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Memorial Day 2011: Counting the Cost of War and Remembering its Brotherhood

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother…” William Shakespeare “Henry V”

“Heroism is latent in every human soul – However humble or unknown, they (the veterans) have renounced what are accounted pleasures and cheerfully undertaken all the self-denials – privations, toils, dangers, sufferings, sicknesses, mutilations, life-” Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Monday is Memorial Day, the ninth that we have observed during our current series of wars which officially began on September 11th 2001.  One could argue that they had begun sooner with attacks on U.S. Forces and installations overseas and even the attempted truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.  But we really did not go to war until that fateful Tuesday in September 2001.  As we come to Memorial Day I am a bit melancholy as the war continues, force reductions loom, threats abound and I observe my first Memorial Day without my father, a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who served in Vietnam who died of complications of Alzheimer’s Disease in June 2010.

Iraq Military Training Team in West Al Anbar

We did go to war but it was not like wars past where we relied on a true national effort to win the wars. The wars have been fought by a force profession force of Active and Reserve Component Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coastguardsmen that hovers a bit above a half a percent of the total population. Of those eligible for service most do not meet the entrance requirements for military service meaning that the prosecution of the war has been the task of a miniscule portion of the population.  Shortly after the 9-11 attacks President George Bush urged Americans to do their civic duty “go shopping” to get the economy moving.  As a career military officer I was aghast at his words. While he praised the military at every turn and increased military budgets, much of which went to defense contactors the actual heavy lifting was and continues to be done by men and women who volunteer to keep going back.  While the military fights the war Wall Street does business in a manner that is good for it and the vast majority of Americans are totally immersed in self-entertainment, the latest video gaming system or imbibing on a constant diet of “reality TV.”  Others on both sides of the political spectrum elect to shred their political opponents to itty bitty sheds and maneuver to gain political advantage and power without really caring what is happing to the country despite their proclamations of doing what is right for America.  In regard to the troops most of the political classes only seem to care when it affects their state, district or party.

Advisors in Afghanistan 

This Thursday 9 more Americans were killed in Afghanistan, eight in an IED blast while on a mission to root the Taliban out of a suspected strongpoint and another in a helicopter crash.  In Afghanistan we have lost 1514 military personnel killed in action or died of wounds. Another 11191 have been wounded. Additionally or NATO Allies have lost 889 military personnel listed as killed or died of wounds. In Iraq 4454 U.S troops have been killed and another 32227 troops have been wounded.  Additionally 318 Coalition troops have been killed in Iraq.  None of these figures include the high number of personnel with PTSD, mild to moderate TBI or other psychological and spiritual wounds.  5968 Americans have been listed as killed or died of wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan while another 43,418 have been officially listed as wounded.

Memorial Day is a day to remember the fallen.  It is a day to reflect on the sacrifice of those that have died in the service of our country.  Originally established as Decoration Day and its roots stretch back to the Civil War.  Other nations have similar remembrances for their war dead.  Unfortunately because our military is such a small part of our population and now concentrated into a few major bases often out of sight and out of mind of most Americans the observance has become a kick off to the summer for most Americans who are blissfully unaware of the real costs of war.  In a way I can’t really fault them because when the war began with an attack on our shores our President did not call the nation to make sacrifices to win the war he told people to go shopping while “the few” would take the war to the enemy and avenge the devastation of September 11th 2001.  It turned the vast majority of the country into cheerleaders or bystanders.  History shows time after time that nations that wage war this way seldom achieve their goals.

As Clausewitz so aptly observed that war the nature or the “remarkable trinity of war” violent emotion, chance and rational policy which are balanced with the social trinity of the people, the commander and the army and the government (or in the case of non-nation state actors tribal, social or revolutionary leaders) necessitates that the people have to be part of the equation if one is to successfully conduct a war.  While it is possible to win short wars without much support of the people any long conflict necessitates that the people be engaged as much as the military and the government policy makers, especially in a democracy. Vietnam was a classic example of the social trinity gone bad. Policy makers failed to set goals for the prosecution of the war, military leaders attempted to fight the war with operational theories and forces that were not adapted to the type of war being fought and ignored the lessons of history regarding the type of war and eventually the people turned on the policy makers and the military as the war ground on with no apparent victory in sight.  The same can be seen in the current conflict in Afghanistan with the government pushing a policy that seems to have little strategic benefit or chance of success.  A military that can inflict punishing losses on the Taliban without destroying them or due to limited resources hold onto areas that they drove the enemy and a public that is divided between cheerleaders, critics and bystanders.  Few of the latter have any personal stake in the war other than bearing some of the financial cost and having to it occasionally referred to in the news cycle.  Our “trinity” is dysfunctional and will be our undoing despite the heroic efforts of those who give their “last full measure” on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.

While we can discuss ways bring functionality back to our social trinity and the “remarkable trinity” or essence of war we must understand that our enemies, even non state actors often have a much more congruent view of war than we do and how to connect their strategic goals, military strategy and leverage the energy of the people against the United States and our Western allies.  They do not have our military power and wherever we meet them on the battlefield where we can employ our tactical superiority in weapons and training we have success but we have been unable to translate battlefield success into victory because we do not understand the nature of the conflict, the heart and will of our enemy and are dysfunctional in our own social, military, policy and political understanding of this war and how to win it.

What does this mean to those that have given their “last full measure” and those “happy few” that bear the burden of prosecuting the war? It means that their sacrifices may not be enough and will like the veterans of Vietnam come home without victory despite never losing a battle.  After Vietnam the force was cut back, military personnel who gave all they had on the battlefield were turned out of the service and even officers reverted to enlisted status to remain in the Army and Marine Corps.  Today even as the war rages cuts are being made to the force and those cuts will only get bigger as time goes on. Like Vietnam we already have a substantial number of veterans suffering from wounds physical, psychological and spiritual unable to get adequate care or assistance from an overburdened, underfunded, under staffed and often dysfunctional or even worse uncaring Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. Others that have served most of their careers at war and are approaching retirement are seeing the benefits that they earned with their flesh and blood and the long sacrifice of themselves and their families being termed “a rich entitlement program” targeted for reductions in pensions and medical care.  People that make these decisions if they served in the military at all often served only in peacetime or in times of short military conflicts and thus really do not understand the terrible cost and burdens placed on those that serve and continue to serve in this “war without end.”

Since Monday is Memorial Day and I simply ask that people take a few minutes and reflect on sacrifices of those that served in this war, wars past or those that continue to volunteer and serve in harm’s way far from home in a cause that the government does not understand and the public no longer supports.  Yes people treat military personnel better than in times past, there is little hostility to the military but at the same time has little social connection to or understanding of, thus we are a small brotherhood forged by a war that most of our fellow citizens can comprehend.

