A Rant At the Baccalaureate Is a Possible Teachable Moment

BaccalaureateDegreeA baccalaureate service is a celebration that honors a graduating senior class from a college or high school. The service is held within a few days of the graduation and/or commencement ceremony, perhaps on the Sunday before, the day preceding, or immediately preceding the graduation. Speakers selected tend to be community leaders, faculty members, students, or local religious leaders, and may be elected by the graduating class. Speeches are often intermixed with musical performances, drama, and worship

It was not always that way. The baccalaureate service seems to have had its birth in a 1432 Oxford University statute, which required each graduating bachelor to deliver a sermon in Latin as part of his academic exercise. I suspect that today’s graduating seniors are relieved to know that this part of this very important event went away with powdered wigs and that they no longer have to listen to a thirty-minute sermon spoken in Latin. This tradition of oration continued to be the crux of baccalaureate services as they became common in American universities. Over time, however, the original focus on religion that marked these speeches diminished or expanded to inter-faith subjects.

There are different interpretations of the etymology of the name “baccalaureate service.” According to some sources, bacca is said to come from “bachelor” and lauri is said to denote “oration.” Another interpretation of the term “baccalaureate” points to the tradition of bestowing laurel plants upon those scholars who earned a bachelor’s degree. In this case, the name is said to come from bacca or “berry,” and laureates, or “crowned with branches of bay laurel leaves.” In either case, there is a connection between speech giving, bestowing laurels, and bachelor’s degrees, and both interpretations may be legitimate.

Because of United States Supreme Court rulings regarding the separation of church and state, baccalaureate services are presently not official, school-sponsored events at American public schools. However, many schools have student-initiated services at private facilities not paid for with government funds, and as such are fully permitted by law. Until recent years, school-sponsored baccalaureate services were common in American public schools, and usually held on school grounds.

It has been over sixty years since I sat in attendance at my baccalaureate service from high school, which was held at a local church. After all these years, I can still remember the message that was given to our class that day. The message was this: We were going through what is known as “the green years” of our lives – times of changing attitudes, changing ideas, and changing ideals – so we should not make any important decisions in our lives until we were at least twenty-two years old. Those were important words for me to hear when I was eighteen. My life was indeed changing as I was deciding what I wanted to do with my life. My ideas of my future life had moved first from being a racing jockey (I outgrew that idea when I sprouted eight or nine inches in one year), to a disc jockey, then to an ad man (I entered college with Marketing as my major and with an eye toward making advertising my life’s work). But by the time I was twenty-two, I was headed in the direction of the ministry and here I am, these many years later, a retired priest in the Episcopal Church. I am so thankful that I did not follow those other paths because I have never regretted my decision to seek Holy Orders in the church. As far as I was concerned, the speaker that day at my baccalaureate service was unquestionably correct.

The reason that I mention all of this is because of an article that I read recently about a very different baccalaureate service from my own.

To wit. Organized by some in the faith-based community, the baccalaureate service was held on a Sunday at the Kings Mountain High School, located in Kings Mountain, a small suburban city within the Charlotte metropolitan area in the Cleveland and Gaston counties of North Carolina.

Announcement of the service appeared in the Kings Mountain Herald as follows:  “Finals exercises for 303 Kings Mountain High School seniors will begin on Sunday night at 7 p.m. with baccalaureate services in B. N. Barnes Auditorium and culminate on Saturday, June 6, at 9 a.m. in John Gamble Stadium with presentation of diplomas to the Class of 2015. The worship service Sunday is sponsored by the Kings Mountain Ministerial Association. Rev. Ron Caulder, Ministerial Association President, invites family and friends of graduates to the special service of worship and inspiration. Rev. Scott Carpenter, interim pastor of Temple Baptist Church, will deliver the message, ‘The Completion of the Matter’ based on the text from Ecclesiastes 12: 9-14. Carpenter is a graduate of Kings Mountain High School, Gardner-Webb University and Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Linda, have one daughter, Erica, who is president of the senior class and will give the welcome. The invocation will be given by Johnna Scism and the congregation will join in the singing of Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee. Tico Crocker will lead the Litany and Symphonic Chorale Seniors will sing Sing Me to Heaven. Amontae Perkins, Collin Foster and Sarah Scism will read scripture passages and the congregation will join in singing Be Thou My Vision and Step By Step after the sermon. Shawn Adams will give the benedictional prayer. Pomp and Circumstance will be played by Cathy Holland to usher the seniors into and from the auditorium. Sarah E. Fulton is directing the music for the service.”

