Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mandating Christ at Ft. Eustis

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Some of my best memories of four years of active duty in the military center on and around Ft. Eustis, Virginia.  The small base, located just outside of Williamsburg and a short drive from Virginia Beach, is home to the Army’s Transportation Center.  I was there for the Transportation Officer's Basic Course in 1971, and returned a couple of years later where I served as the executive officer of a Marine Maintenance Company and a Group Re-Enlistment Officer.  Virginia was friendly and beautiful, and it offered so much for this former history major to see and do. 

I was saddened last year to hear that Ft. Eustis is being phased out as a free-standing military base with its Transportation training function going to Ft. Lee, Virginia.   (Ft. Lee has long housed the Army’s Quartermaster School.)  This week I was extremely disappointed to read about the religious controversy that is rocking Ft. Eustis and Ft. Lee.  It is a situation that has apparently been in the making for some time, and has seemingly blossomed into a full crisis after several years of military brass turning a blind eye to what has been occurring at these two important Army bases.

According to news reports, a group of eighty soldiers were punished last May for refusing to attend an evangelical Christian concert that was presented at Ft. Eustis as a part of “The Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness “concert series.  Those reports indicate that the concerts were begun by Major General James E. Cunningham while he was the CG at Ft. Eustis.  Chambers, who states that he was reborn as a Christian at the age of sixteen, later became the CG at Ft. Lee and expanded his spiritual brainchild to that base as well.

On May 13th of this year a Christian rock concert was held at the Jacobs Theater on Ft. Eustis as a part of the Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness series.  The feature act was three sisters who bill themselves as BarlowGirl.   Shortly after the concert, a complaint was filed with the Army’s Equal Opportunity Office and with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) alleging that a group of eighty soldiers were punished when they chose not to attend the concert – after being marched in formation, after a day’s hard work, to the theater for the show.  The group was supposedly marched back to their barracks after they declined to attend the show, locked-down in the barracks, and told they were to spend the time performing personal maintenance and were not to sit, sleep, use their cell phones or laptop computers, or play electronic games during this “maintenance” time.

Of course, there are a couple of big problems with what is alleged to have happened at Ft. Eustis.  First of all, this is America and religion cannot be forced down anyone’s throat – no matter how much some fundamentalists would wish that were not so.  (Suggested reading:  The Constitution of the United States of America, the First Amendment.)  Secondly, religion in the military is in the purview of the Chaplain’s Corps, and is not to be promoted by commanders, even those with stars on their shoulders, because when commanders promote something, it often feels like an order to their subordinates.  And, again, this is the United States of America – a country where people cannot be ordered to worship God, especially a particular God in a particular way.

Was this two-star Bible thumping really meant to promote evangelical Christianity?   The following quote from the base newspaper, The Wheel, would argue that it was:

“Following the Apostle Paul’s message to the Ephesians in the Bible, Christian music’s edgy, all-girl band BarlowGirl brought the armor of God to the warriors and families of Ft. Eustis during another installment of the Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness Concert Series May 13 at the Jacobs Theater.’’

It has only been a couple of years since our government was unable to provide our troops in the Middle East with body armor – real armor.  Now apparently that effort is being supplemented with the “armor of God!”

Just how much is this shameless promotion of a specific type of religion costing the American taxpayer?  Those figures are not available yet, but the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is going to find out.  The MRFF, already well aware that large sums of taxpayer money are being used to promote religion in the military – primarily religion with an evangelic Christian bent to it – is now launching an investigation to find out just how many tax dollars are being funneled into this clearly un-Constitutional activity.

Unfortunately for our country and the spirit of religious freedom, there seems to be a movement afoot to enshrine America at a fundamentalist Christian nation.  One third of Republicans are telling pollsters that they believe the President is a Muslim, something that alarms and offends them.   There is a minor national furor brewing over the proposed building of an Islamic Center in downtown Manhattan – as well as over the construction of mosques in several other localities throughout the United States.  At least one general has had his hand slapped over remarks he made indicating that we are in Iraq and Afghanistan primarily to defeat Islam – a view also expressed by some executives of our private army in the Middle East, Xe (formerly Blackwater).  And then there was all of that fundamentalist Christian nonsense being perpetrated on cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs – a community known to some as “God’s hometown.”

As a people, we owe gratitude to the young people at Ft. Eustis who turned the spotlight on this command-sponsored religious arm-twisting.  Now our country’s leaders need to step up to the plate and investigate and correct this odious situation.  We owe that to those eighty soldiers who put their careers on the line to correct a serious wrong, and we owe it to ourselves.

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