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Mar 13 2013

Religion in the Military — It’s ‘Tradition’

A few years back, Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA) and his Congressional Prayer Caucus made it one of their big issues to protect a “traditional” flag folding ceremony at military funerals. In this ceremony, each of the thirteen folds to fold the flag into a triangle is accompanied by a recitation of a meaning assigned to that fold, several of which are religious — “The second fold is a symbol of our belief in the eternal life,” “The eleventh fold, in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon, and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and “The twelfth fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost.”

In a letter to the Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs, former blue dog congressman and Prayer Caucus member Heath Shuler referred to this religious flag folding ceremony as traditional three times — referring to the scripts for each fold as “the traditional flag-folding recitations,” saying that this “flag-folding recitation is a long-standing tradition,” and asking, “You take a tradition that’s been going on for so long, and because one person doesn’t want to hear ‘God,’ it stops?”

That always seems to be the justification for any government promotion of a religious practice, both in the military and elsewhere: It’s “tradition” — and tradition trumps constitutionality.

But how traditional are practices like this religious flag folding ceremony? Well, often not very. The flag folding ceremony only dates back to the 1980s, where as near as anyone has been able to tell, it was written by an Air Force chaplain, possibly at the Air Force Academy, caught on locally in Nevada for some reason, and was then spread to other parts of the country, mainly by the American Legion, until people began to think it was an official part of folding the flag with deep historical roots — a tradition!

Another military tradition, prayers at official military events, has been getting a lot of attention lately, mainly because of Blake Page, a West Point cadet who decided to resign from the Academy over the issue of being forced to participate in the religious rituals that are part of mandatory events at this government institution.

Back in December, Page wrote his first post on HuffPost, titled “Why I Don’t Want to Be a West Point Graduate,” explaining his decision to leave the Academy. The next day he appeared on HuffPost Live, where he was confronted by another guest, a Republican strategist named Shirley Husar, who told Page that he should never have gone to West Point in the first place. Why? Because, according to Husar, West Point is a “religious institute,” and Page, being non-religious, should have known that he wouldn’t fit in there.

This is what Husar said to Page:

“It looks like this was a really bad marriage for you, like you got in bed with someone and it didn’t work out to well for you. But I don’t understand why you have to go public in such a way. I mean, this is a religious institute and there are people who are Christians who believe in prayer and people need prayer in this country right now.”

 

I subsequently wrote a post about Ms. Husar calling West Point a “religious institute,” and Ms. Husar jumped into the comments on my post to defend her remarks.

Husar’s comments on my post are part of another tradition — the tradition among historical revisionists to, whenever possible, make Thomas Jefferson, the man who coined the phrase “separation between church and state,” responsible for any “traditional” government-promoted religious practice, even if Jefferson had absolutely nothing to do with it.

According to Husar, in her comments on my post:

“Page clearly did not do his homework before entering in West Point. West Point was established by President of the United States Thomas Jefferson who was a man of faith,” and, “West Point religious ways are not an injection into our service academies it is the BLOODLINE that was establish by Thomas Jefferson (one of “The Founding Fathers”) in 1802.”

 

In a post on the Washington Times blog, Husar repeated what she had said about Jefferson in her comments on my post, and ended by saying, “I stand by my statement that West Point is religious.”

Really? Jefferson established a religious “bloodline” at West Point? Of course not. When West Point was established in 1802 it didn’t even have a chaplain. It wasn’t until 1814, twelve years after West Point was founded and five years after Jefferson left the presidency, that the Academy had its first chaplain, and the first chapel wasn’t built until the 1830s.

It was General Joseph G. Swift who was responsible for bringing the first chaplain to West Point. Swift had been the Academy’s very first graduate, and by 1812 had become the Army’s second most senior engineer. When the Chief Engineer of the Army resigned in 1812, Swift was next in line for the position and was appointed Chief Engineer. This also made him the Superintendent of West Point because, in those days, whoever was the Army’s Chief Engineer was also the Superintendent of the Academy.