Attendance at the baccalaureate service was voluntary and as shown above, the program included participation by several students and a pastor from the area. It all sounds innocent enough, right? But the featured speaker, the Reverend Scott Carpenter, from Temple Baptist Church in Kings Mountain delivered an odious anti-gay rant, leaving both parents and students angry and confused. Carpenter later said that he just could not pass up the opportunity to alert graduating seniors from high school that if they were gay, they were going to hell. However, angry parents and students complained that Pastor Carpenter was way out of line by delivering what they considered a hate filled rant at what was supposed to be a ceremony celebrating graduation from high school. “The speakers usually speak about things like shooting for the stars,” said Greg Shull, director of communications for Cleveland County Schools.

Despite the controversy, Pastor Scott Carpenter says he has no regrets. When confronted by reporters, Carpenter told a local television station: “Do I hate anybody? Absolutely not. I just love them too much not to tell them the truth. Nobody got bashed or anything. All I did was simply speak biblical truth… The number one audience that I have to please is God. Was I trying to be mean spirited? Absolutely not. Was I trying to hurt somebody’s feelings? Absolutely not. I simply had to do what I had to do as a Christian minister.” With his overuse of the term “absolutely not,” the man “doth protest too much, methinks” – to paraphrase the Bard of Avon. Many students and parents disagreed with Pastor Carpenter’s assessment of his own remarks, and many did not appreciate his so-called “biblical truth.”

But what Carpenter calls truth was summed up as something else to Chuck Wilson, a Kings Mountain parent of one of the graduating seniors. Wilson described Carpenter’s anti-gay, hate filled rant as “bullying,” saying: “This is bullying. Bullying doesn’t have to happen from the back hallway of a school or a back parking lot. It can happen from the pulpit; it can happen from the stage. It’s a public school. There are children here. I think there should be some level of responsibility of the speaker coming in to not take advantage of a captive audience.” In a statement, Cleveland County Schools said that they would be more cautious about the selection process of baccalaureate speakers in the future. I would certainly hope so.

The whole incident raises several questions for me. For instance,

  • Why was there an optional religious service promoted as part of the graduation exercises of a public school?
  • Why were the community’s religious leaders choosing the speaker rather than the education officials of a public school for an event apparently organized by the public school district?
  • Why did an individual’s version of “biblical truth” have to be proclaimed at an event associated with graduating seniors of a public school?

What Pastor Carpenter said in that interview with reporters raises even deeper concerns. Let me address to them one-by-one.

