There is an article in yesterday’s New York Times entitled “The God Glut,” which looks at the way the word ‘god’ and all its associates find so much play in American public life. In that article, by Frank Bruni, we are told of a young man at West Point who packed his bags a few months before graduation, and left in disgust because of the way religion, and especially Christianity, is favoured at this most prestigious of military colleges. That young man has written a Huffington Post article to explain why he should have done such an apparently foolhardy thing. Entitled “Why I don’t want to be a West Point Graduate,” Blake Page explains why he decided to pack his bags and leave:
the tipping point of my decision to resign was the realization that countless officers here and throughout the military are guilty of blatantly violating the oaths they swore to defend the Constitution.
And then he gives us a glimpse into what he means by quoting from his letter of resignation:
I do not wish to be in any way associated with an institution which willfully disregards the Constitution of the United States of America by enforcing policies which run counter to the same. Examples of these policies include mandatory prayer, the maintenance of the 3rd Regiment Shield [with its Crusader imagery], awarding extra passes to Plebes who take part in religious retreats and chapel choirs, as well as informal policies such as the open disrespect of non-religious new cadets and incentivizing participation in religious activities through the chain of command.
In other words, despite the constitution, which mandates a separation of church and state, the premier institution for the education of American military officers allows its staff to show favouritism towards cadets who participate in religious activities, to the disadvantage of those who do not.
There have been several news stories over the last few years about the heavy religious tone of many of America’s armed services, and how opportunities for advancement often depend upon active participation in Christian evangelicalism. One study, by Michael Lindsay, of Rice University, discusses not only the prevalence of evangelical Christianity in the American military, but considers how participation in the military has become an important route for social mobility and influence amongst evangelicals. Indeed, though numbers of chaplains in the American military is supposed to reflect the religious demography of the country itself, over the last few decades evangelical Christianity has been disproportionately represented. The National Association of Evangelicals has identified the American military as ripe for evangelisation, and has worked assiduously to make sure that evangelical chaplains were appointed in larger numbers. According to one article, on AlterNet, authored by Michael L. Weinstein and Davin Seay (authors of With God On Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military):
The most effective wedge for the insertion of evangelicals into every rung of military life was the NAE and its influential chaplain-endorsing agency, the Commission on Chaplains, which worked tirelessly as a liaison for a wide array of fundamentalist denominations, from the Assemblies of God to the Southern Baptist Convention to the full index of offshoot and splinter congregations. Notwithstanding the military’s policy of allotting chaplaincies on a quota system designed to roughly reflect the religious affiliations of society as a whole, by the late ’60s evangelical denominations were regularly exceeding their allotments.
In other words, over several decades the process of Christianising the American military has been quite deliberately carried out as a missionary endeavour by evangelical Christians.
The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has been accused of permitting improper proselytising on campus. In September 2011, the USAF Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, decreed that religious instruction should be confined to chaplains. House Representatives immediately objected that the freedom of religion of other staff at the Academy was being violated. Schwartz’s restrictions were later relaxed, on the principle that encouragement to attend a religious function which is specifically declared not to be an order should be permitted. The trouble with this, according to a former faculty member at the Academy, David Mullen, is that there is a fuzzy line in the military between encouragement and orders, especially if one’s absence is noted and harm to one’s later prospects for promotion are likely to be affected (see Air Force Academy: Proselytizing And Religious Freedom Debate On School Campus).
The problem is not small, as the following from Frank Bruni’s article indicates:
Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate who presides over an advocacy group called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told me that more than 30,000 members of the United States military have been in contact with his organization because of concerns about zealotry in their ranks.
Of that 30,000, 150 attend or work at West Point. While religious zealotry did not affect my short time in the Royal Canadian Navy, the fact remains that chaplains were in evidence at major events, such as morning “Divisions” during training, where, before military proceedings got underway, there was always a short, often nationalistic prayer, said by a chaplain on duty. And when I participated in Sea Cadet summer training camps several years later as a chaplain, religious instruction was a required part of the programme. I do not know to what extent Canadian forces are infected by the Christianising tendency that seems so prominent in the US military, but that religion plays a role in soldiering practically everywhere is undoubted. Giving one’s life for one’s country may be dulce et decorum: some may feel the need for more “sublime motivations”.