From its founding in 1802 until the time that Swift took over in 1812, West Point had a reputation not just as a non-religious school, but a place of irreligion. Swift set out to remedy this situation by petitioning the Secretary of War in 1813 for permission to appoint a chaplain, who would also be the professor of geography, history, and ethics. Swift, an Episcopalian, chose his friend and fellow Episcopalian, Rev. Adam Empie, for the position.

Of the first six chaplains at the Academy, all but one were Episcopalians. Why? Well, as Swift wrote of the selection of Chaplain Empie:

“… the selection of an Episcopalian had been made because, aside from my own views, the service of that church was deemed to be the most appropriate to the discipline of a military academy.”(1)

 

This opinion of Episcopalians that Episcopalianism was the “most appropriate” religion, not just for West Point but throughout the military, would play a big role in the most important “tradition” of all — the tradition of service members to protest when religion, and worse yet a particular brand of religion, is shoved down their throats by the military.

Not to digress too much, but back in Swift’s day, just like today, it was often the people whose own morals left a bit to be desired who wanted to push religion on others whose morals they thought needed improving. In 1841, John Quincy Adams, who had returned to the House of Representatives as a congressman after having been president, wrote about his low opinion of Swift in his journal, describing him as “one of the numberless office-hunters blockading the President’s house and all the Executive departments — famished for place,” and explaining why he refused to give him a letter of recommendation:

“Swift’s conduct had been in many respects questionable, and he was involved in dark and suspicious money-jobbing. On the 15th of last month I received a note from this person, requesting me to inform General Harrison that he was ready and willing to serve his country in any suitable office. I took no notice of this. About a fortnight after this, some friend of his took an opportunity in the Senate-chamber to say to me that General Swift wanted a recommendation or certificate of good conduct or character from me; which I declined to give.”(2)

 

Chaplain Empie left West Point after three years, having had little effect on the Academy. He was replaced by a temporary chaplain, another Episcopalian named Cave Jones.

It should be noted here that at this time, there were only four chaplains in the entire Army, and Congress was about to get rid of three of them. In one part of an act of 1818 for reorganizing the Army, Congress got rid of all four of the Army’s chaplains, including Cave Jones. In another part of the same act, however, they officially “created” the position of a chaplain at West Point, who would also be the professor of geography, history, and ethics.

Chaplain Empie’s resignation coincided with (and was likely because of) the appointment of Sylvanus Thayer as Superintendent of the Academy. Thayer, who had attended West point after graduating from Dartmouth college, is considered the “Father of West Point,” transforming the Academy from a school that barely had an academic curriculum and admitted students as young as ten years old into a real college on the level of other colleges and universities.

The chaplain appointed under Thayer was Thomas Picton, the only one of the first six chaplains who wasn’t an Episcopalian. Picton, a Presbyterian, was a qualified professor, but was eventually dismissed not because of anything to do with his abilities as a teacher but because the Academy’s Board of Visitors in 1824, which was dominated by Episcopalians, including former superintendent General Joseph Swift, didn’t like him as a preacher.

Chaplain Picton was also unpopular among the cadets, but any chaplain at this time probably would have been just as unpopular. The real issue among the cadets was that Thayer, upon appointing Picton in 1818, had also made chapel service mandatory. As Herman A. Norton, an Army chaplain and historian, explained:

“A related factor in Picton’s dismissal was student criticism and hostility, which began over an unwelcome innovation at his first service. His initial sermon coincided with the inauguration of compulsory chapel attendance, a practice Superintendent Thayer began in Order 21, issued 21 September 1818. The chapel service was Protestant. No provision was made for either Catholic or Jewish services. Mandatory attendance and lack of worship opportunity for those who were not Protestants fueled controversy, and the chaplain became the object of cadet discontent.”(3)

 

So, as you can see, nearly two hundred years ago, forced religion and a preference for one religion caused “discontent” among the cadets at West Point — just as it does today.