One of my Brothers: RP2 Nelson Lebron in Iraq

As for all who served we are part of a Band of Brothers.  As William Shakespeare so well wrote in Henry V:

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Kenneth Branagh Henry V: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-yZNMWFqvM

At the same time I cannot count the number of men and women that have come to me and expressed their regret at never having served when they had the chance. By and large they are wonderful people that live with this regret. In a sense they know well the last part of the Henry V speech “And gentlemen in England now-a-bed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” For such men and women I can bear no hostility because the regrets that they live with are more than I would want to live with. When spending time with people living in regret I simply to do what they do in an honorable manner, take care of their families and support the troops in any way that they can.

One of my Band of Brothers MTT with 3rd Battalion 3rd Brigade 7th Iraqi Division

As for me I continue to serve affected by war in ways that I never imagined when I enlisted nearly 30 years ago. All those who have served, past present and future are my brothers and sisters and it matters not their social status, race, religion or politics as Shakespeare noted  “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition….”

Guy Sager wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier” about his return home from war, society and that brotherhood, something that many who have served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan can share:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.

I had looked everywhere for Hals, but hadn’t been able to find him. He filled my thoughts, and only my acquired ability to hide my feelings kept me from weeping. He was attached to me by all the terrible memories of the war, which still rang in my ears. He was my only friend in this hostile world, the man who had so often carried my load when my strength was failing, I would never be able to forget him, or the experiences we had shared, or our fellow soldiers, whose lives would always be linked to mine.”

Most of us that have served in combat zones have memories like that and like the people in the train most people don’t understand.  One thing that I do know is that I am part of a brotherhood that extends from time in memoriam to the consummation of time when war will be no more, death will be swallowed up in victory and every tear will be wiped from our eyes.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, national security, PTSD, shipmates and veterans

The Gift of Religious Liberty and the Real Dangers to It

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The First Amendment of the US Constitution

“no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” Thomas Jefferson in the 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is a central tenant of the Bill of Rights and has been a central facet of American life since our inception as a country, in fact pre-dating our founding in some of the original 13 colonies most notably Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.  Now before anyone gets the idea that I am about to write something in favor of limiting the freedom to worship or for that matter any limitation on religious practices I am not in fact I am a stalwart supporter of religion in the Public Square and not just mine. You see I am a bit of a purest about this at least most of the time and my view is as long as the practice is not hurting anyone who cares. Some might take me to task for that as a Christian, but my point is not to argue for the Christian faith in this article but rather point out some of the inconsistencies of those of various faiths who while proclaiming their defense of this fundamental right of all American citizens who seek to limit the practice of others that they find disagreeable or even repugnant. What I will do in this essay is to do what I did back in my seminary days, where fellow students asked me why I hadn’t gone to Law School instead of seminary, which mind you was not a complement and actually play the “Devil’s advocate” in the matter of the free exercise of religion as it currently exists in the United States.

You see my gentle readers it is my view that while many individuals and religious organizations loudly proclaim their defense of the right to free exercise it is more their free exercise rights that they are defending than the rights of others. In fact many that proclaim this the loudest are also those that would seek to limit the religious rights of others using the laws of the Federal Government and the various States and Commonwealths that make up the Untied States to do so.  Since law in the United States is based on legal precedence everything that goes to court on matters of religious liberty as well as the actions of various legislatures matters, precedent matters and once precedent has been established it is very hard to change. Thus it is a matter of importance to all that no one acts hastily and emotionally on any issue that I might bring up since each decision sets a precedent and can effect decisions in entirely unrelated matters.

Our First Amendment Rights are marvels which are envied by the citizens of most of the rest of the world and why shouldn’t they be?  In many nations simply being born as a member of a minority religion is enough to ensure that you will never have full legal rights and may even face persecution and death at the hands of those in power, Sudan anyone? Kosovo? Saudi Arabia? Iran? Indonesia?  These rights have provided the opportunity for churches that were suppressed on the European continent and elsewhere to thrive free of government persecution, take Baptists for instance.  In the early 1600’s the first Baptists, English Baptists were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for their beliefs by the English Crown in particular by King James who despite authorizing the Bible given his name and loved by many Baptists as the “only” valid English translation was a notorious homosexual, not that there is anything wrong with that, hated those early Baptists and persecuted them throughout the land.  On the continent itself the Anabaptists and Mennonites as well as others referred to as “enthusiasts,” obviously forerunners of the Pentecostal movements of the 20th Century were brutally suppressed in many European lands.  The Jews were persecuted often brutally almost everywhere except surprisingly in places like the Ottoman Empire where in places like Baghdad they composed a rather sizable part of the population and were quite prominent in the Empire.  Of course Catholics were heavily persecuted in England and could not hold public office for many years following the English Reformation.  In fact there were hundreds of Catholics martyred for simply practicing their religion in private, simply celebrating Mass could get them a death sentence. Then there were the Huguenots in France, they were French Protestants who had gained a great deal of influence and power that were brutally suppressed and many killed by the French Crown and the Catholic Church.  The Lutherans were not big fans of other religions in Germany and worked with their Archrival Roman Catholics to kill off the Anabaptists and the Enthusiasts.  Spain was a great place to be anything but Roman Catholic but I jest, even some Roman Catholics now canonized as Saints were brought before the show called the Inquisition, Protestants, Jews, Moslems, none had a good time in Spain and Spain was equally repressive of native religions in the lands that it colonized in the “New World.”   The Russian Empire was known for its toleration of Catholics, Protestants and Jews especially in the equal treatment given to them in various Progroms conducted by the government and the Orthodox Church.  The Ottoman Empire had a limited amount of religious toleration; one cannot call it liberty and persecuted anyone equally that threatened the Caliphate or that they thought were heretical including the Arab tribes of the Arabian Peninsula that practiced something called Wahabi Islam.

Of course one can go around the world to see other stirring examples of religious toleration and expression.  Then along came the United States where our forefathers said to each other “gee wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just get along” or something like that and enjoined that right in our Bill of Rights right up there in the number one spot along with freedom of speech, assembly and the press.  Well it seems that we have a few contradictions in the applications of these rights in our history and sometimes the more religious people have had a negative influence in this notwithstanding all of the good things that many have done as religious individuals, particularly Christians and that churches have done in promoting human rights and the civil rights of all in our country.

