The lot of an atheist true unbeliever is not a happy one. He is surrounded on all sides by believers, and he knows he’s missing something. He must chip away at the beliefs of others to assuage his doubts and fears.
An organization called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which may not be more than someone with a laptop computer and too much time on his hands, was so offended by another man’s prayers that he wants the U.S. Army to court martial Maj. Gen. Craig Olson for speaking of them on the National Day of Prayer. The general’s remarks about his personal relationship with God and his prayers constituted “brazenly illicit and wholly unconstitutional, fundamentalist Christian proselytizing.”
By all accounts, the general’s remarks hardly rose to something “brazen” or “illicit.” They were committed in the open, and there was nothing “wholly” or even “partly” unconstitutional about them. What else would anyone talk about but prayer at a National Day of Prayer observance? The general did not spread a sawdust trail and invite sinners to march down that trail to the plaintive strains of “Just As I Am” or “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” the two great hymns of revivalist invitation. He did not insist that anyone agree with his remarks.
“Military prayer and the invocation of the blessings of Almighty God pre-date the founding of the Republic,” observes Richard Mast, a lawyer with Liberty Counsel, which defends religious rights and those who exercise them. In fact, a call to prayer and discussion of a personal faith, whether Christian, Jewish or other, even in uniform, is familiar to anyone even vaguely familiar with American history. George Washington spoke of faith and belief in his 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln, who was neither a fundamentalist Christian nor a proselytizer, was guilty of similar provocations. Nearly all our presidents have invited, in one way or another, Americans to bend their knees in prayer. President Obama did it only last year, proclaiming a National Day of Prayer.
In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of legislative bodies to offer prayers for divine guidance. The court based its decision on the long history of legislative prayer dating back to the Constitutional Convention. “It is presumed that the reasonable observer is acquainted with tradition, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, “and understands that its purposes are to lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens, not to afford government an opportunity to proselytize or force truant constituents into the pews.” Indeed, there is no record that anyone, atheist or otherwise, has been punished or even called out for not joining the praying multitude.
“Letters from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and other atheist groups are nothing but paper tigers,” says Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel. “These complaints concerning military code violations are disinformation used to intimidate service men and women into silence. Men and women in uniform do not lose their constitutional rights when they take the oath of office.”
Some atheists want the Defense Department to assign atheist chaplains to barracks and battlefield duties, though it is not clear what an atheist chaplain’s duties would be. Perhaps an atheist chaplain could counsel a soldier who is wavering in his unbelief, and needs counsel in how to resist coming to a fear of God with a thirst for divine grace. We live in an era when many are on the prowl with a lawyer for an offense to take, a gripe to be redressed, a discontent to make into a lawsuit. We are assured by a certain Book that this, too, shall pass. We can’t wait.