In 1825, after twelve years of having a chaplain, and seven years of mandatory chapel attendance, West Point was just as irreligious as it ever was. When Picton’s replacement, a young Episcopalian minister named Charles McIlvaine, was offered the position by his close personal friend, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, he was warned by others about what he would be walking into if he accepted. As McIlvaine later wrote:

“While considering the question, I was kindly warned by military men residing in Washington — men of religious character, and personally attached to me and my ministry — that I ought to take into account what state of things I should encounter, if I went to West Point; that I should find not only no religious sympathy or fellowship in the institution, but a widespread infidelity among officers and cadets, which however easily a chaplain of easy habits in his ministry might get on with, my sort of preaching would be likely to arouse into most unpleasant opposition.”(4)

 

McIlvaine accepted the position, and found that the warnings from his friends in Washington about the lack of interest in religion at West Point had been accurate. Describing his arrival at the Academy, he wrote:

“My reception at the Academy was kind and friendly, such as became gentlemen. No hindrances were designedly thrown in the way of my ministry; but there was a most chilling want of any manifestation of sympathy with the Gospel, except on the part of three or four ladies, who were in communion with the Church of Christ — two of them Episcopalians. … So far as I could ascertain then, or afterwards, the prevalence of infidelity, was, as I had been told in Washington I should find it. This was especially the case among the junior officers and those most nearly connected with the cadets, who had charge of the police, and personal behaviour of members of the corps.”(5)

 

Yes, this was the real religious climate at West Point in 1825 — twenty-three years into that religious “bloodline” that Shirley Husar claims was established there by Thomas Jefferson in 1802.

McIlvaine wrote that he had no success at all in his entire first year, even considering being mocked and insulted to be better than indifference. But things turned around in his second year, when one very popular cadet decided to become a Christian and came to talk to him. A good number of other cadets and a few officers followed the lead of that first cadet, and McIlvaine began to hold prayer meetings twice a week for his new converts. The first cadet who had started the ball rolling ended up becoming a minister and eventually a bishop in the Episcopalian Church; another who went on to become a minister also went on to become a future chaplain at West Point. According to an 1843 article in the Southern Literary Messenger, between ten and twelve of McIlvaine’s convert cadets went on the become ministers.(6) It’s little wonder that, according to Herman A. Norton, in his history of the early years of the Army chaplaincy, said that McIlvaine “was accused of trying to transform a military academy into a seminary.”(7)

McIlvaine was at West Point for less than two years. Accounts of why he left vary, some saying that it was entirely voluntary and simply because McIlvaine wanted to be a full-time minister rather than part minister and part professor, but others attribute his departure to an incident in the fall of 1827 in which he decided to take a stand against the Academy’s practice of holding military parades and inspections on Sundays. According to an 1835 article in The Christian Examiner and General Review about the “almost entire destitution of religious instruction and influence” of religion in the military:

“We would not have it forgotten, till such abuses be remedied, that the present bishop of Ohio, when chaplain at West Point, remonstrated in vain against the military entree of the Inspector on the Sabbath, and, immediately after the unholy parade, the roll of drums, and roar of artillery, took for his text, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy’; and that the chaplain’s dismissal or resignation was so nearly consequent upon this act of moral courage, as fully to authorize the supposition, that they stood in the relation of cause and effect.”(8)

 

The religious revival that occurred during the second year of McIlvaine’s chaplaincy didn’t last long. After he left the Academy at the end of 1827, things returned to their prior state.

According to an 1843 article in the Southern Literary Messenger:

“But is it not a fact, that Bishop McIlvaine was opposed by the government of the institution, and the argument urged that West Point was intended for a ‘military not a theological school?’ Is it not a fact, that from 1828 to 1838 neither chaplain nor professors exercised an influence in favor of religion?”(9)

 

The period from 1828 to 1838 singled out in this article refers to the chaplaincy of Thomas Warner, the chaplain who replaced McIlvaine. Warner, another Episcopalian, was known to have a bit of an anger management problem and for sticking his nose in where it didn’t belong. He was forced to resign in 1838 after being placed under arrest and jailed for three weeks for disregarding the Academy’s command structure and regulations and verbally attacking the superintendent.

