Separation of church and state has once again come under challenge in the United States with a Christian music concert scheduled to take place on a U.S. military base. Perhaps the most important question raised in the debate over the military’s actions is whether or not holding the concert violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The proposed concert, “Rock the Fort”, is to be held at Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina (perhaps a good choice of location for those wishing to weasel religion into government). It is also being sponsored by the right-wing, fundamentalist Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which made an unequivocal statement as to the concert’s evangelical agenda: on its Web site, the organization said the concert would serve as a “clear presentation of the Christian Gospel”. In response to the proposed concert, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a letter to U.S. military officials warning that the concert would constitute a form of proselytizing on government property, and would therefore violate the nation’s constitution. Col. David Hillis, a Fort Bragg chaplain, even went so far as to send an invitation to local churches to help organize the event.
Defenders of the concert argue that holding a Christian concert on a military base does not necessarily violate the proscription against government establishment of religion. Graham’s organization said in a promotional publication, “[a]ttendees will have an opportunity to respond to the Gospel Evangelistic message, be encouraged by Fort Bragg Chaplains [sic] and trained counselors from off post Churches and on post Chapels, and then be offered ongoing Biblical Spiritual Resiliency training at our military chapels and local churches”; meanwhile, Hillis maintained that attendance of the concert is voluntary, that it complies with military protocol, and that he would help organize religious events proposed by other faiths as well, and not just the Christian one.
Critics, including those with Americans United, maintain that the event clearly shows a preference for Christianity over other religions, and a blatant attempt to convert military personnel by exploiting a government platform. Perhaps ironically, one of the most vocal critics is himself a member of the clergy (which is not so strange for ministers of online churches such as Universal Life Church Monastery, which defends both freedom of and from religion). “It’s not the Army’s job to convert people to Christianity”, said the Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United. “This event is totally unacceptable and must be cancelled.”
Both sides seem to have some good points. On one hand, if it is truly the intent of Hillis to accommodate all religious events on military property, and if attendance at such events is voluntary, the government, one might argue, cannot be said to be promoting a single state religion over another, and thus the constitution is not being violated. (The U.S. military has demonstrated some effort in accommodating all religions, as when the Air Force accommodated pagans with their own place of worship.) On the other hand, Hillis’s claim of religious neutrality might be disingenuous, and the growing infiltration of Christianity into military events might constitute a slippery slope toward outright biased religious endorsement. For example, hypothetically speaking the military could compel its personnel to attend religious services, but not to participate in the liturgy, and thus claim it is not forcing religion on its personnel. But when this becomes routine, it could conceivably go a step further and actually compel personnel to participate in the service, but not to believe what they are being preached, claiming that church-state separation is still in place. But this does not change the fact that religion is still being forced on personnel on some level. Where does religious accommodation end and religious imposition begin?
As always, we invite our ministers to share their point of view on the matter. Is the United States military violating the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state by holding on military property a Christian rock concert with the clear aim of promoting a particular theology or religious viewpoint? Should the problem be resolved by banning all religious events on military property?