  • “Do I hate anybody? I just love them too much not to tell them the truth.”  I don’t know if he hates anyone. Hate is a very strong word and I would use it very cautiously. But obviously, for Carpenter to say what he did in that baccalaureate service, his idea of truth and mine are very different. I believe that his idea of truth is based on a misreading of the Bible. When people claim that the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin, I know they truly believe that the Bible says this, but in reality, it does not. There are passages such as the Sodom story (Genesis 19) that depicts every male in the town gathering to gang rape some visitors. But the issue here is hospitality, not gay sex. These men were just plain cruel to outsiders. There are other passages that people turn to, such as Leviticus 18:22, and focus on men having sex with each other as an abomination. But such people do not take into account the why for this abomination. Just as in Genesis 38, in which Onan is struck dead by God for avoiding making his sister-in-law pregnant by coitus interruptus, (pulling out early) and spilling his semen on the ground, the issue in Leviticus 18 is about the people of Israel needing to grow in numbers. Any wasting of semen was not to be tolerated and thus was an abomination. As much as some would like it, neither of these situations in Genesis and Leviticus is talking about two same-sex people in a loving relationship. Perhaps Pastor Carpenter needs to take a refresher course in the Hebrew Scriptures.
  • Nobody got bashed or anything.”  No one – that is – except for his intended target.
  • All I did was simply speak biblical truth.” Carpenter’s citing biblical truth is commendable, but the Bible “truths” have been used to justify many of the world’s evils – from gender inequality, homosexuality and child abuse, to capital punishment, the environment, and birth control – so I would like to pose a few questions concerning “biblical truth.” The Bible portrays God as hating the Egyptians, stopping the sun in the sky so as to allow more daylight, thus enabling Joshua to kill more Amorites and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites. Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”? Is this a “biblical truth?” The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! Is this “biblical truth?” What kind of God would do that? The Bible, when read literally, calls for the execution of children who are willfully disobedient to their parents, for those who worship false gods, for those who commit adultery, for homosexual persons, and for any man who has sex with his mother-in-law, just to name a few. The Bible exhorts slaves to be obedient to their masters and wives to be obedient to their husbands. Over the centuries, texts like these, taken from the Bible and interpreted literally as “truths” have been used as powerful and evil weapons to support killing prejudices and to justify the cruelest kinds of inhumanity. If Carpenter is going to talk about so-called “biblical truths,” let us hear all of them and apply all of them. Why single out homosexuality when the Bible condemns so much more?
  • “The number one audience that I have to please is God.”  If God is Carpenter’s number one audience, then a tax-funded public school is the wrong venue to do his pleasing. People who want “religion” can get it in a church building in the context of a church function, not as part of a public school’s graduation exercises. Students are in school for an education, not for sectarian theological indoctrination, especially of the kind that Carpenter professes. His statement perfectly demonstrates that he does not give a damn (yes, I believe that is the appropriate word here) about saving anyone else’s soul; his actions are simply to save his own. When it is all over and done with, he wants to be able to stand in front of his Maker and say “Hey, God, I did my part: I spent the life you gave me haranguing everyone I could about burning in hell for their various [specifically, sexual] sins. See, I was your fervent spiritual foot soldier; you have to open the pearly gates now.” What pious self-deception balderdash Carpenter utters! Perhaps he should remember words attributed to Jesus, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’” (Matthew 7:21-23, Revised Standard Version)
  • Was I trying to be mean spirited?”  I do not know what was in his heart, but the result of what Carpenter said was that he was hurtful during a time when everyone was happy and proud of their accomplishments. If that was his intention, he definitely succeeded.
  • “I simply had to do what I had to do as a Christian minister.” Was it Carpenter’s duty as a Christian minister to spread hatred and fear-mongering to all those in his audience? What he said does not sound like something that Jesus would have said, but here is something that the carpenter’s son from Nazareth did say: Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Matthew 7:1-3, Revised Standard Version)

I can only hope that the powers that be in King’s Mountain are not even tempted to invite Pastor Carpenter to hand out the diplomas at graduation. From what I have been able to learn about Scott Carpenter, I am convinced that he would say something like this as he handed the diploma to each senior and shook that graduate’s  hand: “Congratulations!  Burn in Hell!”

Right back at you, Rev!


Our Fathers, Who Art on Earth

Since Sunday is Father’s Day, I dedicate this post to all fathers.

Fathers-DayWhat follows are not my words, but rather the words of a song written by the Irish musician and songwriter, Phil Coulter. The song is entitled The Old Man and in the best Irish tradition, the song tells a vivid story of ordinary life. Also, in that same Irish tradition, it is a sad song, a song of parting. In the song, a son tells of his father’s death and of his own reflection on the life that he had with his father, of all the things they did together, and of how he is really going to miss his father – the old man. I know that I am a sentimental, slobbering basket case when it comes to things like this, but I think these words are words that just about everyone can relate to. You can either read the song simply as a poem or you can listen to it being sung. There are several renditions of the song available on YouTube, including versions by Phil Coulter himself, by Finbar Furey, and by my own personal favorite, John McDermott, below. (click on the arrow to hear the song)

sláinte mhaith

SPOILER ALERT: Whether you read the song or listen to it, have the box of Kleenex close by. If you are like me, you will need them.

The Old Man (Phil Coulter)

The tears have all been shed now

We’ve said our last good-bye

His soul’s been blessed and he’s laid to rest

And it’s now I feel alone.

He was more than just a father

A teacher my best friend

He can still be heard in the tunes we shared

When we play them on our own.

 [Chorus:] I never will forget him for he made me what I am

Though he may be gone memory lingers on

And I miss him… The old man

As a boy he’d take me walking

By mountain field and stream

And he showed me things not known to kings

And secret between him and me.

Like the colors of the pheasant

As he rises in the dawn

And how to fish and make a wish

Beside the holly tree

[Chorus:] I never will forget him for he made me what I am

Though he may be gone memory lingers on

And I miss him… The Old Man

I thought he’d live forever

He seemed so big and strong

But the minutes fly and the years roll by

For a father and his son

And suddenly when it happened

There was so much left unsaid

No second chance to tell him thanks

For everything he’s done.