As you can see, in the early days of West Point, the command opposed chaplains who tried to “transform a military academy into a seminary.” Compare that to today’s military academies, where commanders support military parachurch ministries who have stated goals of transforming the military into a force of “government-paid missionaries for Christ” and “Ambassadors for Christ in uniform.”

The chaplaincy of Thomas Warner brings us up to 1838 in the religious history of West Point, which I think is far enough to disprove Shirley Husar’s ridiculous claim that what Thomas Jefferson founded in 1802 was a “religious institute.” The more important thing I want to get to here is the tradition of service members objecting to and protesting any kind of forced religion. While opponents of religious freedom like to claim that such objections are a recent phenomenon, nothing could be further from the truth.

A great example comes from 1843, when a Catholic Army officer named John Paul Jones O’Brien decided to take a stand for himself and his men. O’Brien, an 1836 graduate of West Point who went on to serve as an officer in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War, was threatened with court-martial when he disobeyed orders by refusing to attend Protestant religious services and refusing to force the Catholic soldiers in his company to attend them.

O’Brien, then a lieutenant, stood up to his superiors, citing the Constitution as his defense. The charges against him were eventually dropped, but this wasn’t the end of O’Brien’s “activism.” A few years later, O’Brien, who had an interest in military law, wrote a book titled A Treatise on American Military Laws, and the Practice of Courts Martial; with Suggestions for Their Improvement. In this book, which covered all of the military laws and court-martial procedures, O’Brien included a chapter presenting an extensive constitutional argument against any form of mandatory religion in the military.

I highly recommend reading Lieutenant O’Brien’s entire argument, beginning on page 57 of his book, which can be on Google Books, but for the purposes of this piece I want to focus on one part that is particularly relevant to some of the recent and current cases being seen by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) — O’Brien’s argument that merely being required to be present at a religious service is a violation of a service member’s constitutional rights, even if the service member is not required to actively participate.

Lieutenant O’Brien used as his example an aspect of the situation that he was nearly court-martialed over in 1843 — being ordered to be present a worship service simply to supervise and keep order among the soldiers who did voluntarily choose to attend that service. O’Brien was not required to participate in that religious service. He was merely required to be there. As O’Brien explained, just having to be there was just as much a violation of the First Amendment as being required to participate (emphasis mine):

“An established religion is a religion to which persons are legally compelled outwardly to conform. This conformity may be required to be exhibited simply by attendance at a particular form of divine worship, at such times, and under such circumstances, as the law may ordain, any law which should require a single individual at any time or in any place, to attend a divine service, would, to all intents and purposes, be a law establishing a religion for that individual for that particular time and in that particular place. It would, therefore, even if there were no clause concerning the free exercise of religion, be as unconstitutional, null and void as if it established a religion for all persons at all times, and in all places.

“If an individual cannot be rightfully ordered to attend divine service, per se, how can it be contended that this act, unconstitutional in itself, becomes perfectly right and proper, if done from a certain motive and with a certain intention? In what part of the constitution is this doctrine to be found? Where, in that instrument, conservative of equal rights, is it stated that an officer has fewer constitutional rights than a soldier? Yet it is asserted that a soldier may not be sent to church, but that an officer may be ordered there to command him. The constitution, like other laws, deals with acts and with acts only. It cares not for the intention which, in truth, can be known only to the Deity and is beyond human legislation. The intent may form an excuse for the one who gives an illegal order, but it does not, in any way, make that order the less void and ineffective.”(10)

 

O’Brien explained how this violated not only the First Amendment, but the Constitution’s “no religious test” clause:

