The Army Discriminated against Me Because of My Religion

I made it into a bigger deal than it actually was—just like we religious people are doing now.

New laws are seeking to promote religious liberty in places like Indiana and Arkansas. As the furor over these proposals rages, I am reminded of a time when I played the religious liberty card. It was fifty years ago, when I was in army basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

 Our platoon was milling around in the dust outside our barracks, listlessly waiting for something to happen. It was all hurry up and wait, again. Then without warning our lieutenant popped his head out of a nearby window and hollered “Hit it, Cornell!”  At his shout we all jumped to attention.  But no one moved, so again he yelled “Hit it, Cornell!”

 Our platoon was all Ds—DeAngelo, DeNero, DePasqualie, Dewey. There was no Cornell. It was a stretch, but could he mean me? I turned slightly to look at him. “Yes, that’s right. You!” he snapped, “Hit it, Cornell!” Well, that was the signal to jump down and rapidly do twenty push-ups. And from then on, many times each day, he would appear out of nowhere and shout, “Hit it, Cornell!” He didn’t ride anyone else, just me. I hadn’t done a thing to stand out. The only reason I could figure was that he had looked up my records, and he hated the Ivy League, or at least Cornell. He was not that much older than I—maybe he was jealous of my education. I didn’t know.

 This came to a head on Palm Sunday. The lieutenant called for inspection of our barracks at the same time as the chapel service. That would mean standing at attention next to my bed, footlocker open, ready to be harangued about anything out of order, while missing chapel. But the strange timing raised the possibility that his obsession might have been triggered by the Bible in my footlocker, not by the Ivy League. Did he hate religion? I had no idea.

I knew he couldn’t keep us from religious services, so I approached our sergeant. He, of course, was outranked by the young lieutenant—but we all respected him as a man experienced in the practical politics of army life. I told him I was thinking about attending chapel instead of being there for inspection. He encouraged me to do both by going to Saturday evening mass. But I was a Protestant and our only service was on Palm Sunday. I went to chapel.

And that seemed to be it. There was no feedback at all.

Until the lieutenant called for a full dress inspection with rifles, out on the parade ground, on Easter Sunday. All the platoons were to be there, marching for the top brass of Fort Dix.  This time the sergeant strongly recommended that I skip chapel; otherwise the lieutenant would make my life hell. All week I tried to get others to go to chapel with me. “Even if you never attend church, go this once!” No one would. But for me this was more than a church service. It had become an issue of standing up against official pressure to treat my faith like a disposable religious activity. 

Easter Sunday came. We put on our dress uniforms and marched with our rifles to the ceremony.  I think there were eight platoons standing in ranks. I was waiting for a miracle, but nothing happened. I kept glancing at my watch. When finally just enough minutes remained to walk to chapel I took a deep breath and broke ranks. With my first step I thought, “God, what have I done?”

I had to march the full length of the parade ground, down the center between the eight platoons, with hundreds of soldiers on each side, past the lieutenant and all the higher officers on the review stand. For all I knew, the military police were going to stop me for disobeying orders. Fortunately, I remembered to secure my rifle in the stocks before leaving the grounds—if I had failed to do this I could have been court marshaled. I walked quickly to the chapel, heart pounding, and after the service told the chaplain all that had happened. 

“Come back to my office, soldier,” he said. I don’t know if it’s still true, but back then, army chaplains were granted such deference that they outranked almost everyone. He got the lieutenant on the phone. “Private Dewey has told me the events of this week. I ordered him to give me the details. Lieutenant, there will be no further harassment of Private Dewey, and I have ordered him to tell me if anything does happen. Is that clear?” There was a brief silence, and he hung up. 

Two weeks later, basic training concluded with a twenty mile march through sand, carrying full gear. I was amazed that the lieutenant, without a heavy pack, walked alongside me for many miles. And he maintained a friendly conversation. Finally I got the nerve to ask, “Pardon me, sir, but are you intending to make the military your career?” 

“No,” he said with a smile. “You would be amazed at some of the idiots you have in authority over you.” 

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I react to my story differently. I can admit that my insistence on religious expression had almost nothing to do with spiritual things. I did not need that chapel service to enjoy Easter’s promise of death being conquered. No, I was enjoying a power struggle with authority where I felt I had the upper hand. I was happy to use religious freedom for my own advantage.

I think about this as I read in my morning newspaper (as I said, I’m old) about the many ways religious people like me today are tempted to exult in our power struggles. While LGBT Americans are in the crosshairs of current religious power struggles in Arizona or Indiana or Arkansas, they are hardly the first group to be targeted. To the contrary, as Wake Forest law Professor Michael Kent Curtis explained in a 2012 law review article, many segregationists justified racial bigotry on the same grounds of religious expression. In the words of one professor at a prominent Mississippi Baptist institution, “our Southern segregation way is the Christian way . . . . [God] was the original segregationist.”