[Chorus:] I never will forget him for he made me what I am

Though he may be gone memory lingers on

And I miss him… MY Old Man


Does the Religion of a Supreme Court Justice Matter?

supreme court2

The current Supreme Court in session: An artist’s rendering shows Paul Clement speaking before justices as the Supreme Court hears arguments on President Obama’s health care law.

In my May 28th post, I wrote that the next president will be able to exert great influence on the direction of the Supreme Court simply because he or she will have the opportunity to nominate four, possibly five new persons to the Court.

Let me continue to pursue my thoughts on the Supreme Court by asking a question that I did not raise in my former post – namely, does the religion of a Supreme Court Justice matter?

In a country historically averse to political debates about competing faiths, nowhere is frank discussion of religion more taboo than at the United States Supreme Court. Religion is “the third rail” of Supreme Court politics. Any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically. It is not something that is talked about in polite company. And yet, I believe the question should be raised.

With the resignation of Justices David Souter in 2009 and John Paul Stevens in 2010, the last representatives of Protestant Christianity to depart from that body, a new reality forced its way into our consciousness. This means that, for the first time in American history, there were no Protestant Christians – by far the largest religious group in the country – sitting on our highest court. Justice Souter was replaced by the first Hispanic justice, Sonia Sotomayor, who is a Roman Catholic, and Justice Stevens was replaced by Elena Kagan who is Jewish. The new court was thus made up of six justices who identified themselves as Roman Catholics and three justices who identified themselves as Jewish. This shift was in no way a revolution, and while it has not become a matter of public debate, but regarded rather as simply a sign of America’s evolving sensitivities. I certainly do not intend in this post to suggest that it should be otherwise, but I do believe it gives us an opportunity to understand the modern religious consciousness and the rising secular awareness that are both today significant parts of our nation’s makeup. To go any further is risky, as evidenced by the University of Chicago Law School’s Geoffrey Stone, who wrote a controversial blog post in 2007 suggesting that the Supreme Court’s five conservatives likely derived their abortion views from Roman Catholic doctrine. Justice Antonin Scalia – a devout Roman Catholic, and the current Court’s longest-serving conservative – announced a boycott of the university until Stone left the faculty. (Stone obviously has not left, as he is currently listed as the school’s Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law.) An action such as Scalia’s causes me to raise the question and to voice my concerns: Does the religion of a Supreme Court Justice matter?

Throughout our nation’s history, various minority or underrepresented groups in our population have lobbied politically to have someone with whom they identified themselves sit on the Supreme Court. This was particularly important because, at the beginning of this nation’s history, the Court was unanimously white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and male. This fact was, however, hardly noticed by our “founding fathers,” since that was the way the nation understood itself. White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males were the power group and thus the ruling class. The Supreme Court merely reflected this American reality, which was equally true in all of the branches of our government. For instance, our presidents, from George Washington to Andrew Jackson, were similarly representative of this ruling class, and their names – George Washington (Episcopalian), John Adams (Unitarian), Thomas Jefferson (Deist), James Madison (Episcopalian), James Monroe (Episcopalian), John Quincy Adams (Unitarian), and Andrew Jackson (Presbyterian) – reflect that reality. It was not until 1840, when Martin Van Buren became president that a person of Dutch background broke the Anglo-Saxon power lock on the White House.

The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was John Jay of New York and the other members of that original Court were named James Wilson, William Cushing, James Iredell, John Blair, and Thomas Johnson – all notably Anglo-Saxon names. Since the constitution does not fix the number of Supreme Court justices, that detail was left for Congress to decide. In that first Court, which began sitting in 1789, there were thus only six justices. That number was moved to seven in 1807, to nine in 1837, to ten in 1863, and then back to nine in 1869.

The number of justices remained at nine until in 1937 when President Franklin Roosevelt announced a controversial plan to expand the Supreme Court to as many as fifteen judges, allegedly to make the Court more efficient. Critics immediately charged that Roosevelt was trying to “pack” the Court and thus neutralize those Supreme Court justices who were hostile to the New Deal. The critics were correct.