While Christians were in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement whole denominations split on the issue of Slavery including the Southern Baptists, the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Curiously neither the Episcopalians nor the Catholics split over the issues although the war found them heavily engaged on both sides of the conflict.  After the war many American Christians worked for the rights of workers, the abolition of child labor and even something that I oppose, Prohibition. Notwithstanding the unbiblical and inhuman temperance movement, at least some Christians and Churches advocated  for the full civil rights of African Americans though few spoke up for rights of the Native Americans. Chinese immigrants to California were frequently mistreated and worked for almost nothing on the most demanding jobs like building the trans-continental railroad, mining gold and building stone walls for ranchers.

While enshrining the right to the free exercise of religion the Founding Fathers kind of ignored the human rights of a whole class of people, African American slaves and allowed the practice of slavery every allowing Blacks to be counted as 3/5ths of a person, which 3/5ths I don’t know but nonetheless only 60% of a full human being.  We also did wonderful things to Native Americans driving them off of their lands, hunting them down and confining them to reservations all while ignoring the treaties that we made with the various Indian Nations, try that with a European Country and see what happens.  Of course if we believe the “history” promoted by some on the Religious Right we have to believe that the vast majority of the people perpetuating these acts were solid Bible Believing Christians, but then how do we reconcile these crimes against humanity, even crimes against fellow Christians with the Christian faith?  In fact nearly every ethnic group that immigrated to the United States has experienced some form of discrimination, often religious from the good citizens of this land.  It turns out that throughout history we have had some problems in the matter of religious liberty and toleration, especially of those whose customs, language, culture and religion are different than our own.  My goodness my own family owned slaves and the family patriarch who fought as a Confederate officer in the American Civil War and after the defeat of the Confederacy refused to sign the loyalty oath, which good honorable men like Robert E Lee did and lost the family lands to the Federal Government.

But the crux of all of this comes down to religious liberty which as Americans we hold dear, at least our own religious liberty though I cannot be sure about the extension of this right to others that we disagree with in belief, practice or even politics.

Now everyone is for religious liberty in the Public Square until a loathsome man like Fred Phelps and his family owned and operated “Westboro Baptist Church” shows up to protest and hurl vile epithets at those grieving the loss of family members killed in war, taunting these people in the most abhorrent of ways.  However, as grievous as these people are they do this under the right to the free exercise of religion.  Fundamentalist Moslems have as a stated goal of instating Sharia Law in this land, at least for Moslems. This they proclaim under the banner of religious liberty, however the imposition of Sharia Law on Moslems in the name of their religion also takes away their civil rights under the Constitution and the various laws of the Federal Government of the States that make up our fair land.  The Roman Catholic Church at the direction of the Vatican has attempted rather successfully until a recent Supreme Court ruling to shield Bishops that were complicit in personnel moves and cover ups regarding Priests accused or convicted of sexual misconduct and the sexual abuse of minors from criminal prosecution and civil suits under the guise of diplomatic immunity as the Vatican is a nation state. Now I ask you dear reader could any other religious organization shield its clergy from the laws of the land that any other citizen would be subject too? Not on your or my life, but the Vatican has blatantly done so and since we all value religious liberty we have as a nation turned a blind eye to this until now.  What about those of various beliefs and practices that use television, radio and the internet to espouse hatred and violence in the name of their religious beliefs and under the banner of religious liberty?

What about the question of the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly Homosexual Christian church wants to see the legalization of Gay Marriage as well as the right for homosexuals to serve openly in the Military.  The part about marriage is particularly fraught with peril because both the Church and the State have interests in marriage. For many marriage is primarily a religious act with civil overtones, in fact ministers of all denominations are licensed by the state to perform marriages on behalf of the State becoming in effect de-facto officers of the courts and at the same time most states deny homosexual couples the right to marry, regardless of one’s position on the legitimacy of such unions who could say that it is right for the states to approve and license the clergy of almost every religious tradition to conduct weddings that have the full civil effect, including tax breaks for all but a certain group?  We have this enshrined in our culture but would deny it to the Metropolitan Community Church to perform weddings for its members.  What if someone said that any other minister could not marry members of their own church under their church laws, ordinances and beliefs? There would be a public outcry, but not for the Metropolitan Community Church or other denominations that sanction Gay marriage.

What about adherents of Wicca and other Earth based religions or Native American religions? Some of their practices would not be welcomed by those of many Christian denominations as well as secularists and atheists but if they are not hurting anyone else why should others object? Likewise why should people object if a religious symbol is displayed on private property or on state property where it has been displayed for decades or longer? Is it hurting anyone? Not really but hurt feelings and being offended count as much as real injury to the litigious and as such there have been long, expensive and divisive court proceedings that have served little purpose.  Now am I in favor of the government using such symbols to advance the rights of a given religion?  Absolutely not, but there are times where religious symbols and American culture, particularly that which seeks to honor veterans from previous wars is not about the advancement of any religion but simply a memorial with intent of promoting a religious cause.

Likewise there are those that would attempt to limit the free speech rights and religious rights of Christians and others that protest the practice of abortion using civil disobedience to do so, some in polite and well mannered demonstrations but others in pretty unseemly manners.  At the same time there are Christians who call themselves “pro-life” who bless and baptize practices condemned by the same Church Fathers and Biblical writers who they uses to support the rights of the unborn. They support the death penalty despite evidence that in many states that the practice is abused and sentences often wrong. Many advocate for harsh treatment of aliens and exhibit a xenophobic attitude towards some immigrant groups, especially those that are not Christian. Then there is a now popular belief that the economic Social Darwinism of unfettered Capitalism is not only Biblical but God’s best ordained economic system while treating the poor and the elderly with distain and treat their political opponents as agents of the Devil rather than people that God might actually care about.

Local governments and even home owners associations have acted to quash home churches and Bible studies, acted to zone land so that the construction of religious buildings, edifices or displays is illegal all of which have been protested and fought in the courts by the groups involved particularly Evangelical Christians of various denominations.  Even churches that neighbors have deemed to be too loud in their expression of worship have been penalized by local governments and courts.

Yet many Christians had little problem with the suppression of the Branch Davidians at their Waco compound after all David Koresh was a “dangerous” cult leader.  Nor do many seem to have a problem in limiting the rights of Moslems that happen to be American citizens and protest if a Moslem clergyman becomes a military Chaplain or if Moslems want to build a Mosque in their neighborhood.  I think that religious intolerance is often in the eye of the beholder.  As David Barton the President of Wallbuilders an organization that seeks to promote America’s “Christian heritage” quoted William Penn “Whatever is Christian is legal; whatever is not is illegal.”

So as you can see my dear friends the subject of religious liberty and the freedom to practice our religions is one that is not as clear cut as we would like to admit.  The question, to play the Devil’s advocate here is “Should we limit the rights to the free exercise of religion?”    If we do so where do we draw the line? If we say everything goes does this mean for everyone or just us?  Could it be that in the enshrining of this right that the Founders actually meant the expression of rational and enlightened religion and not religious expression that limits the rights of other groups or supports the abolition of others Constitutional Rights?

