“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Ready for a good news story? As this letter of gratitude from the Office of the Superintendent shows, an incredibly improbable meeting between formerly bitter enemies was held 3 days ago on the banks of the Hudson River at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. How do I know? Because I was one of those formerly bitter enemies, and I was there.
But first, a little backstory to this miracle meeting.
Let it never be said that there’s such a thing as a “lost cause.” Likewise, let us be on guard at all times against those who seek to reduce the world to hurtful stereotypes alone. As the founder and president of the 5-time, Nobel Peace Prize-nominated civil rights advocacy organization, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), I’m often on the receiving end of such vile mischaracterizations, ranging from the silly (“Field General of the Godless Armies of Satan”) and the vile (“Jewish lawyer Whine-stein”) to the, well, unprintable. We at MRFF would certainly be doing no good service to anyone if we slipped into such erroneous means of judging the broad range of honorable people who comprise our armed forces. However, we never hesitate from calling it exactly as we see it, as is certainly the case when we denounce the vile monsters who comprise the militant evangelical, fundamentalist Christian, Dominionist bigots both in and out of military uniform. These religious extremist predators are rabidly foaming at their mouths to reduce our cherished Constitutional protections to rack and ruin.
Likewise, we don’t shirk our responsibility to offer justifiable commendations to those who deserve it. Such merit is rare making it all the more critical to recognize it.
Case in point: U.S. Army Lieutenant General Robert L. Caslen, Jr., the brand new Superintendent/Commanding General of the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point.
Lt. Gen. Caslen takes two things very seriously: his commission as a flag (General) officer within the U.S. Army, and his religion as a devout evangelical Christian. This choice is his to make. Caslen, like the rest of us, is Constitutionally allowed to practice his faith however he sees fit, provided that he doesn’t step beyond the bright boundaries of the laws of the land in America. However, when you don the uniform of a United States servicemember, the only faith you should proselytize is that of American patriotism and unyielding fealty towards the Constitutional values contained therein. Your paramount duty is to support and defend that Constitution and adhere to all of the Department of Defense’s directives, instructions, and regulations. One may practice their faith, or practice absolutely no faith at all, however they choose to do so, without compromising their religious principles, provided they practice in the proper time, place, and manner.
So, to make MRFF’s stance exceedingly clear, the Christian faith and the Christian faithful are no issue for us, none whatsoever, regardless of what the “American Taliban” and its legion of gutter publications and conspiratorial, rumor-packed telecasts, radio programs and scurrilous blogs claim. Our MRFF client base of over 34,000 servicemembers, DoD civilian personnel, and armed services veterans is 96% Christian (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) in composition. We by no means seek to witch-hunt every Christian in the armed forces (as our defaming detractors incessantly suggest) – to attempt to do so would be unspeakably reprehensible, not to mention foolish beyond words. However, whenever proselytizing occurs in uniform, in the military workplace (which could be a tank, Humvee, foxhole, or cockpit), during the duty day (which for many servicemembers can be a 24/7 ordeal), and/or from superior to subordinate, you’d better damn well expect MRFF to come out swinging for those oppressed.
