Published April 30, 2008
You often hear that we are a "Christian nation." While the majority of the population polled may self-identify as Christians by religion, the fact remains—and here I draw from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis—that the United States is "the first wholly secular state." In his new book American Creation, Ellis cites its secular nature as one of "five core achievements" in its founding:
Before the American Revolution it was broadly assumed that shared religious convictions were the primary basis for the common values that linked together the people of any political community, indeed the ideological glue that made any sense of community possible. By insisting on the complete separation of church and state, the founders successfully overturned this long-standing presumption.
It was especially troubling, then, to read the New York Times article this week about soldier Jeremy Hall, who has had to sue the army for threats against him from fellow soldiers and officers.
When Specialist Jeremy Hall held a meeting last July for atheists and freethinkers at Camp Speicher in Iraq, he was excited, he said, to see an officer attending.
But minutes into the talk, the officer, Maj. Freddy J. Welborn, began to berate Specialist Hall and another soldier about atheism, Specialist Hall wrote in a sworn statement. “People like you are not holding up the Constitution and are going against what the founding fathers, who were Christians, wanted for America!” Major Welborn said, according to the statement.
Our democratic republic was a child of the Enlightenment, not the Reformation. Though the founding fathers were not all one thing or another, if there was a majority belief it would have to be deism, which rejects a supernatural or revelatory God, relying instead on reason and personal experience to reveal the nature of God (alternately referred to as Fate or Providence).
It is this kind of misconception that led to President Bush's infamous offhand response during a press conference shortly after 9/11 that "this war on terrorism" is a "crusade." From the Commander-in-Chief down through the ranks, there is a belief in the military that we are a country anointed by God to go into the world and do battle with the forces of evil. That's a powerful weapon and a dangerous ego trip. It can lead to precipitous and ill-considered decisions like the one to invade Iraq, driven by arrogance and bluster. It can lead to diplomatic aggravations, like the unnecessary "Axis of Evil" brand.
Most frustratingly, it creates an environment of intolerance for those of other (or no) beliefs, be they fellow soldiers or civilians. If a non-Christian soldier comrade is treated like this, how are Muslim civilians treated by these Christian soldiers?
The New York Times article goes on to quote Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez to say that the military has regulations respecting, "the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs." However, it's clear some have not gotten the message. Though Specialist Hall has returned from Iraq and is with another unit, at Fort Riley, Kansas, a sergeant there threatened to "bust him in the mouth." "Another sergeant allegedly told Specialist Hall that as an atheist, he was not entitled to religious freedom because he had no religion."
Onward, Christian soldiers.