“The sixth article of this instrument declares, that ‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust under the United States.’ A religious test is the requiring any act to be done, or any article of belief to be asserted or derived, as a condition of office, which act or assertion is in violation of the trusts of one or more religious creeds. If the religion of any individual requires him to abstain from attendance at any particular form of divine service, and it is made by law a part of his official duty to be present thereat, such law imposes a religious test on this person, and virtually excludes him from office on account of his religious belief.”(11)

 

Again, Lieutenant O’Brien, by saying “asserted or derived,” includes being required as part of an official duty to merely have to listen to an article of faith in what constitutes a violation of the Constitution’s “no religious test” clause. When MRFF and its clients say this today, we are labeled enemies of religion and accused of trying to undermine centuries of military religious tradition, but, as you can see, what we are saying is exactly what this Catholic Army officer said nearly 180 years ago.

O’Brien continued his argument against the notion that as long as no participation was required, there was no violation of the liberty of conscience:

“It is asserted that liberty of conscience is not violated, because the officer may or may not, as he pleases, take part in the divine service at which he is present. This is not so; for, with several denominations, the mere act of being present is a violation of religious duty. But independently of this unanswerable fact, does the liberty of conscience, guarantied by the constitution, mean nothing more than a liberty of thought and inward feeling? If so, it is a useless incumbrance, a visionary addition to our bill of rights. Under the most despotic government in the world, thought is, and ever must be free. It is beyond the control of man. It is as ridiculous to attempt to confer on it a freedom, which is its inherent essence, as it would be to confer, by special charter, the privilege of giving light and heat to the glorious and resplendent sun. The framers of our constitution were guilty of no such absurdity. By liberty of conscience and the free exercise of religion, they did not mean a mere liberty of thought and feeling.”(12)

 

So, what would Lieutenant O’Brien (West Point class of 1836) have thought of Blake Page’s decision to resign from West Point over being forced to repeatedly listen to prayers at mandatory military events? Would O’Brien have agreed with Shirley Husar and Page’s other critics? It doesn’t seem likely. O’Brien, who was willing to face court-martial to take a stand for his own religious liberty, wrote that “if an officer’s conscientious scruples prevent him from doing any military duty when ordered, he should forthwith resign.”(13)

Attending mandatory events at which prayers are said was Page’s military duty as a cadet at West Point, and his conscientious scruples prevented him from being able to continue to attend these events, so he forthwith resigned, just as Lieutenant O’Brien said an officer was bound to do.

An even more direct corollary can be drawn between Lieutenant O’Brien’s example of an officer being required to be present at a church service to supervise his soldiers and the case of Staff Sergeant Victoria Gettman, an instructor at Fort Sam Houston. Last September, Gettman’s unit was required to attend a suicide prevention training event. This training event was turned into a prayer service — candles were passed out, the lights were dimmed, and the students, heads bowed, were led in a mass prayer by a chaplain. Not only were the rights of the students violated by not being given opportunity to leave before this part of the “training” began; the rights of Staff Sergeant Gettman were also violated. Although Gettman was able to move to a doorway and did not participate in the prayer service, she still had to hear to it, just as the officers in Lieutenant O’Brien’s example were forced to listen to church services even if they were only there to supervise the soldiers.

Another example of the tradition of service members objecting to mandatory religion comes from the Navy in 1858.

An act passed by Congress in 1800, which was still in force in 1858, had made attendance at religious services on naval vessels mandatory, saying:

“Art. II. The commanders of all ships and vessels in the navy, having chaplains on board, shall take care that divine service be performed in a solemn, orderly, and reverent manner twice a day, and a sermon be preached on Sunday, unless bad weather, or extraordinary accidents prevent it; and that they cause all, or as many of the ship’s company as can be spared from duty, to attend at every performance of worship of Almighty God.”(14)

 

In 1858, a group of Navy officers decided to protest these mandatory religious services, petitioning Congress to amend the act of 1800 to make religious services optional:

“By Mr. Kelly: The memorial of officers of the navy of the United States, praying that the act of Congress passed April 23, 1800, compelling commanders of all ships or vessels in the navy, having chaplains on board, to take care that Divine service is performed twice a day, be so amended as to read that the commanders or captains invite all to attend; which was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.”(15)

 

History revisionists like to claim that Thomas Jefferson was responsible for this regulation, following that tradition of making Jefferson responsible for mixings of government and religion that he had nothing to do with.

