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RBB Poster 01_smLate last week, as I sat down to write a post about Rock Beyond Belief, I received notice that it had been cancelled.

Quick summary for those who haven’t followed this:

Last September, an evangelical Christian rock concert called “Rock the Fort” was held at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Sponsored by the Fort Bragg chaplains, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and 20 area churches, the event was promoted as an opportunity to win souls by “[bringing] the Christian message to all of Fort Bragg and the surrounding community.” Ft. Bragg chaplain Col. David Hillis made it clear in a letter to local churches that “Rock the Fort is evangelical in nature…The concert will conclude with a clear gospel message.”

It worked. Event organizers claimed 700 on-stage conversions of soldiers and civilians.

Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation of Church and State correctly stated that “the military has no business sponsoring a rally that is clearly designed to convert people to evangelical Christianity – or any other religion, for that matter.” The Freedom From Religion Foundation and Military Religious Freedom Foundation likewise weighed in with constitutional concerns. “Churches have the right to reach out to anyone to spread their religious messages,” Boston said, “but the government is not allowed to help them do it.”

The Staff Judge Advocate soothed worried brows with a letter promising equal treatment:

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This was echoed in a letter from the base commander.

One soldier at Fort Bragg, Sgt. Justin Griffith, decided to take the base commander at his word. If the military is going to sponsor events of this kind, they must do so for other perspectives as well. Thus was born ROCK BEYOND BELIEF, a day of fun and entertainment featuring secular bands and speakers including Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker, Hemant Mehta, and Eugenie Scott (and me).

Justin was a class act from the beginning. He was determined to make the event a positive expression, not a poke in the eye. Every time someone tried to paint RBB as an anti-religious event or an attempt to “spread the atheist message,” Justin slapped it down. This would be a positive celebration of secular values, but never an attempt to recruit, convince, or attack. No de-conversion or de-baptism ceremonies. High road all the way.

He pulled together a volunteer staff and began the long approval process in November. Funding was a serious concern. But a Freedom of Information Act request by FFRF revealed that Billy Graham’s Rock the Fort event had received over $54,000 in direct support from the Dept. of Defense.

The next step was simple: the base commander had promised “the same level of support to comparable events,” so a request was made for a similar level of financial support for Rock Beyond Belief.

The approval was a no-brainer, and the base legal staff recommended that Rock Beyond Belief receive the same support Rock the Fort had received.

The last step would be the signature of the garrison commander. He “approved” the event per se, but added what Justin rightly called “crippling restrictions.” Instead of the outdoor post-parade ground that Rock the Fort had used, Rock Beyond Belief would be confined to an indoor theatre that holds 700. There would be no financial support of any kind. And unlike Rock the Fort, he required that all advertising carry a disclaimer that the event carried “no endorsement by Fort Bragg, the US Army, or the Department of Defense.”

Justin had no choice but to cancel.

The whole thing rang loud bells for me. Justin was attempting to hold the Army to its own stated principles, not to mention the US Constitution. And instead of progressing straight to court over Rock the Fort, he had chosen to request equal treatment. A promise of equal treatment was made, then withdrawn.

Eight years ago I tried something similar, albeit on a smaller scale. I was on the faculty of a Catholic women’s college that trumpeted an atmosphere of open inquiry and critical thinking in all of its public statements and recruitment materials. All points of view were said to be welcome in this vibrant marketplace of ideas.

The college also considers itself a feminist institution, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of feminist pioneers have been atheists or agnostics was never mentioned. So when an informal student humanist group I advised wanted to bring Annie Laurie Gaylor on campus to talk about feminism and freethought, I thought it a perfect fit with the college’s stated values. Annie Laurie wrote Women Without Superstition, the definitive book on the topic.

We reserved the room, clearly stating the nature of the event, paid the required fee, and received an approved contract. We advertised openly on campus and in the papers for four weeks. But 45 minutes before the event, a security guard arrived and locked the hall, “By order of the president.”

I called Sister Anita for an explanation and was told that I had not reserved the hall. When I replied that I had the reservation in hand, she was silent for several seconds.

“Look Dale,” she finally said, “this just isn’t going to happen.”

The next day, as word of the lockout spread, she sent a campus-wide email claiming that I had intentionally misrepresented the nature of the event. The day after that, the first student protest in the history of the college took place on the quad. Major media stories ensued, and I received some blistering hate mail.

I managed to stay three more years, trying to improve the climate of inquiry on campus, before nausea led me to resign and pursue my current work.

Though religion is in play in both of these situations, the principle applies to countless others as well. If a minority point of view is on the verge of gaining a fair hearing within the rules, someone in the majority will simply change the rules. The women’s movement struggled against the same kind of goalpost-moving, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 essentially said, “Okay, from now on we will follow our own rules.” The majority party in Congress regularly changes procedures to hogtie the minority. Rules are useful, goes the reasoning of the powerful, until they aren’t. At which point etc.

Some defenders of the garrison commander will surely point out that he didn’t cancel the event, Justin did. A bit like saying, “Sure, I shot you, but you’re the one that fell over.”

Eight years ago I was heartbroken that what could have been a simple, positive expression of the important place of religious doubt in our history instead yielded a melee of angry protests, accusations, and hate mail because someone decided their own rules were meant to be broken as needed. Now Justin’s attempt to create something positive is instead devolving into ugliness and lawsuits for the same reason.

The suit is justified and necessary (and, as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s Mikey Weinstein put it, “a one-inch putt”) — but once again I’m heartbroken at the duplicity and the lost opportunity.

I hope I’d behave better than the garrison commander and Sister Anita in a position of majority power. But if I were to do otherwise, I hope the minority voices I trample on would shame me into integrity.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.