U.S. military," and that "this administration has turned the Department of Defense into a faith-based initiative." Arguably, this administration has turned government itself into a faith-based initiative.

There are some like former President Jimmy Carter who lament that the separation of church and state has been compromised, that this executive branch endorses religious coercion, and who consider the Bush White House responsible for the blurring of boundaries not merely between the various branches of government, but between church and state.

Mr. Carter has expressed righteous indignation at the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives which has, in 2005, awarded more than $2 billion in federal funding to religious groups even, as he says, "those that channel those funds exclusively to their own particular group of believers in a particular religion." The former president insists, too, that "As a traditional Baptist, I've always believed in separation of church and state and honored that premise when I was president, and so have all other presidents, I might say, except this one." (AP) It must be remembered, however, that our current president claims to be serving the Almighty not the people and, indeed, any president making such a messianic claim poses a threat not merely to the concept of statehood, but to the separation of powers.

If we consider the military as a microcosm of what is going on in the country, and see religious coercion as symptomatic of an egregious, and growing, intolerance of conceptual diversity, it becomes evident that not only are we quickly approaching the winter of our disbelief, but that skepticism about a higher power is itself a form of political dissent.

One has only to look at recent bestsellers like Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" to get a sense of the groundswell of revolt fomenting in response to more than a decade of faith-based initiatives in government prompted by the likes of neo-conservative Christian extremists including former attorney-general, John Ashcroft, who reportedly conducted Bible study groups in Congress.

The numbers of those who express confidence in secular leadership, and in the President, have reached record lows, yet Americans who say they believe in God prevail by a 92 to 6 margin. And, while more say they would vote for a homosexual for president before they'd vote for an atheist, the outspoken expression of disbelief, in the U.S. military, may be as much an act of resistance to religious coercion, and an affirmation of constitutional entitlement, as it is an expression of disbelief. . Religious proselytizing can only lead to an environment of increased cynicism, and greater distrust of leadership.

In a world where one is inclined to inspect a head of lettuce for signs of foul play, it should come as little surprise that nearly half of our troops find themselves at official gatherings, at least monthly, that advertise themselves as being secular, but that open with a psalm or some form of prayer. Nonstop media coverage of the sudden demise of Rev. Jerry Falwell shows what a muscular grip the "moral majority" has on America's psyche. Not surprisingly, too, in this bifurcated culture, while we have renowned journalists speaking out against blind faith, three out of ten Republican presidential candidates, at a recent convention, gleefully declared that they don't believe in evolution.

And, let's not forget Monica Goodling, Justice Department appointee of a born-again president, who invoked her Fifth Amendment rights straining credulity in her claim that she, and her colleague, Kyle Sampson, a devout Mormon, were not personally involved in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. But, then what are we to make of a Department of Justice who has, in a senior position, someone with a law degree from Regent University, a school whose motto is: "Christian leadership to change the world?" Ostensibly, this is quickly becoming the tag line, too, for the Department of Defense.

Even public education is beginning to confuse its function with that of Sunday school. Some Georgia school districts are thinking about offering state-funded Bible classes, and Texas is taking it one step further by considering a proposal to make Bible study a high school requirement. In fact, last week, the ACLU took up the cause of a handful of parents, in the Western District of Texas, who are concerned about their religious liberty, and have chosen to resist efforts of the born again to infuse their schools' curricula with Bible courses which promote the peculiar brand of religion that has received their God-housekeeping stamp of approval.. While the number of religious groups hasn't increased dramatically, the funds earmarked for their expenditure has; faith-based lobbying appears to be a burgeoning field.

Despite the glut of newfangled Creationists, those who never had faith, or have chosen to leave it in the trunk are becoming more audible, and more visible perhaps in proportion to those who question the assertions of the commander in chief whose claims about the war in Iraq seem to correlate with those of weapons of mass destruction. Maybe those who question their leaders are more likely to challenge the existence of God, particularly when the God that is being offered up is one that doesn't accept diversity of opinion, or practice.

Clearly, when generals are daily defecting from the established party line, there is a crisis in belief in authority of all stars and stripes which goes to prove that we might not have trickle down economics, but trickle down disbelief. It isn't so much a crisis of faith that is insinuating itself into our military and our public schools as much as a crisis in credibility with some fairly stalwart confusion as to when knowledge is required by way of intervention.

For a country bent on purging itself of sexual predators, the issue of religious predators seldom comes up, not in polite society, especially not in our armed forces. But, what is it if not predatory when a commander tries to usurp his position of authority, and use his influence to impose his notions of religion on a subordinate? Is this not a form of metaphysical rape? While atheists now comprise more than 20% of the military population, it is increasingly more common to find those in power exercising their control by seducing lower classmen into attending group functions which begin with a command to pray.

Among many underlying questions, one looms large—can it be that lack of faith in military leadership has resulted in a climate of increasing religious skepticism among the ranks of those who serve? Has cynicism towards government carried over to a pronounced loss of confidence going up the chain of command as far as it can go? These are probative questions that require a closer look as does the use of coercive tactics by those in command of our armed forces to ensure conformity in religious practice which constitutes a violation of these soldiers' First Amendment rights. It might be a good idea, too, to examine how a militaristic, Crusader foreign policy has been superimposed upon U.S. armed forces.

Undoubtedly, loss of faith in leadership may correlate with, or result in, swelling of the ranks of disbelievers, both in the service and in civilian life, as would attempts by born again Christians, in the upper echelons of command, to impose their belief system upon their subordinates. What is ironic here is that, overall, there is far more emphasis on freedom of religion, and freedom from religion, as well as the separation of church and state, among members of the military than among their civilian counterparts, and Jimmy Carter may be the first prominent public figure to call attention to this problem.

When religion becomes politicized, freedom of choice is corrupted. Failure to connect the dots between Dominionism, a religious ideology that strives to convert as many as possible, and a foreign policy predicated on notions of pre-emptive war may prove to be a fatal one for civilization as we know it.
Moreover, belief in a higher power, and the right brand of higher power, must not be a prerequisite for service in the military which requires adherence to the Constitution, not the Bible any more than Bible study should be a prerequisite for admission into a state-funded college .

Whether, as Christopher Hitchens argues, God is, or is not, great, those who originally came to this country to escape religious persecution wouldn't want to find government faith-based initiatives on the menu. It's time for parents to stand up to school boards who want to confuse belief with knowledge, and for more in the military to speak out against coercion from fundamentalist Christian commanding officers. It's time for dissent to move from its foxhole into the public domain where it belongs.