You see that I think that our religious liberty is something to be cherished but I can see times and places where there would be a need for the community or state to limit such expression, not to take it away but to ensure that such expression is not used as a weapon against others as religious beliefs have been used in the past and present by people and governments around the world.

You see the lawyer that dwells deep within my heart that my fellow seminarians saw could argue the point for any position in this debate, which I guess kind of makes me a bit of a prostitute but still there are valid points to be made on all sides of this issue and to the extenuating civil, social and even economic and national security concerns that the absolute right to the freedom of religious expression impacts.  It seems that the waters get pretty muddy here my concern is that those on various sides of this issue are more about promoting their religion if they have one and do not really care about the religious rights of others while the devoted secularists would seek to expunge religion from the public square.  As I said at the beginning of this essay the issue is about legal precedence and sometimes the unintended consequences of decisions reached hastily when those on the various sides of an issue take it to court.

The question of religious liberty and the tension between competing Free Exercise rights and concerns about the “excessive entanglement” of religion in government will be with us for a long time. I think the result of the heated and often litigious nature of the debate will actually turn people away from the more strident groups in the debate and will actually do damage to the First Amendment protections that we all enjoy.  This causes me great concern and if you value your rights to the free exercise of your religion or expression or your right not to have the religious views of any group made the law of the land.  Religion can be abused and used as a dictatorial bludgeon and those who now advocate so stridently for their faith to be made the law of the land should well remember the words of James Madison:

“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, History, laws and legislation, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion

“Victory” and Reality: Never think that War will be Easy

“No one starts a war-or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so-without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” – Karl von Clausewitz

I was talking with a friend recently and the subject came to the support of a certain church for the war in Iraq back in 2003.  My friend, who is very thoughtful, spiritual and circumspect made the comment that “they were even against the war” when we discussed the merits of this particular church.  I thought for a second and said “after the past nine years of war was that wrong?” He paused a moment and said “I see your point.” I think that in the early months and years of this war, where we quickly deposed the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq that we made unfounded assumptions about our “successes” with the end result that we have had to fight a much more protracted, bloody and costly series of wars than we had ever imagined. Like so many nations who entered into wars believing that they would have easy victories achieved at a cheap price in blood and treasure we have discovered once again that the serpent of the fog and friction of war coupled with hasty or politically expedient decisions has come to cause us great pain as a nation and after nine years a foreboding sense that we might not win in Afghanistan.

Like most Americans after the attacks of 9-11-2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon I was all in favor of going after those that attacked this country wherever they were to bring those that planned these vile attacks to justice.  Within a month the United States had driven the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan and put the leaders of Al Qaida on the run.  By 2002 the US Government had began making a case against Iraq, one of a trio of nations identified as the “Axis of Evil.”  In 2003 we went to war with Iraq after failing to convince many allies of the necessity of the attack. When the “shock and awe” campaign was launched, Iraq forces defeated, Baghdad captured and Saddam Hussein driven from power there was a heady feeling of success.  Even those opposed to the invasion were amazed at the speed of and apparent ease of the conquest as pictures of cheering Iraqis filled the screen as the statues of Saddam came down.  In May President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln to proclaim “mission accomplished.” “We support the troops” ribbons and bumper stickers were the rage, victory has many friends and some churches even ascribed the victory to God.  But as the muse would say to the returning Roman conquerors, “victory is fleeting.”

We thought that we had achieved a “revolution in warfare” in the two campaigns but within months the tide had shifted in Iraq as in a colossal mistake of epic proportions a decision was made either in Washington DC or by the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Ambassador Paul Bremer. A decision was made to disband the Iraqi Military, Police and Civil Service offices without having enough troops in place to police Iraq or civilians including NGOs and the UN available to fill the civil service gaps.  This was in direct contravention to years of CENTCOM plans. To make matters worse we had gone in so light that we had not disarmed or demobilized the Iraqi forces, thus we sent the people who could best help us restore Iraq to working order home. We sent them home and as anyone that knows Arab culture can tell you we dishonored them and created enemies out of potential friends while placing corrupt opportunists in power.  It was if we were making things up as we went rather than thinking things through and the result was a disaster.  By the end of 2004 a full-fledged insurgency had broken out an insurgency that would cost thousands of Americans and Iraqis their lives with tens of thousands of others wounded.  It was not until late 2007 and 2008 that the tides turned in Iraq as Iraqi Sunnis realized that Al Qaida backed insurgents were more of a threat to them than the American forces were.

Over the course of the war the thrill of the early days was forgotten as American Soldiers and Marines engaged a resourceful enemy that was willing to fight us in ways that we had neither expected nor planned.  War loses its luster when the thrill of victory is gone.  With the transition of the mission in Iraq and a renewed focus on Afghanistan where the Taliban had come back with a vengeance we are now moving toward being at war for 10 years.  We have fought the war with a military force that is well under 1% of the US population.  The military has fought well. We have not been defeated in open combat despite losing many troops to IEDs and ambushes; though in Afghanistan there have been a couple of near run events where small bases were nearly overrun by Taliban forces. We should remember General Hans Guderian, the creator of the Blitzkrieg and his words about the German campaign in Russia after the Battle of Kursk in 1943: “We have severely underestimated the Russians, the extent of the country and the treachery of the climate. This is the revenge of reality.” General Heinz Guderian

Nine plus years after 9-11 most of the American public as well as the political class of both parties have soured on the wars even while others seek war with Iran and maybe North Korea. I wonder about the wisdom of taking on even more enemies when the military is stretched to the breaking point and the nation is heading into bankruptcy.

But such things are not new from a historic point of view, if only we would look to history. Back in 1940 after their victories in France and the Low Countries the Germans felt as if they were invincible. By 1941 their troops were bailing out the Italians in North Africa and the Balkans while engaging the British in the air above Great Britain and in the seas around it. That did not stop Hitler from attacking the Soviet Union where as in France and the Balkans the German Army enjoyed amazing success until winter arrived and the Soviets counter-attacked.  Thereafter the German Army would not enjoy the same success and millions of German Soldiers; not to mention at least 20 million Soviet citizens and Red Army Soldiers died. Eventually the Wehrmacht was shattered, defeated and Europe devastated.

I am not saying that this will happen to the US, but it can.  We need to learn from history and look at how good people were enticed by the aphrodisiac of the “victory disease” that accompanied supposedly easy victories.  If one looks at Germany many officers, soldiers and civilians drank the aphrodisiac of victory and had their faith in Germany, their leaders and their cause destroyed as the war turned against them and they experienced defeat even while many times getting the best of their enemies on the battlefield.  Honorable men that had served their country well were either cashiered by the Nazi government and many killed by that instrument of evil because they voiced opposition to the regime.  Initially many had been lured into the trap of easy victory.