During the prior two years, the High Court had struck down several key pieces of New Deal legislation on the grounds that the laws delegated an unconstitutional amount of authority to the executive branch and the federal government. Emboldened by his landslide reelection in 1936, President Roosevelt issued a proposal in February 1937 to provide retirement at full pay for all members of the Court over seventy. If a justice refused to retire, an “assistant” with full voting rights was to be appointed, thus ensuring Roosevelt a liberal majority. Most Republicans and many Democrats in Congress opposed the so-called “court-packing” plan.

In April, however, before the bill came to a vote in Congress, two Supreme Court justices (Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Justice Owen Josephus Roberts) came over to the liberal side and by a narrow majority upheld as constitutional the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act. The majority opinion acknowledged that the national economy had grown to such a degree that federal regulation and control was now warranted. Roosevelt’s reorganization plan was thus unnecessary, and in July, the Senate struck it down by a vote of 70 to 22. The failure of the bill preserved the size of the United States Supreme Court at nine justices, as it had been since 1869, and as it remains to this day.

The first “minority” to gain access to the Court came when Roman Catholic Roger B. Taney was appointed not just to Justice, but to Chief Justice of the Court in 1836 by President Andrew Jackson. I believe it is safe to say that it did not hurt Taney in the appointment process that his law partner in Maryland was Francis Scott Key, the author of our national anthem. Taney went on to have a rather undistinguished career and today is remembered primarily for his racially insensitive ruling in the Dred Scott case, which was later overturned. Taney’s appointment, however, broke the exclusive Protestant domination of the Court and opened the door for the inclusion of Roman Catholics on the Court. There have now been thirteen Roman Catholic justices who have served with varying levels of distinction from that day to this. When Joseph McKenna was appointed by President William McKinley in 1898, it became a major political concern that one seat on the high court be “reserved” for Roman Catholics. In 1949, President Harry S. Truman declined to accept the claim of a “Catholic seat” on the Court; the period 1949-1956 was the only time since l898 that no Roman Catholic served there. But in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was persuaded that a Roman Catholic should be appointed, and a search produced the name of William J. Brennan (1956-1990), a justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Cardinal Francis Spellman was consulted and confirmed that Brennan was indeed a practicing Roman Catholic. But an acquaintance said of Brennan, “Those who knew him realized that, although he was a decent person and God-fearing, he was not a zealously religious man. He was Catholic with a small ‘c.’” Eisenhower’s wish to please Roman Catholics by naming one of their own to the Court led, ironically, to the appointment of a man who would use his power to undermine Roman Catholic interests at every point, for Brennan was the strictest of separationists, and his position seems to have been motivated in part by his liberal religious outlook.

The idea that there needed to be one “Catholic seat” faded in time with the appointments of Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Chief Justice John Roberts – all Roman Catholics. In 2008, with the Alito appointment, Roman Catholics became the majority on the court with five votes. That majority was increased to six with the nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor by President Obama.

The Jewish minority in America had its first representative on the high court when President Woodrow Wilson appointed Justice Louis Brandeis in 1916. In time, Brandeis became one of the great intellectual giants in Supreme Court history. He was followed by Justice Benjamin Cardozo, appointed by Herbert Hoover in 1932 and the two overlapped for seven years, effectively dispensing with the idea of a “Jewish Seat.” Later justices from a Jewish background included Justices Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg and Abe Fortas. Few people even noted that President Clinton’s two appointments to the High Court – Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer – are both Jewish. Let me just say in passing that in our increasingly eclectic and diverse religious nation, Justice Breyer’s daughter, Chloe, is today an Episcopal priest serving as the Executive Director of The Interfaith Center of New York. I like that!

African-Americans were the next minority to gain access to membership on the Court when the great Civil Rights lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. His appointment thus effectively established a “Black Seat” and his replacement, Clarence Thomas, appointed by President George H. W. Bush confirmed that tradition. It appears that African-Americans have not yet escaped the idea that one seat on the Court is reserved for people of color.

Women made their first appearance on the Court with the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. She was followed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993 and Sandra Sotomayor in 2009, when she became the first Hispanic justice. With the appointment of Elena Kagan, it appears to indicate that there is no longer a “Woman’s Seat.”

So we now have a Court of ethnic variety (European, African and Hispanic), religious variety (Roman Catholics and Jews) and gender variety (six men, three women). In the process, however, the Protestant majority no longer has representation on the Court at all, with Roman Catholics holding six seats and Jews holding three. The question thus arises as to whether or not this is a problem. I do not think it is, but I do think it could be some day. Allow me to explain.

