Earlier this week, West Point experienced a rare public controversy over religion. After unexpectedly dropping out only five months prior to graduation, former cadet Blake Page posted a lengthy essay at the Huffington Post explaining his decision, complaining of systematic discrimination and bigotry towards nonreligious cadets. Among his complaints are allegations of repeated harassment at the hands of more religious peers:
As the President of the West Point Secular Student Alliance (SSA), a Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) affiliate, and first Director of Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) Affairs at West Point, I have been in a position to hear countless cadets recount their personal stories of frustration in dealing with the ongoing oppressive and unconstitutional bigotry they face for being non-religious. Cadets often come to me to seek assistance, guidance and reassurance in response to instances of debasing harassment. Many here are regularly told they do not deserve a place in the military. They are shown through policy that the Constitution guarantees their freedom of, but not from religion. Many are publically chastised for seeking out a community of likeminded people because it is such a common belief that Humanism and other non-religious philosophies are inherently immoral and worse.
While dealing with the bureaucracy of the academy I have had my complaints ignored by several members of my direct military chain of command. The ranking chaplain here responded to some of these instances of clear prejudice with the useless statement that he will “do what [he] can in good conscience” (which was nothing) instead of fulfilling his legal obligations. In dealing with the Directorate of Cadet Activities I have seen the Secular Student Alliance denied recognition for two years because the former director of the organization did not see a reason to recognize an organization for support of nonreligious West Point cadets. Even after finally receiving hard-fought recognition this year, that same organization continues to work with us only half-heartedly. They have only begrudgingly given us a pitifully inadequate budget, continue to refuse to list us on their website, and one of their staff has openly laughed at the idea that we could organize a conference or even produce club t-shirts for our members.
Obviously, Page is right that the rights of non-religious people should be respected; both Christian principles and America law require it. If there is truth in these charges, changes need to be made. Even if his allegations are not completely accurate, this should be a reminder to religious people of the importance of making sure that we are not even inadvertently creating a climate that makes others uncomfortable.
But on a personal level, I have visited West Point many times, spoken with cadets on and off campus, and West Point cadets frequently visit Bard. In all this time, I have never seen any signs of this kind of behavior or heard cadets speak about its existence or exhibit intolerant attitudes. This isn’t to say that this cadet is making everything up, but it suggests at least that the reality is not all black and white.
Religion is an emotional issue and young people often feel things very strongly and deeply. That is true for both religious and non-religious people. For Christians, sharing their faith is an important part of expressing it, and the United States explicitly recognizes the right to proselytize (both for Christians and non-Christians) as an important dimension of religious freedom. At the same time, there is a right to be let alone. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have the right to knock on your door, but you have a right not to let them in.
A free society has to respect both rights, and that is often difficult in practice — and perhaps especially difficult in a college atmosphere where emotions often run high. Creating an environment where people of all convictions can live comfortably together isn’t easy, and there are a lot of ways to get the balance wrong.
Clearly, West Point needs to take another look at how it is managing the balance between religious and non-religious students, officers and activities — and equally clearly, religious leaders at West Point, officers and students as well as official chaplains, need to review the ways they share the faith and think hard about how to show respect at the same time they proclaim the Good News.
From our perspective, it’s a good thing and not a bad one that a lot of our soldiers take God seriously. People who believe in God and want to get closer to him day by day have an extra reason for doing things like conducting themselves honorably in battle, defending the weak, and obeying the oath they swear to obey the commands of civilian leaders. They can go into combat trusting in God’s providence and care, and they can hold themselves and the nation they serve to the highest possible standards.
All that is very good, but as I am sure many serious Christians at West Point understand, one of those highest possible standards involves respect, fairness and friendship for those outside the fold.