Wednesday, September 15, 2010

US Army Soldiers Punished for Choosing Not to Attend Evangelical Christian Concert

I remember when I was in high school having an argument with the school administration because the entire school was expected to attend a school assembly shortly before Christmas at which the school’s choir was to sing Handel’s Messiah. I was also told that students would be expected to rise for the Hallelujah chorus. I expressed dismay that the school was requiring students to attend the recital of a religious production (not to mention that this particular oratorio was chosen in the first place) and, especially in the case of non-Christian students, to stand to pay respect to the notion of Jesus as messiah. Let’s just say that the argument did not go well.*

But that was 1983.

Yes despite so many advances, more than a quarter of a century later, some Christians in government still haven’t come to grips with what the separation of church and state is all about:

For the past several years, two U.S. Army posts in Virginia, Fort Eustis and Fort Lee, have been putting on a series of what are called Commanding General's Spiritual Fitness Concerts. As I’ve written in a number of other posts, “spiritual fitness” is just the military’s new term for promoting religion, particularly evangelical Christianity. And this concert series is no different.

On May 13, 2010, about eighty soldiers, stationed at Fort Eustis while attending a training course, were punished for opting out of attending one of these Christian concerts. The headliner at this concert was a Christian rock band called BarlowGirl, a band that describes itself as taking “an aggressive, almost warrior-like stance when it comes to spreading the gospel and serving God.”

Any doubt that this was an evangelical Christian event was cleared up by the Army post’s newspaper, the Fort Eustis Wheel, which ran an article after the concert that began:

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

Apparently the commanding officers did everything they could to make it clear to soldiers that they were expected to attend the show, including marching them all to the theater. According to one soldier who chose not to attend the show:

We were to be on lock-down in the company (not released from duty), could not go anywhere on post (no PX, no library, etc). We were to go to strictly to the barracks and contact maintenance. If we were caught sitting in our rooms, in our beds, or having/handling electronics (cell phones, laptops, games) and doing anything other than maintenance, we would further have our weekend passes revoked and continue barracks maintenance for the entirety of the weekend.

Yes, you read that correctly. Soldiers in the United States Army who chose not to attend an evangelical Christian concert were required to perform maintenance (i.e., cleaning the barracks) and couldn’t even sit in their rooms or go to the library!

What message does this send to non-Christians (or even non-evangelical Christians) in the military? Are Jews and Muslims not welcome in the US Army? And when did it become the responsibility of the US military (there are ongoing allegations of aggressive evangelical proselytizing at the US Air Force Academy) to promote evangelical Christianity?

*After arguing with the Dean, he agreed that students who did not want to attend could go to the library and sit quietly, but he refused to tell the student body that this option was available. He also suggested that I talk to the choir teacher. When I expressed my concerns to her, she explained that Messiah was sung because of the fabulous example of multi-part harmony (or some kind of musical mumbo-jumbo) and not because of its religious message.

“If that’s true,” I asked her, “why don’t you sing it during the spring recital?”

“Because then it would lose its meaning,” she replied.


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