The nation was founded on the yearning of people for religious freedom in Europe after centuries of religious conflicts from the time of the Crusades through to the English Civil War. That yearning found expression in a clear constitutional provision in America, which separated church and state (a fact that some Tea Party members like to challenge). Thus, the ability to worship without prejudice in any religious tradition one chooses, or not to worship at all, is guaranteed to every citizen of the land. This provision in our Constitution means that it is not one’s religious practice, but the imperialistic religious mentality so often found inside religious systems, that has to be publicly denounced in order for a person to serve this government under the Constitution. By “imperialistic religious mentality,” I mean the claim that one particular religious system possesses the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or is the only pathway to God and, as a consequence, can judge those who are not part of that faith system to be somehow inadequate or ill-informed. The values of any particular religious system, as beautiful as those values may be, are not to be imposed on the people of this land by law.

When our first Roman Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, was elected, he declared in the campaign that he would not allow his faith or the positions of his church to influence his decisions as president. That seemed to be an acceptable statement in 1960 even to the Catholic hierarchy in America and as far as I have been able to determine he lived up to that declaration. It seemed that we had come a long way since the days of the 1928 presidential candidacy of Al Smith, Governor of New York, whose landslide defeat by Herbert Hoover was due in part because he was a Roman Catholic. But when Roman Catholic Geraldine Ferraro was nominated to be vice president on the Walter Mondale ticket in 1984, and when Roman Catholic John Kerry was the presidential nominee in 2004, and when Roman Catholic Joe Biden was nominated as the vice presidential candidate in the 2008 election that policy appeared to no longer be acceptable to America’s Roman Catholic bishops. Ferraro, Kerry, and Biden (and others as well) were all told that because the positions they supported politically on abortion, homosexuality and on end-of-life counseling were not acceptable to their Church, they would not be welcomed to receive communion at Roman Catholic altars since they were in effect, publicly out of communion with Roman Catholic teaching. If a justice on the Supreme Court were subjected to that kind of ecclesiastical pressure from his or her church, such intimidation would indeed constitute a problem for this democracy. Issues regarding a woman’s right to privacy, abortion, and the freedom to choose when to die are all issues that could conceivably come before the Court in the near future. Can the Roman Catholic justices separate their constitutional responsibilities from the teachings of their church?

Well, one of the justices may have a problem with such a separation. I am referring to Justice Antonin Scalia. Early on, Justice Scalia embraced Sir Thomas More as a hero and historical comparison. Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of King Henry VIII, refused to sanction the annulment of the king’s marriage to Catherine, of Aragon and died a martyr for his religious principles. (As an aside, Justice Scalia arrived at President Obama’s second inauguration wearing a replica of More’s hat. Was this act a sartorial protest against the birth-control mandate?)

In his Georgetown University valedictorian address in 1957, Scalia urged his fellow classmates not to separate their religious life from their intellectual life. “If we will not be leaders of a real, a true, a Catholic intellectual life, no one will!” he said. “The responsibility rests upon all of us whatever our future professions.” Justice Scalia represents the living embodiment of the besieged religious dissenter, a man who believes that the only remaining front in the American war for civil rights is the battle to defend religion and the religion in question here is, of course, Christianity. Two decades ago, no one could have imagined that five members of the Court would align themselves with that posture.

But in the years since Justice Samuel Alito joined the Court in 2006, replacing the centrist Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the five conservatives on the bench have shown less and less consideration for the rights of women, workers, voters, minorities, the elderly, the environment, the poor, and most criminal defendants – and they have shown growing and seemingly boundless patience for religious objectors. The Court is currently hearing, and will continue to hear, passionate challenges to a secular society from religious dissenters seeking not just the right to deny contraception to their workers, but the right to pray at town-council meetings and the right to deny services to same-sex couples. Judicial biographer, Bruce Allen Murphy in his book, Scalia: A Court of One argues that Justice Scalia’s judicial conservatism is informed as much by his highly traditional Roman Catholicism, mixed with his political partisanship, as by his reading of the Constitution. Murphy may be correct in saying that Justice Scalia is “a court of one,” but in the religious-rights revival now in progress in America, one is perhaps all that is needed.