Back in 2001 and into 2003 I was like many of those men who served in the German military.  I was excited about the apparent easy victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq.   But like some German officers of that day who realized as the campaign in Russia was going badly into the fall of 1941 by late 2003 I began to sense that something was going terrible wrong in Iraq.  I think it was the moment that I heard that we had disbanded the Iraqi Army, Security forces and Civil Service as I started my course of study with the Marine Command and Staff College program held at the Joint Forces Staff College.  The experience of serving with thoughtful Marines in my unit and my fellow students; Marine, Navy, Coast Guard and Allied officers at the school helped me see the danger that was developing in our campaigns.  By the time I arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2007 the tide was beginning to turn but I saw the devastation of the country, ministered to wounded Marines and Soldiers and seen the affect of the war on Iraqis.  My duties with our advisors and their Iraqi counterparts were enlightening as I travelled about Al Anbar Province.

In the end I think that the Iraqis despite everything will do okay. I believe that most are tired of war and will not succumb again to sectarian violence on a large scale. I do not think that they have an easy road ahead but I believe the words of Brigadier General Ali as I left him for the final time: “You come back to Iraq in five years, as tourist, it will be better then.” I am not so optimistic about Afghanistan or Pakistan and I do not think we have yet seen the worst in those countries, but at least despite all of our mistakes Iraq most likely will do well.

The experience of war coupled with my study of history and military theory at the Command and Staff College as well as in my studies from my Master’s degree in Military History changed my perspective. I still serve faithfully and hope and pray for a conclusion to the wars that leaves us in better shape and brings peace to the lands that we have shed the blood of our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and other Federal intelligence, diplomatic and police agencies and treasure in.  I pray for my friends serving in harm’s way and those preparing to deploy and I pray for the safety of my Iraqi military friends and their families.

I am not a defeatist should someone level that charge at me.  I agree with Ralph Peters who made this comment: “We will not be beaten. But we may be shamed and embarrassed on a needlessly long road to victory.” However, I wonder if this country has the will to win and to make the sacrifices to do so and not just shovel them off on those that serve and have served throughout this war, a war which appears to have no end and which may expand to other countries.

Like the Germans we are engaged in a multi-front and multi-theater war but we have been trying to do so upon the backs of less than one percent of the population. This allows the rest of the country to live under the illusion of peace and prosperity with the bitter losses and memories of 9-11 fade into a yearly remembrance called “Patriot Day” by politicians of all stripes who often mouth empty words to eulogize the victims and thank the troops and then move on to their next fundraiser.  By doing this we have worn out the force without the full support of the nation which is absolutely necessary for the successful prosecution of a war, especially a long drawn out war such as we have now.  Unfortunately most Americans have little patience and while we mythologize a lot about World War Two one has to remember that there was a strong lobby that desired to end the war in 1944 even if victory had not been achieved.

We have a military now composed of many battle hardened and deployment weary soldiers who live in a world that the bulk of the nation does not understand nor really wants to understand.  We have seen the cost of the war multiply to the point that it has drained the ability of the military to prepare for other wars and modernize itself.  What happens if God forbid we are forced into a war with Iran or North Korea?  With what will we fight those wars?

When the Allies were cracking the German front in Normandy and the Red Army was decimating Army Group Center in the East, Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt was asked what needed to be done by a General at Hitler’s military headquarters. The old Prussian warhorse simply said “make peace you idiot.” He was fired shortly thereafter. We certainly have not reached that point but should anything else break out while we are still engaged in Afghanistan and maintain a large number of troops in Iraq that could change.

One always needs to be careful when getting into “easy” and “quick” wars as more often than not they are neither easy nor quick.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, national security

9-11-2001: A Date that Will Live in Infamy 9 Years Later

On September 11th 2001 I was the Chaplain for Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division, Camp LeJeune North Carolina.  I first learned of the attacks as I was logging off of my computer to go to PT after a couple of counseling cases in the early morning.  The headline I saw on Yahoo’s home page was “Airplane crashes into World Trade Center.”  I simply figured from that that a private pilot had flown a small aircraft into on e of the buildings. I got to my car and when I turned on the engine a talk radio host was screaming “Another airline has crashed into the second tower.” I don’t even remember what talk show host that it was. My mind immediately went to terrorism as the cause thinking about the bombing of the USS Cole.  I drove to the French Creek gym to see if there was anything on the televisions. When I arrived I saw the trade centers burning and Marines and Sailors crowded around in stunned silence or whispering to each other in muted tones.  I returned to my office, showered, got my uniform on and drove to our Battalion Headquarters where Colonel Richard Lake was gathering the staff. Within hours the base was locked down with combat ready Marines patrolling possible danger areas and with hasty roadblocks and checkpoints established around the base. We were locked down for almost four days as things began to settle out. By December I was the Chaplain for the USS Hue City and deployed in February 2002 to support Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Southern Watch.  In 2007 and 2008 I was deployed to Iraq serving with the Iraq Assistance Group and Marine, Army and other advisors serving with the Iraqi 1st and 7th Divisions and other security forces fighting insurgents in Al Anbar Province.  I have many friends that have deployed numerous times between the 9-11 attacks and today, some have been wounded and others killed.  Many suffer the psychological and spiritual trauma of PTSD and Traumatic Brain injury.    Even if we were to be able to end these wars today we would be dealing with the ravages of this long war.  I still serve working among many continue to deploy and return as well as treat those traumatized by war. I will return to Camp LeJeune next month as the Command Chaplain of the Naval Hospital which takes care of the Marines and Sailors of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, much of which is deployed to Afghanistan. I cannot forget 9-11. These are my thoughts.

