The Army base at Fort Bragg, N.C., promoted its 2010 “Rock the Fort” festival as an event for soldiers of all faiths, including Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists.
So far, so good, right?
But many soldiers of minority faiths at the base felt that the overriding goal of the “Spiritual Fitness” festival was to convert them to evangelical Christianity. The event’s Web site urged participants to “Find friends and relatives who need Christ, pray for them, and invite them to the Rock the Fort event where they will hear the message of salvation. This also provides an on-going relational approach for evangelism in your church beyond Rock the Fort.”
This was hardly the first such event on an Army base. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association shopped this concept to several bases beginning in 2009. Each base that took them up on the offer outdid the last in terms of the scale and scope. By the time this tsunami of sectarian exceptionalism hit Fort Bragg, it had expanded to directly target military spouses and civilians within a 90-mile radius and was co-sponsored by the Religious Support Office.
BGEA leader Franklin Graham is the controversial son of the Rev. Billy Graham and was dropped as a speaker at the Pentagon’s National Day of Prayer in April 2010 for verbally attacking non-Christians. Non-evangelicals felt these Rock the Fort events were allowing his controversial message to sneak back into military bases. Worse yet, these events fueled arguments for those who believe the DOD tacitly endorses Graham’s hate speech.
As Rock the Fort was being planned, my organization, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, was contacted by many soldiers upset by the scope of the event. A vast majority of the aggrieved were Christians who say they were bombarded with announcements, advertisements and spam mail about the festival. They felt that such a clearly sectarian event was not only anti-constitutional but also posed a critical danger to national security.
Of course all religions – including evangelical Christians -- have a right to celebrate their religion. The problems surface when one religion can be perceived to be favored over another. That was the case at Fort Bragg.
MRFF demanded that Fort Bragg cancel the event, but Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick’s response was far more haughtily dismissive than it was conciliatory. To wit, Fort Bragg announced that it “...would provide the same level of support to any other group,” including money for gate guards and security, as was provided for Rock the Fort.
With the help of MRFF, Sgt. Justin Griffith, an atheist stationed at Fort Bragg, took Helmick up on his offer and put together his own atheist-themed event called “Rock Beyond Belief.” He soon snagged internationally-acclaimed atheist “rock star” Richard Dawkins as the fest’s headliner and attracted attention from philanthropists, winning a $50,000 donation from the Steifel Freethought Foundation.
Rock Beyond Belief refuses to target the religious for conversion; the event is designed to empower atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious soldiers who are all-too-often forced into the closet. MRFF has represented many such fine, combat-decorated soldiers in litigation against their superiors. Though the majority of MRFF’s clients are practicing Christians, MRFF also finds a significant base of support among nonreligious, agnostic, “free- thinking” and atheist personnel.
A year ago, Sgt. Griffith’s atheist festival received a nearly fatal setback in the form of a double-edged “approval” letter. The garrison commander relegated the event to an indoor facility that could only hold a few hundred people in separate rooms – a broom closet compared to the expansive venue apportioned to Rock the Fort. How would a planned Army paratrooper demonstration jump work indoors? Griffith appealed this decision, but he says the base commanders at Fort Bragg cited a “media analysis” that predicted only a few hundred people would show up. Griffith asked to see the analysis, and says he was told it didn’t exist on paper, or even electronically. It didn’t exist. But Griffith was forced to cancel the event.
Throughout the process, MRFF provided resources and legal assistance. Why should anyone complacently accept spiritual bullying, or the second-guessing of one’s faith (or lack thereof)?
Griffith eventually resubmitted paperwork for Rock Beyond Belief with a side-by-side analysis of the two events. According to his calculations, Rock Beyond Belief’s projected audience would be double that of its “Spiritual Fitness” predecessor.
We shall see what the final headcount actually is, but all concerned are happily optimistic.
As a result of Griffith’s tireless efforts, Fort Bragg finally did the right thing. Lady Liberty is smiling.
On March 31, Rock Beyond Belief will take place on the Main Post Parade Field of Fort Bragg. Offering a strong message of Constitutional equanimity, it promises to be a truly watershed moment for all Americans who cherish their democratic freedoms. MRFF and I are proud to stand with Sgt. Griffith against a tide of religious extremist fervor. I will join Dawkins and several others as an official speaker. I will not be promoting atheism or any particular faith. I will be extolling the beautiful virtues of our magnificent United States Constitution and the wisdom of following its mandates of a level playing field for all religious faiths and, particularly, no faith at all.
If you care about the constitutional rights of our nation’s armed forces personnel, and you most certainly should, make the trip out to Fort Bragg, N.C., and witness history unfold.
Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein is president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and an honor graduate of the Air Force Academy, He previously served as White House Counsel in the Reagan administration and general counsel to H. Ross Perot and Perot Systems Corp. He is the author of the recently released book, “No Snowflake in an Avalanche: The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, It’s Battle to Defend the Constitution and One Family’s Courageous War Against Religious Extremism in High Places” (2012, Vireo).