Onward Christian Soldiers:
Maybe the reason the misperception persists that there are no atheists in foxholes is that nonbelievers must either shut up about their views or be hounded out of the military.
Just ask Army Spc. Jeremy Hall, who is making a splash in the news because of the way his atheism was attacked by superiors and fellow soldiers while he was risking his life in service to his country.
Hall, 23, served two combat tours in Iraq, winning the Combat Action Badge. But he's now stationed at Fort Riley, Kan., having been returned stateside early because the Army couldn't ensure his safety.
Hall's atheism became an issue soon after it became known. On Thanksgiving 2006 while stationed outside Tikrit, Hall politely declined to join in a Christian prayer before the holiday meal. The result was a dressing down by a staff sergeant who told him that as an atheist he needed to sit somewhere else.
In another episode, after his gun turret took a bullet that almost found an opening, the first thing a superior wanted to know was whether Hall believed in Jesus now, not whether he was okay.
Then, in July, while still in Iraq, Hall organized a meeting of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. According to Hall, after things began, Maj. Freddy Welborn disrupted the meeting with threats saying he might bring charges against Hall for conduct detrimental to good order and discipline, and that Hall was disgracing the Constitution. (Err, I think the major has that backward.) Welborn has denied the allegations, but the New York Times reports that another soldier at the meeting said that Hall's account was accurate.
Hall claims that he was denied a promotion in part because he wouldn't be able to "pray with his troops." And of course he was returned from overseas due to physical threats from fellow soldiers and superiors. Things became so bad that he was assigned a full-time bodyguard.
Beyond the mincemeat being made of church-state separation and religious liberty, it seems particularly combustible for our armed forces to be combining "end-times" Christian theology with military might. That's no way to placate Muslim populations around the world.
But there's no will for change. The military's virulent religious intolerance could be eradicated tomorrow with swift sanctions against transgressors. Instead, it's winked at and those caught proselytizing suffer no consequence. It appears that brave men like Hall, who simply wish to follow the dictates of their own conscience, will be needing bodyguards for a long time to come.
I grew up in a military family and I can tell you that it wasn't always this way. I don't know that they had Freethinkers meetings, but they didn't force anyone to attend prayer meetings and you could openly be an atheist without facing threats.
I respect religion and I think it should be practiced freely and virtually without limits in a free society. But this kind of coercion, if true, is fundamentally un-American and that it's being practiced in the US military under the direct auspices of the government is mind boggling.
It would be very nice to think that a Democratic president would issue orders to change this, but I suspect that he or she will actually do nothing. less than nothing. Their new embrace of religiosity in public life will have to be constantly affirmed in some way and considering the existing suspicion in the military of all Democrats, I would be very surprised if a Democratic administration would pursue this particular issue.
There will be many things in a new administration that are going to disappoint us. I would suspect that those of us who would like to see less religiosity in civic life are going to be among the most disappointed. Indeed, it's likely that the Democrats are going to give the Republicans a run for their money. There will be less social conservatism, which is the most important thing, but the pressure to conform to a religious norm is likely to be just as strong, if not stronger, than under the Republicans.
Normally, this kind of thing would be left to the courts, which would logically decide that the government could not coerce citizens to be religious. Perhaps that will happen. But considering the fact that the Republicans have packed the courts with right wing hacks, it's unlikely.