Peace

Padre Steve+


I remember exactly where I was on that terrible day known simply now as 9-11.  The events of that day and in the following changed our lives and our country possibly forever.  The images of that day are seared into our individual and collective consciousness as Americans and usually conjure up deep emotions of anger, sadness, grief and pain.  The sheer magnitude of attacks, especially those on the World Trade Center towers covered on live television shocked and stunned the nation as the nation saw us transition from peace to war before its eyes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otK7c3Ushjw&NR=1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IetZuu_seb8&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lKZqqSI9-s

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sczTcrRp1bY&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_irMA5umVM&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQyRjf3eumo

The attack on the Pentagon was also dramatic but because it was a military target the psychological impact on most Americans was less than the attack on the Trade Center towers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxV2X0vwSas

The images are still disconcerting and when watched show the genius of Bin Laden as he struck at great symbols of American power.  Bin Laden did what no enemy had done previously striking so hard at such symbolic targets; he destroyed our sense of safety.  Of course that sense of safety was an illusion all along as with the advent of ICBMs and long range bombers we have been within reach of our enemies.  Likewise we had seen terrorists attack us before including a 1993 attack on the WTC designed to bring the building down.  But this was different than all those that came before, for the first time Americans no longer felt safe behind the “moats” of the oceans that surround the country. For the first time since the War of 1812 a foreign enemy had struck at the heart of America on the Continental United States itself and unlike then the nation saw the attack unfold in real time together.  Only the attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Navy on December 7th 1941 has had such an impact on us.  We watched as near 3000 Americans and others died in the towers, at the Pentagon and aboard Flight 93.  Some would say that we need to “get over” 9-11, but those that say such things do not understand the magnitude of the affect of the attacks on the soul of this nation.

The emotions generated by these attacks even 9 years later in are almost visceral because they are symptomatic of the deep and yet unhealed wounds suffered on that day.  The attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and United Flight 93 perpetrated in the caves of Afghanistan by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and executed by 19 terrorists who hijacked the four aircraft involved did more than destroy or damage landmarks and kill innocent people; they wounded our nation both psychologically and spiritually.

That day also created an immense desire to see the perpetrators brought to justice and set us on a course for war a war that has no end in sight even 9 years after the 9-11 attacks.  To put this in perspective from Pearl Harbor to VJ Day was just under 3 years and 9 months and even Vietnam from the Gulf of Tonkin incident to the cease fire was only 8 years 4 months.  The young men and women now enlisting as 18 year olds in our armed forces were 9 years old when the attacks occurred, kids that were in 3rd or 4th grade playing little league baseball, soccer, pee-wee football and playing with their X-Box, PS-2 or Game Cubes.  Now these children serve in harm’s way with many dying as the average age of our casualties is about 20 years old.

After the attack Americans banded together as Americans for the first time that I can remember. There were remembrances, prayer vigils and rallies to show our unity to the world. Congress even banded together in a rare display of unity spontaneously breaking into “God Bless America”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybc3SnhCWGk

Three days later President Bush rallied the country from “Ground Zero” as it became known. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiSwqaQ4VbA&feature=related

He threw out the first pitch in Game Three of the World Series at Yankee Stadium to the cheers of an energized New York crowd. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/baseball/mlb/2001/worldseries/news/2001/10/30/bush_ap/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evb489N11Q4

Irish Tenor Ronan Tynan sang “God Bless America” which has become a fixture since then at Major and Minor League games. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAtRb5oY3oM&p=C7401126B05C2B6D&playnext=1&index=28

Within a month President Bush launched our military into an attack on Al Qaeda bases and those of their Taliban allies in Afghanistan.  With the help of different Afghan Mujahidin groups US Special Forces, Marines and Paratroops had driven the Taliban out of power and were searching for Bin Laden.  Although American forces came close at the battle of Tora Bora to catching Bin Laden he escaped along with the leader of the Taliban Mullah Omar.  Eventually the effort in Afghanistan became secondary as the United States focused its attention on Iraq and became involved in a bloody insurgency against Al Qaeda allies as well as Iraqi militants of various types.  Mistakes were made by the administration in disbanding the Iraqi Army, police and Civil Service following our 2003 invasion.  On the ground some American soldiers at Abu Ghraib videotaped acts of torture on prisoners and detainees which found their way into the world wide press creating a firestorm reaction which made the war that much more difficult as it made those on the fence more likely to at least give the insurgents aid and support.  That changed in 2007 the “Surge” of extra combat troops to implement a true counter-insurgency strategy aided by Iraq security forces and the Anbar Awakening where the Sunnis turned against Al Qaeda.  Iraq still has major issues but in the long run will likely do well as the Iraqis take control of the country.  I know that there are many people including some experts who doubt this but knowing a number of Iraqi senior officers of both Sunni and Shi’a Moslem factions and the history of modern Iraq which is one of secularism, I believe that Iraq will do fine.

The strategic problem with Iraq was that it diverted attention from Afghanistan where we had an early chance to drive out and keep out both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The loss of emphasis in Afghanistan allowed the Taliban to regroup and reestablish their control throughout much of the country.  The other thing was that it created a situation that cost the US Military a large number of casualties and made it difficult to fulfill other commitments and contingencies.

Nine years later we are still at war, American Soldiers ream in Iraq helping the Iraqis manage their own security and American troops lead NATO and Afghan forces in a bloody war against the resurgent Taliban which has claimed as of today 1257 Americans on top of the 4404 lost in Iraq.  http://projects.washingtonpost.com/fallen/

The war in Afghanistan has blown up over the past two years as the Taliban often aided by elements of Pakistani intelligence services take advantage of the corrupt and unpopular Afghan government. The Afghan government led by President Karzai who at best can be described as an unreliable ally in the war against the Taliban is barely able to influence events in the capitol Kubul, but less in outlying areas where the Taliban has established a formidable shadow government.

At home the United States seems to be at war with itself, no longer united but bitterly divided even as American military personnel lay down their lives overseas.  A controversy rages about an Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque to be built not far from Ground Zero while Fundamentalist Christian pastors threat to burn copies of the Koran inciting more rage against Americans deployed in harm’s way.  The President is increasingly unpopular and the Congress even less so. Sentiment is building for wholesale change with some even talking of revolution or secession.  It doesn’t seem that either the builders of the so called “Ground Zero Mosque,” its opponents and the hate filled pastors have any clue about the propaganda victories that they hand our enemies on a daily basis.  In a world-wide insurgency, which this has become propaganda is often more important than military power.

It seems that Osama Bin Laden is succeeding in his goals. In 2004 Bin Laden said on a video “All we have to do is send two mujaheddin . . . to raise a small piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.” Bin Laden and his allies have seen us abandon some of deepest principles of freedom of speech, movement and association as the government tries to ensure that no more attacks take place. However as any student of terrorism knows there is no way to stop every terrorist attack.  Eventually another will succeed and when it does we will see freedom curtailed even more.  If the attack is large enough the real possibility exists of Martial Law.

As this transpires American Military personnel of every race, color, creed and political persuasion do battle with the enemy.  At home other military units train and prepare for battle.   Police, security and intelligence officers from a myriad of Federal and state agencies conduct the painstaking work of trying to figure out where the next attack is coming from and try to stop it. Since 9-11 they have been successful but the law of averages says that eventually another attack will succeed because Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists while small are always seeking ways to further terrorize Americans and other westerners.