And what about the Jewish justices on the high court? I do not sense that they have the same problem of a conflict between faith and interpretation of the law as I see in their non-Jewish counterparts. For instance, I do not know of a single Jewish layperson, rabbi, legislator, or judge who have wanted to force circumcision, or kosher dietary laws, or Sabbath day observance on the body politic of this nation. But I have known Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians who have wanted to force their convictions about birth control, or abortion, or contraception, or marriage equality on the body politic, so I am eager to see how the Court will handle itself on issues when religious teaching come into conflict with interpreting the law in an increasingly secular society. Stay tuned.

Religion and the Military: Not a Good Mix

“That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.” -2nd paragraph, Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, composed by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, enacted into Virginia law on January 16, 1786

Army sandwich board at a Phoenix, Arizona recruiting station (Photo: The Army Times)

Army sandwich board at a Phoenix, Arizona recruiting station (Photo: The Army Times)

Religion and the military simply do not mix. But we are witnessing a sickening trend. There are religious groups actively seeking to “convert” people in the United States military, and they are making a full-court press, especially in the United States Air Force.

Here is just one example.

A member of the Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, was allegedly barred from reenlisting in the Air Force after omitting the phrase “so help me God” from his contract, according to an American Humanist Association letter sent to United States Air Force officials.

According to the American Humanist Association, the airman was “told by his superiors that he must swear to God or leave the Air Force.” This incident, however, is not about someone who refuses to serve in the military because of the oath; it is about someone who wants to serve in the military, who has in fact already served his country in uniform, but who is being prohibited from continuing to do so because of the oath.

It was the latest religious controversy in the heavily United States “Christian” Air Force. The oath was written into law in 1956 and, like the Pledge of Allegiance, did not originally include any reference to God. The final sentence came into the text in 1962, just eight years after “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Even then, however, it was not an absolute requirement in the Air Force:Official policy had stated that “Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.” But the lenient policy was updated and eliminated in 2013, leading to the most recent standoff.

The Air Force reversed course recently and will be updating the instructions for both enlisted and commissioned Airmen to reflect these changes. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen’s rights are protected,”Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said. “Airmen who choose to omit the words ‘So help me God’ from enlistment and officer appointment oaths may do so,” a spokesperson for the Air Force said.  The repeated fights over the Air Force oath highlight the troubled relationship between faith groups and military service.

Then there is the Air Force Academy, another hot-bed of religious controversy. The academy also announced that it will now be optional for cadets to recite “so help me God” at the end of its honor oath. The academy made the change in response to a complaint from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which advocates for the separation of church and state in the military.

“Here at the academy, we work to build a culture of dignity and respect, and that respect includes the ability of our cadets, airmen and civilian airmen to freely practice and exercise their religious preference – or not,” academy Superintendent Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson said. “So, in the spirit of respect, cadets may or may not choose to finish the honor oath with ‘so help me God.’ ”

But was the change enough? Mikey Weinstein did not think so.

“The Air Force Academy took the cowardly route,” Weinstein said after the announcement. “From our perspective, it still creates a tremendous amount of unconstitutional turmoil … for anyone who is a religious objector.”

Weinstein pledged to bring a lawsuit against the academy if the religious language was not dropped entirely from the oath.

The academy’s honor oath reads: “We will not lie, steal or cheat nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and live honorably, so help me God.”

Weinstein said in an interview that the oath’s final four words were an illegal violation of Article VI of the Constitution, which states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” “You cannot have anyone swear an oath to a supreme being to take a position in the federal government. What we’re talking about is civil rights,” Weinstein said.

Among the options the academy discussed were: making no change to the oath, making the “so help me God” portion optional, or striking the entire oath.

But Weinstein said nothing short of eliminating the “so help me God” language from the oath was acceptable. Making it optional would not be good enough, he said, because airmen who chose not to say it would feel pressure. “It exacts an unconstitutional toll on religious objectors. Everyone knows you’re not playing for the right team,” Weinstein said.

But if the language was struck from the oath, he said he would not object to cadets choosing to say it on their own. “I’m completely and totally fine with them adding it if they choose,” Weinstein said. “They can swear so help me God, so help me Allah, so help me Spider-Man. But when you have it there, that is a noxious violation of separation of church and state.”

And just who is Mikey Weinstein, you ask?

Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein graduated from the academy in 1977, and spent ten years in the Air Force as a judge advocate general, and more than three years as legal counsel for the Reagan administration. His two sons, son-in-law, and daughter-in-law also graduated from the academy. Weinstein, who is Jewish, said his younger son experienced unspeakable anti-Semitic prejudice, including being called “f_ _king Jews” and being told that they were ultimately complicit in and responsible for the execution of Jesus Christ, while attending the academy in 2004, after the Mel Gibson directed film, The Passion of the Christ was released. He said cadets were being pressured to see the movie. Weinstein decided something needed to be done about that. Thus was born the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, founded by Weinstein.

Since then Weinstein and his foundation have helped a huge number of servicemen who have experienced religious discrimination of one sort or another within the United States military, a branch of the United States government. For his efforts, Weinstein receives almost on a daily basis a barrage of hate mail and threats. Typical of the hate mail that Weinstein receives is this piece of crap from a so-called religious person who claims to believe in the Prince of Peace. But I ask you, does this sound like a message of which Jesus, a Jew himself, would have approved?

Subject: The Number One Enemy of the United States of America

“Mr. Mikey Weinstein you are the Number One Enemy of America. You don’t deserve American citizenship. You deserve no safety nor sanctuary. You should be hunted down like an animal with rabies. You are our country’s foremost enemy. Along with your Jesus-hating organization MRFF. You take no Christian prisoners Mr. Weinstein? Why should you receive any mercy? It makes sense that you have other American traitors as fellow travelers of deceit. Joseph Wilson is such a traitor. Mike Farrell is also such a traitor. Lawrence Wilkerson is a snake who betrays even his own Republicans. Edward Asner is a red godless communist like you are. [please see note at end of my article] But you are the slimebag responsible for it all. Your evil grows substantial. The father of lies is your benefactor. Lucifer leads you in your rebellion against Christ in our military. All of us with a clean heart and soul for the Son of Man see this. His Grace reveals your treachery. We pray to the Son that your days be few and your suffering be unbearable. That you live only so long as to see your children and wife despoiled. Ravaged and ruined before your eyes. We pray to Him that your tears be unending. Let your tears be of acid so as to burn your jew [sic] face of darkness threw [sic] to the bone.”

Well done, Christian bigot. This tirade and others from ostensibly loving Christians, including wishing this Jewish man and his family a “Happy Holocaust Day,” go with the territory for Weinstein.

Recently, one of the named targets in the tirade above – Distinguished Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary, chief of staff to former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002-2005, and General Powell’s speechwriter from 1989-1993Lawrence Wilkerson – wrote an op-ed entitled “The Taliban in our Midst,” in which in part he said: “Military officers who wear their religion on their sleeve are a danger to our country at any time, but especially after the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001. Whether it’s US Army Lieutenant General William G. Boykin telling his audience that “My God is bigger than his” in the close aftermath of that tragedy, or the more recent example of US Air Force Major General Craig Olson saying in uniform and in public – and speaking in tones far more like a preacher than a military officer – ‘I am a redeemed believer in Christ,’ these are dangerous men, making dangerous displays of religion.

“What US Air Force Major General Craig Olson did was particularly egregious. Not only does he display by his remarks the naiveté of a twelve-year-old Boy Scout — and thus call into immediate, serious question the billions of dollars and hundreds of young lives entrusted to his care and leadership — he also repeatedly calls on a single religion, indeed seems almost entranced by that religion, in uniform, in public, and on, of all things, God TV, an international broadcast. As a soldier of 31 years myself, I found his exhortations discomfiting, dismaying, and dangerous. Frankly, I also found them flatly incredible: I had never heard such words uttered by a general officer in my life.”

Wilkerson, who is, by the way, a retired United States Army Colonel, so he speaks from experience, and tells it like it is.

Me? I do not care what religion, or lack of religion, any soldier, sailor, airman Coast Guardsman, or marine follows. But what I do care about is my nation, and our military, and making sure that no one who has the power of giving orders that may involve life and death, is issuing those orders based upon the religion of those who must follow the orders.

Religion and military service should be mutually exclusive. They are like drinking and driving – and just as dangerous.

Note: Besides Lawrence Wilkerson, whom I identify in my post, the other names mentioned in this piece are:

Joseph Wilson – The former United States Ambassador to Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe

Mike Farrell – An actor, best known for his role as Captain B. J. Hunnicutt on the television series M*A*S*H and an activist for various political causes

Edward Asner – an actor, primarily known for his Emmy Award-winning role as Lou Grant during the 1970s and early 1980s, on both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off series Lou Grant