I’ve spent much of my adult life working to combat racism, so I’ve seen this destructive dynamic play out again and again along those lines. In 1969, for instance, I joined a non-profit created by urban churches to provide college scholarships for black students. It grew quickly and they asked me to become its first full-time director. That year we sent a handful of black students to Christian colleges.  Soon we were hearing reports of racist notes in mailboxes or slid under dormitory doors. It was heart-wrenching to see our friends treated this way by other Christians.

We began receiving similar reports from across the country, so we organized a national conference, and flew in 200 students. They represented every major Christian college in the U.S. and Canada, just as their schools collectively represented the broader white church culture that funded them. The Christian racism we heard about was deep and wide-spread. Most of the churches ignored the problem. We were dealing with the heart of a nation-wide issue.

One of the schools, Bob Jones University in South Carolina, wrote us to say, “The whole emphasis today is on a breaking down of racial barriers which God has set up for human good . . . to be a mongrel race in defiance of the separation which God has put up. . . . we do not believe the intermarriage of the races is Scriptural.” 

The religiously-justified racism of Bob Jones University reached the Supreme Court in 1983. They recently had allowed African-Americans to attend, but only if they accepted school policy prohibiting interracial dating and marriage as well as affiliation with “any group . . . which holds as one of its goals or advocates interracial marriage.” The racism was sufficient for the Internal Revenue Service to revoke Bob Jones’ tax-exempt status even though the school claimed that their racism was rooted in religious beliefs.   This became generalized by the Christian right into the claim of federal persecution of religion. Like my own self-deception at Fort Dix, this had little to do with spiritual things, but much to do with gaining political support for a power struggle against authority, now exaggerated as the “federal government’s move against Christian schools.”   It—more than abortion or school prayer—was what kickstarted the religious right to prominence.

At the Supreme Court, Bob Jones University argued that IRS regulations denying tax exemption to racist institutions “cannot constitutionally be applied to schools that engage in racial discrimination on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs.” But in an 8-1 decision by conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger, the Court explained that “[o]n occasion this Court has found certain governmental interests so compelling as to allow even regulations prohibiting religiously based conduct.” Prohibiting state-approved racial discrimination was one of these interests.

Today we’re deciding whether prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is another compelling governmental interest. And to what degree should we allow people to impose their sincerely held religious beliefs upon others?

Over my entire professional career we faced similar questions as we organized "inner-city, church-based, self-help, economic development.” We were “evangelicals.” We were clearly centered on Jesus, but we did not hesitate to serve those of other faiths, or of no faith. We were emulating the Jesus who associated so freely with everyone that the moralizers of his day rejected him as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and notorious sinners.”

So beyond our churches, we trained people in community centers and in two mosques. The U. S. Department of Energy printed our handbooks in three languages, because we enthusiastically stated: “Our aim is to insure that all people have their basic needs met, without regard to their religious beliefs.”

We never felt a need to “exercise our religion” by excluding those who disagreed. I am mystified by those who want the religious freedom to not serve some folks—apparently to keep themselves pure. That seems opposite to the spirit of Jesus. Instead, my organization sought governmental help to protect people from the baser efforts of religion gone bad, as when Christians justified segregation and opposed busing black children to their schools. Evangelicals once used the same theological arguments against Native Americans that they now use against "illegals." The same arguments that defended slavery have been used to attack the poor, the unemployed, the powerless and the other marginal ones whom Jesus loves.

Sometimes, of course, we do face a moral conflict with government demands. But when we do, I think Jesus would lead us to a different response. For instance, some of us could not conscientiously support the war in Vietnam and decided to withhold the portion of their taxes that funded it. Yet they honored the legal system by uncomplainingly paying the financial penalties. That was just part of the cost of being faithful. They saw this as sharing in the spirit of the Selma marchers and the lunch counter sit-ins, of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jesus, and the Hebrew prophets: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit says the Almighty.” Our goal at all times was to enlist the support of those not on our side. It would have been counterproductive to attack them.

Religious liberty is an important value and it rightfully belongs in our Constitution, but we would never have wanted it used to destroy the rights of others. That would have been against our faith. By claiming my religious liberties all those years ago, I played the system for my own gain.  And that’s been a helpful reminder of what I—or any of us—can be capable of when we’re tempted to take offense that our religious rights aren’t being given the deference we think they deserve.

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