All I can imagine now is that our current state of division will last until we are shocked out of it by something worse than 9-11.  I hope and pray that cooler heads will prevail and somehow we will recover our sense of who we are as Americans that sense of “e pluribus Unum” “Out of many, One” will take the place of hyphenated America and Red States versus Blue States.  Bin Laden would like for nothing more for us to continue to be at war with ourselves.

Today we mark 9-11 and I hope and pray that the lessons of 9-11 will not be forgotten and that both the losses of that day and sacrifices since will not be in vain. As for me and the rest of us in uniform we will continue to serve to preserve and defend this country and our most cherished ideals.  May God have mercy on us all.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

Religious Freedom…Do We Really Want or Believe in It?

Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Worship done in response to Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The First Amendment of the US Constitution

“no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” Thomas Jefferson in the 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is a central tenant of the Bill of Rights and has been a central facet of American life since our inception as a country, in fact pre-dating our founding in some of the original 13 colonies most notably Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.  Now before anyone gets the idea that I am about to write something in favor of limiting the freedom to worship or for that matter any limitation on religious practices I am not in fact I am a stalwart supporter of religion in the Public Square and not just mine. You see I am a bit of a purest about this at least most of the time and my view is as long as the practice is not hurting anyone who cares. Some might take me to task for that as a Christian, but my point is not to argue for the Christian faith in this article but rather point out some of the inconsistencies of those of various faiths who while proclaiming their defense of this fundamental right of all American citizens who seek to limit the practice of others that they find disagreeable or even repugnant. What I will do in this essay is to do what I did back in my seminary days, where fellow students asked me why I hadn’t gone to Law School instead of seminary, which mind you was not a complement and actually play the “Devil’s advocate” in the matter of the free exercise of religion as it currently exists in the United States.

You see my gentle readers it is my view that while many individuals and religious organizations loudly proclaim their defense of the right to free exercise it is more their free exercise rights that they are defending than the rights of others. In fact many that proclaim this the loudest are also those that would seek to limit the religious rights of others using the laws of the Federal Government and the various States and Commonwealths that make up the Untied States to do so.  Since law in the United States is based on legal precedence everything that goes to court on matters of religious liberty as well as the actions of various legislatures matters, precedent matters and once precedent has been established it is very hard to change. Thus it is a matter of importance to all that no one acts hastily and emotionally on any issue that I might bring up since each decision sets a precedent and can effect decisions in entirely unrelated matters.

Our First Amendment Rights are marvels which are envied by the citizens of most of the rest of the world and why shouldn’t they be?  In many nations simply being born as a member of a minority religion is enough to ensure that you will never have full legal rights and may even face persecution and death at the hands of those in power, Sudan anyone? Kosovo? Saudi Arabia? Iran? Indonesia?  These rights have provided the opportunity for churches that were suppressed on the European continent and elsewhere to thrive free of government persecution, take Baptists for instance.  In the early 1600’s the first Baptists, English Baptists were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for their beliefs by the English Crown in particular by King James who despite authorizing the Bible given his name and loved by many Baptists as the “only” valid English translation was a notorious homosexual, not that there is anything wrong with that, hated those early Baptists and persecuted them throughout the land.  On the continent itself the Anabaptists and Mennonites as well as others referred to as “enthusiasts,” obviously forerunners of the Pentecostal movements of the 20th Century were brutally suppressed in many European lands.  The Jews were persecuted often brutally almost everywhere except surprisingly in places like the Ottoman Empire where in places like Baghdad they composed a rather sizable part of the population and were quite prominent in the Empire.  Of course Catholics were heavily persecuted in England and could not hold public office for many years following the English Reformation.  In fact there were hundreds of Catholics martyred for simply practicing their religion in private, simply celebrating Mass could get them a death sentence. Then there were the Huguenots in France, they were French Protestants who had gained a great deal of influence and power that were brutally suppressed and many killed by the French Crown and the Catholic Church.  The Lutherans were not big fans of other religions in Germany and worked with their Archrival Roman Catholics to kill off the Anabaptists and the Enthusiasts.  Spain was a great place to be anything but Roman Catholic but I jest, even some Roman Catholics now canonized as Saints were brought before the show called the Inquisition, Protestants, Jews, Moslems, none had a good time in Spain and Spain was equally repressive of native religions in the lands that it colonized in the “New World.”   The Russian Empire was known for its toleration of Catholics, Protestants and Jews especially in the equal treatment given to them in various Progroms conducted by the government and the Orthodox Church.  The Ottoman Empire had a limited amount of religious toleration; one cannot call it liberty and persecuted anyone equally that threatened the Caliphate or that they thought were heretical including the Arab tribes of the Arabian Peninsula that practiced something called Wahabi Islam.

Of course one can go around the world to see other stirring examples of religious toleration and expression.  Then along came the United States where our forefathers said to each other “gee wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just get along” or something like that and enjoined that right in our Bill of Rights right up there in the number one spot along with freedom of speech, assembly and the press.  Well it seems that we have a few contradictions in the applications of these rights in our history and sometimes the more religious people have had a negative influence in this notwithstanding all of the good things that many have done as religious individuals, particularly Christians and that churches have done in promoting human rights and the civil rights of all in our country.

While Christians were in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement whole denominations split on the issue of Slavery including the Southern Baptists, the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Curiously neither the Episcopalians nor the Catholics split over the issues although the war found them heavily engaged on both sides of the conflict.  After the war many American Christians worked for the rights of workers, the abolition of child labor and even something that I oppose, Prohibition. Notwithstanding the unbiblical and inhuman temperance movement, at least some Christians and Churches advocated  for the full civil rights of African Americans though few spoke up for rights of the Native Americans. Chinese immigrants to California were frequently mistreated and worked for almost nothing on the most demanding jobs like building the trans-continental railroad, mining gold and building stone walls for ranchers.

While enshrining the right to the free exercise of religion the Founding Fathers kind of ignored the human rights of a whole class of people, African American slaves and allowed the practice of slavery every allowing Blacks to be counted as 3/5ths of a person, which 3/5ths I don’t know but nonetheless only 60% of a full human being.  We also did wonderful things to Native Americans driving them off of their lands, hunting them down and confining them to reservations all while ignoring the treaties that we made with the various Indian Nations, try that with a European Country and see what happens.  Of course if we believe the “history” promoted by some on the Religious Right we have to believe that the vast majority of the people perpetuating these acts were solid Bible Believing Christians, but then how do we reconcile these crimes against humanity, even crimes against fellow Christians with the Christian faith?  In fact nearly every ethnic group that immigrated to the United States has experienced some form of discrimination, often religious from the good citizens of this land.  It turns out that throughout history we have had some problems in the matter of religious liberty and toleration, especially of those whose customs, language, culture and religion are different than our own.  My goodness my own family owned slaves and the family patriarch who fought as a Confederate officer in the American Civil War and after the defeat of the Confederacy refused to sign the loyalty oath, which good honorable men like Robert E Lee did and lost the family lands to the Federal Government.

