Poor Military Discipline


[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

— Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, 1779 (Thomas Jefferson, drafter)

Given the recent uproar over the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero, how do you believe its detractors would react to this: A United States military officer tells his subordinates they have a “choice” in their spare time of attending an Islamic hip hop concert or performing a detailed cleaning of their barracks.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Do you think that would garner attention among those who have loudly and aggressively sought to arrest the development in lower Manhattan? We have a feeling it might.

Well, the episode initially went largely unnoticed, for one notable reason: The concert in question wasn’t an Islamic one, but Christian.

In May, a couple hundred soldiers at Fort Eustis, Virginia, were told they could attend “The Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness Concert.” The headline act was BarlowGirl, an evangelical Christian rock group. Their website describes the band as “tender-hearted, beautiful young women who aren’t afraid to take an aggressive, almost warrior-like stance when it comes to spreading the gospel and serving God.”

After being marched to the theater, about 80 of the soldiers chose not to attend. Among those decliners were both non-Christians and Christians. On returning to their company area, their lot was a lock-down and janitorial exercise normally reserved for those undergoing punishment for misdeeds.

Some of the solders complained to the fort’s Equal Opportunity (EO) program, but were apparently pressured not to file formal grievances and given ostensible reasons why nothing wrong had occurred. One solider claimed that when he requested a non-Christian EO adviser, his then-adviser whispered to him that he was Catholic, not Christian. (Imagine if this had been an Islamic concert and an Islamic adviser had similarly whispered, “I’m Sunni, not Shia.”)

Only a small number of soldiers persisted in their complaints, but ultimately, the circumstances were communicated to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and its founder Mikey Weinstein. The organization has been instrumental in bringing the incident to the public eye and pushing for an Army investigation.

The plot, however, is far more labrynthine than one would initially suppose, because BarlowGirl’s attendance at the concert was actually paid for by…you guessed it…the Department of Defense.

Records indicate that BarlowGirl’s agency was paid $23,000 for the group to perform at Fort Eustis and Fort Lee. While BarlowGirl’s agent (and father of band members) Vince Barlow said he didn’t approve of the coercion involved, they were more than happy to accept taxpayer money for a religious performance.

You can thank Major General James E. Chambers, a born-again Christian, for conceiving of the concert series in 2008. Chambers has been quoted on a military website as saying, “The idea is not to be a proponent for any one religion. It’s to have a mix of different performers with different religious backgrounds.”

Would you care to guess the overwhelming content of the concerts?

MRFF has begun to investigate the Department of Defense’s records to see how much it has spent on promoting religion through these concerts and similar events, which would appear on first blush to be a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The organization has already found one “spiritual fitness” (whatever that might mean) consulting contract for $3.5 million.

At a time when Defense Secretary Robert Gates is pursuing cost-cutting measures across the board, one would hope that unlawful religious concerts might get lopped off the critical functions list.

You may recall that MRFF and Weinstein were a driving force in having Franklin Graham removed from the Pentagon’s National Day of Prayer lineup earlier in the year, because Graham had called Islam a “wicked and evil religion.” That objection branded MRFF and its founder as “anti-Christian” on any number of websites.

But that reading is ironic indeed, as MRFF is not anti-Christian, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic or anti-anything when it comes to religious expression. It is acting to protect our religious values by pushing them out of government-sponsored territory back into the private sector where they belong.

The lessons of Thomas Jefferson should be immutable, and adherence to them represents the underpinning of a free and just society. Here’s hoping that MRFF and others continue to hold our military to constitutional standards, and that disingenuous voices such as that of Major General Chambers retreat and ultimately surrender.