June 03, 2005

Is there a God - Country link?

Pioneer 31 May 2005

Sandhya Jain

As conservative Christian groups in America protest against the Air Force Academy's decision to investigate complaints of institutionalized proselytisation at its Colorado Springs campus, questions arise about the status of religious freedom in that country. Samuel Huntington, in his expansive Who Are We, admits America has employed highly coercive techniques in the past to ensure cultural conformity by immigrants of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, and fears the nation may be undone by multi-culturalism.

Despite a formal commitment to multi-culturalism, powerful sections of the American Government and people feel uncomfortable with non-Christians. Hence the deep political commitment to evangelization oversees, of which domestic proselytisation is a corollary. Logically, America will hardly pump millions of dollars for conversion activities abroad and allow its own citizenry to languish in or convert to non-Christian faiths.

Rajiv Malhotra of Infinity Foundation once said that most Indians simply fail to realize that power in American society resides in its institutions rather than in an inchoate public opinion. This is a powerful insight. The institutions are deeply imbued with the core values of the original White Settlers and extremely focused about White American interests. This is why the polity is actually an Imperial Democracy; it can tolerate (read ignore) slogan shouting by emotional mobs, but there is no space for dissent against an unstated national consensus by the power elite. Anyone doubting the veracity of this assessment has only to observe how soon Pepsico honcho Indra Nooyi looses her corporate status, even though her non-conformism was purely unintentional.

The growing numbers of non-integrating groups is unsettling to White Americans, particularly after Nine Eleven. As India also faces the problem of secularism run riot, this may be an appropriate occasion to ponder if there is a symbiotic link between nationalism and homogeneity of religious belief among the citizenry. Alternatively, we may ask how much religious diversity (in terms of percentage of population) nations can absorb without upsetting the dominant majority.

This article has been triggered off by the information that the US Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, where some of the largest evangelical churches are based, is headed by Commanders who frequently double up as church leaders. A conservative group called Focus on the Family is opposing the official probe into charges of institutionalized proselytisation. The problem reportedly came to light through the Academy's routine internal surveys, following which officials asked staff and cadets to report cases of religious discrimination. Over fifty complaints were lodged, including forced prayers (a routine practice in missionary-run institutions in India) and derogatory religious remarks or jokes. One Protestant chaplain would curse non-proselytizing officers to "burn in the fires of hell." A football coach put up a locker room banner: "I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."

Independent investigations by a Washington-based advocacy group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, discovered that prayers (only Christian) were routinely organized before Academy sanctioned events; and students, faculty and staff would pressurize cadets to attend chapel and receive religious instruction. Academy officers and staff members inserted advertisements in the Academy newspaper asking cadets to contact them to "discuss Jesus." On one occasion, the film, "The Passion of the Christ" was screened at the Academy; fliers advertising the event were placed on every seat in the dining hall with the message: "This is an officially sponsored USAFA event." As I understand it, this would have made attendance compulsory, which violates religious freedom and is certainly an abuse of authority.

The controversy has attracted media attention. It is said the Academy's second-in-command is a born-again Christian who uses his official position to push his evangelical beliefs. Americans United for Separation of Church and State laments that American society permits evangelical Christians to wield excessive power, a trend difficult to reverse. The Academy organized religious tolerance classes with compulsory attendance as part of a damage-control exercise after the complaints became public. But a programme, Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People (RSVP), prepared by Chaplain Capt. Melinda Morton, became controversial after she told New York Times that the contents were heavily diluted by officers. The Academy was forced to admit that changes were made.

According to reports, the Air Force's chief chaplain saw the RSVP programme and its dramatization of interactions between cadets of different faiths, and protested: "Why is it that the Christians never win?" He seemed oblivious of the fact that the purpose of the presentation was to help cadets and officers understand the whole range of human religious experience. The chief chaplain admitted making the remark, but claimed he was only objecting to the disproportionate portrayal of Christians at fault for evangelization efforts. But those who made the programme said it mostly avoided religious identification.

Indians brainwashed by the propaganda that America permits non-Christians total religious freedom without prejudice need to appreciate that while there may be no overt discrimination at the level of ordinary citizens, the larger picture is somewhat different. The chief chaplain was forced to admit asking the Air Force to delete segments of the RSVP programme depicting non-Christian faiths such as Buddhism, Judaism and Native American spirituality, as well as a clip from the film, "Schindler's List," portraying the Jewish Holocaust. The programme was thus reduced from 90 minutes to 50, with the result that instead of educating cadets about other spiritual traditions, it merely conveyed a neutral message that they should respect one another's differences. This defeated the very purpose of the programme, given the pervasive pro-evangelization atmosphere at the campus, and in fact reinforced the rabid Christian White Settler image defended by Huntington in Who Are We.

The American officers and chaplains at this Air Force campus clearly used their office to violate the religious space and sentiments of non-Christian cadets, breaching the constitutional boundary between church and state. Stung by the adverse publicity, the Academy is gearing up to inculcate "sensitivity" among cadets, by educating them about all world religions. Yet it remains to be seen what actually comes out of the official enquiry, as almost all students and faculty approached by the media privately confessed that they feared speaking up could harm their careers. Chaplain Capt. Morton, who took the risk of going public because she objected to officers using their positions to advance their personal religious agenda, admitted that her Air Force career was over.

Readers of this column are aware that I view evangelical activities in India as akin to denationalization. As a social scientist, therefore, it may be fair to question if White Americans perceive non-Christians, especially those joining critical institutions such as the military, as citizens who do not share the soul of America. Perhaps the time has come to question ideological conventions born in an historical context that no longer prevails. Separation of church and state was born in a European Christian environment wherein the state actively persecuted other denominations; it was felt nationalism would prosper under a non-denominational state.

Today, the most serious threat to the world order comes from groups organized on religious lines, transcending national boundaries, yet claiming cultural and territorial space in other nation-states. The non-dharmic, non-religious state is at a distinct disadvantage in taking on these elements. A future nationalism may depend upon revalidating the old link between god and country.

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