Disgraced former Navy chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt, in a recent article on onenewsnow.com about the fight to remove prayers from mandatory military events at West Point, was quoted as saying of the separation of church and state:

“That’s not in the Constitution, and it doesn’t mean to limit military prayers. … The easiest way to prove that is that in 1802, Thomas Jefferson himself personally signed the Navy regulations, ordering chaplains to lead prayers on Navy ships.”

Prayers on naval vessels were not Jefferson’s doing. The act of Congress making prayers and attendance at religious services on naval vessels mandatory was passed in 1800, during the much more religious Adams administration. What Jefferson did in 1802 was add the duties of schoolmaster to the job of Navy chaplain (which didn’t go over too well with the religious folk, who saw this as a way to leave chaplains with little time to preach). The 1802 regulations signed by Jefferson did say that prayers would be said “at stated periods,” meaning what was in the act of 1800, but the 1802 regulations were not an act of Congress, and could not change or repeal the part of that act making religious services mandatory, so that remained in force.

The petition of the naval officers came during a time when a widespread campaign to abolish not just the military chaplaincy but all government chaplains had been going on for nearly a decade. In the late 1840s, a large part of the general public, including many churches and religious organizations, began objecting to government-paid chaplains on both financial and constitutional grounds. Between 1849 and 1859, hundreds of petitions signed by thousands of people calling for the complete abolition of all government chaplains poured into Congress (a list of petitions received in the House of Representatives can be found in this post I wrote back in 2009).

Among religious groups and military members there was also another reason to protest government-paid chaplains — the domination of the chaplaincy by Episcopalians.

As Rev. William Anderson Scott, one of the most prominent Presbyterian ministers of his day, wrote in 1859:

“Thus far, almost all such appointments have been made from one of the smallest denominations in the country, and that, too, against the religious preferences of nine-tenths of the men in the army and navy. I do not profess here to speak with mathematical accuracy, but I believe I am very nearly correct. Is this right? Is it constitutional for the Federal Government to give such a preference to one of the smallest churches in the land? Is it constitutional to take the public money to pay a chaplain for religious services that are not acceptable to a majority of the rank and file of the army? I do not think so. If the majority of a regiment, or of the men on board a man-of-war, should elect a chaplain, then, possibly, the Government might make an appropriation to pay him, though I doubt whether this is constitutional, and I do not believe it the best way. I believe that the supplying of religious consolations to the members of our Legislature, and to the officers and men of our army and navy, according to our organic laws, should be left to themselves, just as it is to our merchant ships and to our frontier settlements — that is, to their own voluntary support.”(16)

 

The following might sound familiar — a military chaplain asking Congress to protect the religious freedom of chaplains:

“Mr. Hamlin presented the memorial of Joseph Stockbridge, a chaplain in the navy, praying the enactment of a law to protect chaplains in the performance of divine service on shipboard, according to the practices and customs of the churches of which they may be members, which was referred to the Committee on Naval Affairs.”(17)

 

That was written in 1858 — and it wasn’t plea for the protection of Congress from some imaginary problem like we hear about today from certain chaplains, legislators, and other alarmists when they claim that allowing gays to serve openly in the military means that chaplains will be forced to perform gay marriages against their beliefs. No chaplain today is required to do anything that goes against their beliefs, but in the 1800s they actually were. Non-Episcopalian chaplains were required to perform services of the government’s preferred religion — Episcopalianism.