Frank Bruni points out that God is not only a potent presence in the military; he is also present in practically every other dimension of American public life:
God’s initial absence from the Democratic Party platform last summer stirred more outrage among Americans than the slaughter in Syria will ever provoke.
God’s wishes are cited in efforts to deny abortions to raped women and civil marriages to same-sex couples. In our country God doesn’t merely have a place at the table. He or She is the host of the prayer-heavy dinner party.
And there’s too little acknowledgment that God isn’t just a potent engine of altruism, mercy and solace, but also, in instances, a divisive, repressive instrument; that godliness isn’t any prerequisite for patriotism; and that someone like Page deserves as much respect as any true believer.
The linked words ‘initial absence’ will take you to a news report in which we are told:
Needled by Mitt Romney and other Republicans, Democrats hurriedly rewrote their convention platform Wednesday to add a mention of God and declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel after President Barack Obama intervened to order the changes.
Yet the separation of church and state is one of the key features of the American constitution. If leaving out the invocation of God from the party platform might spell a party’s doom on election day, is the constitution, which presidents swear to uphold, really being honoured? It seems that the Freedom from Religion Foundation has its work cut out for it. And despite the constantly reiterated refrain at this time of year that Christianity is under threat, because attacked from all quarters for its zealous endeavours to place Christmas crèches on public land — which, of course, it knows will prompt a response – religion undoubtedly is playing an increasingly large part in American public life. It is interesting to reflect that fifty years ago President Kennedy had to convince voters that he would not be influenced by the Vatican, and Barry Goldwater in 1988 opposed Pat Robertson’s bid for the presidency because Robertson did not believe in the separation of church and state. Much has changed since then.
Let me just add to Frank Bruni’s list of things at which God’s presence is being felt — such as women’s reproductive decisions and same-sex marriage — the fact that God’s will is always implicitly there whenever someone asks for help to die, or when this issue comes up for discussion. Even the secular arguments that are used are a cover for the religious sanctity of life doctrine which is what really underlies religious opposition to assisted dying. Western society is deeply invested in belief in God. Though perhaps spoken of only sotto voce in Scandinavia, in most other countries in Europe God still puts in a powerful appearance in public life.
I often think of Michel Onfray when remarking on this, because one of the advantages of Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto is that he is more conscious of the role that religion plays in practically every aspect of our cultural lives, even when we may suspect it least. Our laws, our social etiquette, the position of women, some fundamental assumptions which underlie our sense of propriety are deeply influenced (not always for the worse, of course) by religious presuppositions. As Onfray points out,
[t]here is nothing in French jurisprudence that fundamentally contradicts the prescriptions of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church. The absence of a cross in the courtroom [or the Ten Commandments, one might add] does not guarantee a judiciary that is independent with respect to the dominant religion. 
So the denial of God is not enough, if it does not lead us to a post-Christian ethic in which Christian assumptions are no longer embedded. The Archbishop of Canterbury gets up on his hind legs and deplores the suggestion that same-sex couples should be allowed to exchange vows of love and fidelity and consider themselves married. The Archbishop of Westminster applauds. And few seem to notice that what these two men think is strictly irrelevant to law in a secular society, which should accommodate all religions and none, and where no religion is, in itself, deserving of special recognition or respect. Again, it is necessary to point out that religions are voluntary organisations. It does not matter that the beliefs which many hold were laid down early in their lives so that they seem to have the same persuasiveness, and often more, than the conclusions of science. Religious beliefs should have no role to play in public life, and certainly not in the military arms of our governments. Indeed, the religiosity so prominent in the American military is directly contrary to the democratic values which the United States would like to export to other lands, a project which is not only quixotic, but is also contradicted by military forces in which religion plays so prominent a role. Given this predominance, it will be hard to think of the American military as anything other than a Christian army, a perception which must make its task much harder when so many of its opponents are of another religious persuasion altogether. Given that fact, one would have though that men like Blake Page would be esteemed, because their primary loyalty is to the country they promise to serve, whose constitution they will swear to uphold.
I have just realised that this matter has been taken up also by Justin Griffith, over at FreeThoughtBlogs, so I refer you to his helpful discussion of the issues. He has a great deal more information on laws, regulations, etc., pertinent to Blake Page’s concerns, including a fuzzy picture of the 34d Regiment shield referred to. Religious people often claim that religion is not in itself a cause of violence, yet it is hard to square this claim with the evangelical Christian fervour of many members of the American military.