But the crux of all of this comes down to religious liberty which as Americans we hold dear, at least our own religious liberty though I cannot be sure about the extension of this right to others that we disagree with in belief, practice or even politics.

Now everyone is for religious liberty in the Public Square until a loathsome man like Fred Phelps and his family owned and operated “Westboro Baptist Church” shows up to protest and hurl vile epithets at those grieving the loss of family members killed in war, taunting these people in the most abhorrent of ways.  However, as grievous as these people are they do this under the right to the free exercise of religion.  Fundamentalist Moslems have as a stated goal of instating Sharia Law in this land, at least for Moslems. This they proclaim under the banner of religious liberty, however the imposition of Sharia Law on Moslems in the name of their religion also takes away their civil rights under the Constitution and the various laws of the Federal Government of the States that make up our fair land.  The Roman Catholic Church at the direction of the Vatican has attempted rather successfully until a recent Supreme Court ruling to shield Bishops that were complicit in personnel moves and cover ups regarding Priests accused or convicted of sexual misconduct and the sexual abuse of minors from criminal prosecution and civil suits under the guise of diplomatic immunity as the Vatican is a nation state. Now I ask you dear reader could any other religious organization shield its clergy from the laws of the land that any other citizen would be subject too? Not on your or my life, but the Vatican has blatantly done so and since we all value religious liberty we have as a nation turned a blind eye to this until now.  What about those of various beliefs and practices that use television, radio and the internet to espouse hatred and violence in the name of their religious beliefs and under the banner of religious liberty?

What about the question of the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly Homosexual Christian church wants to see the legalization of Gay Marriage as well as the right for homosexuals to serve openly in the Military.  The part about marriage is particularly fraught with peril because both the Church and the State have interests in marriage. For many marriage is primarily a religious act with civil overtones, in fact ministers of all denominations are licensed by the state to perform marriages on behalf of the State becoming in effect de-facto officers of the courts and at the same time most states deny homosexual couples the right to marry, regardless of one’s position on the legitimacy of such unions who could say that it is right for the states to approve and license the clergy of almost every religious tradition to conduct weddings that have the full civil effect, including tax breaks for all but a certain group?  We have this enshrined in our culture but would deny it to the Metropolitan Community Church to perform weddings for its members.  What if someone said that any other minister could not marry members of their own church under their church laws, ordinances and beliefs? There would be a public outcry, but not for the Metropolitan Community Church or other denominations that sanction Gay marriage.

What about adherents of Wicca and other Earth based religions or Native American religions? Some of their practices would not be welcomed by those of many Christian denominations as well as secularists and atheists but if they are not hurting anyone else why should others object? Likewise why should people object if a religious symbol is displayed on private property or on state property where it has been displayed for decades or longer? Is it hurting anyone? Not really but hurt feelings and being offended count as much as real injury to the litigious and as such there have been long, expensive and divisive court proceedings that have served little purpose.  Now am I in favor of the government using such symbols to advance the rights of a given religion, absolutely not, but there are times where religious symbols and American culture, particularly that which seeks to honor veterans from previous wars is not about the advancement of any religion but simply a memorial with intent of promoting a religious cause.

Likewise there are those that would attempt to limit the free speech rights and religious rights of Christians and others that protest the practice of abortion using civil disobedience to do so, some in polite and well mannered demonstrations but others in pretty unseemly manners.  Many Christians including leaders and members of my own denomination have gone to jail over their opposition to abortion, been brutalized by police for their expression of faith and their opposition to the practice of abortion which they believe to be not only against their beliefs but against their belief in the fundamental rights to life of the unborn.

Local governments have acted to quash home churches and Bible studies, acted to zone land so that the construction of religious buildings, edifices or displays is illegal all of which have been protested and fought in the courts by the groups involved particularly Evangelical Christians of various denominations.  Even churches that neighbors have deemed to be too loud in their expression of worship have been penalized by local governments and courts.

Many Christians had little problem with the suppression of the Branch Davidians at their Waco compound after all David Koresh was a “dangerous” cult leader nor do many have a problem in limiting the rights of Moslems that happen to be American citizens and protest if a Moslem clergyman becomes a military Chaplain or if Moslems want to build a Mosque in their neighborhood.  A big controversy is the plan to build a Mosque on or near the site of the World Trade Center which was destroyed by Islamic terrorists and applauded by many Moslems around the world to include some in the United States. While I have no problem in general with the religious groups including Moslems to be able to build a religious facility wherever they want the construction of one on or near this site would seem to be less of a religious liberty issue but more of a propaganda victory for the terrorists groups that brought down the Twin Towers, a mosque on the site of the hated symbol of American economic power and capitalism would be a propaganda victory for declared enemies of the United States.

So as you can see my dear friends the subject of religious liberty and the freedom to practice our religions is one that is not as clear cut as we would like to admit.  The question, to play the Devil’s advocate here is “Should we limit the rights to the free exercise of religion?”    If we do so where do we draw the line? If we say everything goes does this mean for everyone or just us?  Could it be that in the enshrining of this right that the Founders actually meant the expression of rational and enlightened religion and not religious expression that limits the rights of other groups or supports the abolition of others Constitutional Rights?

You see that I think that our religious liberty is something to be cherished but I can see times and places where there would be a need for the community or state to limit such expression, not to take it away but to ensure that such expression is not used as a weapon against others as religious beliefs have been used in the past and present by people and governments around the world.

You see the lawyer that dwells deep within my heart that my fellow seminarians saw could argue the point for any position in this debate, which I guess kind of makes me a bit of a prostitute but still there are valid points to be made on all sides of this issue and to the extenuating civil, social and even economic and national security concerns that the absolute right to the freedom of religious expression impacts.  It seems that the waters get pretty muddy here and I am curious to what others think. My concern is that those on various sides of this issue are more about promoting their religion if they have one and not really caring about the religious rights of others and that the devoted secularists would seek to remove religion from the Public Square in its totality.  As I said at the beginning of this essay the issue is about legal precedence and sometimes the unintended consequences of decisions reached hastily when those on the various sides of an issue take it to court.

I’m glad to hear from all sides of the issue even from those that disagree with anything that I have said in this little essay, just don’t get too nasty or personal if you are criticizing me, unless you know me well and would join me for a beer later and remember I am playing the Devil’s advocate here and not espousing any particular viewpoint, I only want to see people get spun up so I can have a little fun so feel free to tell me what you think.  Tell me whose rights you want to protect or take away, this should be fun.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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