But, despite the complaints, the problem of Episcopalians dominating the military chaplaincy continued. This is from a report of the General Conference of the Methodist Church in 1868:

“Twenty-three years have elapsed since the establishment of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. During eighteen years of the time, chaplains, representing the Protestant Episcopal clergy, have had the exclusive religious training of the successive classes. The Presbyterians and Congregationalists were represented for five years, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, a Church which gave more men to the nation during its years of peril than any other, was represented just three weeks! A Methodist minister was appointed, but his appointment was the occasion for earnest efforts for his displacement — efforts which, we are sorry to state, were but too successful; and Rev. C. A. Davis, a man of God, possessed of fine pulpit abilities, pastoral energy, personal popularity, and peculiar adaptation to the work, was retired from the place before he had entered upon his official duties, and his place supplied by a clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The same is true of the appointments to West Point, and in the regular army.”(18)

 

As the Methodists also pointed out in their report, the Episcopalians, although the smallest denomination and one that, if proportionally represented in the military chaplaincy should have had only one chaplain, had more chaplains than all of the much larger denominations combined. So, here we have another military religious “tradition” — a disproportionate number of chaplains from the military’s preferred denomination. In the 1800s it was the Episcopalians; today it’s fundamentalists and dominionists. And, also just like the 1800s, this is not an issue of atheists vs. believers. 96% of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s clients are Christians — Catholics and mainline Protestants who aren’t considered by the fundamentalists to be “real” Christians or Christian enough.

Moving into the early 1900s, we still have mandatory chapel attendance at West Point, something that had been causing dissent among the cadets since it was first introduced in 1818. We also have the chapel at West Point being built. West Point had no chapel at all until the 1830s, with services taking place in the basement of one of the other buildings (guess Jefferson overlooked a chapel when creating his “religious institute”), and construction on the present chapel wasn’t approved until 1906, with construction beginning in 1909.

This was a time of contradiction at West Point. The explanation given for the selection of the location of the chapel was: “to remove the Chapel for [sic] the immediate vicinity of the Academic buildings,” and one of the proposed sites was dismissed because “it seemed to give to the building too great prominence for a military institution.”(19) So, West Point was careful not to give the chapel too much prominence, and yet chapel attendance was still mandatory.

It was at this time that one West Point cadet attempted to get mandatory chapel attendance abolished, writing a letter that was published in the Army and Navy Journal in 1907, and trying (unsuccessfully) to get the paper to take up the cause.(20)

So, as you can see from all of this, what we essentially have here are two competing traditions — the tradition of service members objecting to religion being forced upon them, and the tradition of the military justifying the forcing of religion on service members by claiming it’s tradition.

A few months ago, Blake Page and I sat down to talk about “tradition.” This was after Page was on HuffPost Live, where he heard about “tradition” from Shirley Husar, and also shortly after he had received the results of the investigation into his EO complaint at West Point, which determined that prayers at mandatory military events at the Academy were a “long-standing tradition.”

 

1. James Sprunt Historical Monograph No. 4, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 1908), 118.
2. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, vol. 10, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1876), 447.
3. Herman A. Norton, Struggling for Recognition: The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1791-1865, (Washington D.C.: Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Department of the Army, 1977), 28-29.
4. William Carus, ed., Memorials of the Right Reverend Charles Pettit McIlvaine, (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1882), 20.
5. Ibid., 24-25.
6. “United States Military Academy,” Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. 9, No. 11, November 1843, 670.
7. Herman A. Norton, Struggling for Recognition: The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1791-1865, (Washington D.C.: Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Department of the Army, 1977), 30.
8. The Christian Examiner and General Review, vol. 18, (Boston: Charles Bowen, 1835), 384.
9. “United States Military Academy,” Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. 9, No. 11, November 1843, 670.
10. John Paul Jones O’Brien, A Treatise on American Military Laws, and the Practice of Courts Martial; with Suggestions for Their Improvement, (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1846), 64.
11. Ibid., 60.
12. Ibid., 63.
13. Ibid., 64.
14. Richard Peters, ed., Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, vol. 2, (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1845), 45.
15. Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, vol. 54, 35th Cong., 1st Sess., (Washington: James B. Steedman, 1857 [sic]), 792.
16. Rev. W.A. Scott, D.D., The Bible and Politics: Or, An Humble Plea for Equal, Perfect, Absolute Religious Freedom, and Against All Sectarianism in Our Public Schools, (San Francisco: H.H. Bancroft & Co., 1859), 78.
17. Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, vol. 50, 35th Cong., 2nd Sess., (Washington D.C.: William A. Harris, 1858-59), 53.
18. Rev. William L. Harris, ed., Journal of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Held in Chicago, Ill., 1868, (New York: Carlton & Lanahan, 1868), 631.
19. Survey number HABS No. NY-5708-20, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.
20. Army and Navy Journal, February 9, 1907, 653.

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  1. 1
    otrame

    Chris, that is some great history. Posts like this one are an important source of information for those of us who fight this particular fight “in the trenches,” with friends and relations, good-hearted honest folks who have been lied to so successfully. You make it easier to show them the lies.

    And that is a very good thing.

    Thank you.

  2. 2
    Matt G

    And crosses on graves are not symbols of Christianity, but of mourning, right…?

  3. 3
    Michael

    I was on the Honor Guard at Holloman AFB for a year during which I performed 23 funerals. At no time was there ever any talk about religious symbolism in the folding of the flag. Additionally, there was no “13 folds” of the flag. The only thing we did when folding the flag was to get it as tight as possible and with a display face of stars aligned properly. After that, three casings from the blanks we fired from the firing party were inserted into the flag.

    I take great pride in the service I provided to the families of the deceased. There was never a religious component of the service we rendered.

    It is insulting that these idiots try to shoehorn their religious beliefs into the funeral honors given to vets. As a vet myself now, if any moron tried that at my funeral, well… I would have to rise from the grave and slap them silly.

  4. 4
    redmann

    DAM YUR EYES CHRIS PHODDA USING THEM LIBRUL LOVIN’, GODLESS, DEVIL SPAWND FACTS AGAINST US GOD FERIN, JESUS LOVIN’, REEL AMURICNS!!!11!!! ALL THAT DARND REESERCH OF URS IS AGINST GOD AND THE WHOLY BIBEL!!!!11

    Wow, channeling those people sure does hurt. As always great work.

  5. 5
    weatherwax

    When I hear about religious traditions in the US military I always think about the San Patricios. Way back in the 1800′s most of the US Army soldiers were Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany, but the majority of the officer corp were wealthy protestant southerners. At that point in time, anti-Catholic prejudice was strong, and Catholic soldiers were frequently not permitted to attend mass, and punished more harshly than protestant soldiers for similar offences.

    The result of this treatment was a major embarrassment for the US Army when the US went to war with Mexico in 1846. Not only did it face the highest rate of dissertion in any war, but a large group actually joined the Mexican Army and fought against the US, forming the Batallón de San Patricio.

    The US Army denied the entire event until the early 1900′s, but had enough sense to stop denying soldiers access to religiious services of their choice.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick's_Battalion

  6. 6
    Mike Morrison

    “It’s traditional.” And yet, these people are somehow “patriotic.” One piece of irony you seem to miss in all of this:

    Supposing the argument of the dominionists and revisionists is true, that religion in our military is a “tradition,” and therefore, we should allow it. Well, The VERY FOUNDING of our nation was NON-TRADITIONAL. The descent of kings, particularly in England, France, and Spain, dates back nearly millennia from 1776! That is a much longer-standing “tradition” than any religious organization in the United States. Indeed, the tradition of kings and queens had a much longer history than the entire history of the USA. Supposing that “tradition makes right,” then why are these people so patriotic, and not loyal to a king or a queen?

    Slavery, too, was a long-standing tradition. Why are not these people supporting the idea of slavery? War is also a long-standing tradition; the longest tradition of all. Is war “ok” as well?

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