Caslen got a taste of MRFF’s passion in 2006, when he appeared to place his oath of commission beneath his personal prerogative to spread his beloved Christian faith through the means at his disposal, which in this case was his rank as a commanding officer with the rank of Brigadier General. Caslen, in his U.S. Army uniform, prominently appeared in a video on behalf of a surpassingly sectarian Christian proselytizing entity known as Christian Embassy. On camera in this video promo for the Christian Embassy, he referred to himself and his fellow Pentagon Generals as comprising the “aroma of Jesus Christ” (go to minute 4 of this video to view Caslen’s bizarre performance). It is important to make clear that Christian Embassy is a militant evangelizing outfit that tasks itself with providing “safe places and practical resources to help… leaders working in D.C…. to integrate their faith and their work.” The actual Christian Embassy video itself boldly made the following shocking claim:
“There are over 25,000 Department of Defense leaders working in the rings and corridors of the Pentagon. Through Bible studies, discipleship, prayer breakfasts, and outreach events, Christian Embassy is mustering these men and women into an intentional relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Need I say more? MRFF lost no time in exposing and denouncing this blatant sedition at a much publicized press conference at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. in early December of 2006. Our Constitutional advocacy compelled the then DoD Secretary, Robert Gates, to order the United States Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD/IG) to aggressively investigate andrelease a report that blasted the rank misconduct on the part of the multiple, high-ranking Pentagon officials featured in the video. The DoD/IG report also concluded that then-Brigadier General Robert Caslen, as well as his fellows, “improperly endorsed and participated with a non-Federal entity while in uniform.” For many Americans, the “Christian Embassy” video was their first introduction to MRFF, not to mention our raison d’être: the protection and re-establishment of the Constitutionally mandated wall separating church and state within the United States military.
At the time, Caslen’s unfortunate participation in the video cast him as a deservedly wretched Constitutional scofflaw in our eyes. Here was a man who committed a grave offense not just against his fellow soldiers, but also violated of his solemn oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and resultantly, all citizens of our nation. But did he mean well? It didn’t matter. Our mantra remains, “Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.” If a surgeon responsible for a mastectomy removes the left breast of a cancer patient when the right breast should have been removed, the damage is done. In such cases, ignorance is anything but an adequate excuse.
Caslen, however, has remarkably proven himself to be a very special soldier of an entirely different breed. Imagine the beautiful and awesome sense of irony I felt as I sat with him in his well-appointed office, along with his key senior staffers, just 72 hours ago at West Point as his invited guest. I was honored to be accompanied by my trusted friend, USAF Academy Class of 1977 classmate and longtime, loyal MRFF ally, recently retired United States Air Force Lt. Gen. William T. Lord. We were there to discuss serious religious respect problems and a myriad of related Constitutional religious issues at West Point where MRFF currently has 177 clients amongst the Academy’s cadets, faculty and staff (137 of them practicing Christians, I might add). Eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart, MRFF’s one-time enemy #1 (and former President of one of MRFF’s most profound enemy organizations, the uber-fundamentalist Officers Christian Fellowship) proved to be just as pious as I expected. But not only in terms of his religiosity but also in terms of his learned and professional loyalty to his mission in the U.S. military. Our one hour and forty-five minute meeting was both fruitful and significantly encouraging.
Here is truly an extraordinary specimen among the top brass, a commanding general officer of true dignity and worth who talks the talk and walks the walk with honesty, confidence, and diligence. Every single one of the many MRFF clients and supporters who have worked closely with Lt. Gen. Caslen in the “post-Christian Embassy” period have testified personally to me of Caslen’s impeccable moral fiber. Caslen’s profound appreciation of diversity and plurality and his intense suspicion of the lunacies of religious supremacy were doubtlessly tempered by the sweltering heat of his dangerous deployment to an Iraq torn by searing sectarian, ethnic, and tribal strife. It was there that Caslen played THE strategic role mediating the blood-hatred borne from centuries of vicious fighting between the Kurdish people, Sunni Arabs, and the Shiite-majority led central government in Baghdad. His totally unforeseen transformation from a militant, dogmatic evangelical Christian fundamentalist into an exemplary illustration of professionalism tempered by Constitutional compliance was surely an organic and painful process, one borne of excruciating, gut-wrenching introspection, self-examination, and auto-criticism.
To be clear, Caslen has NOT had to compromise his Christian faith in ANY way whatsoever to accomplish this magnificent metamorphosis.
To be sure, the United States Military Academy at West Point, one of the foremost and illustriously storied institutions in the entire world for the doctrinal instruction and professional development of officers in the profession of arms, requires such leadership. Only such sterling leadership is capable of resolving the astounding offenses against religious liberty and pluralism which allowed for the red carpet to be rolled out to case-hardened, inveterate bigots such as retired Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, the current executive Vice President of the SPLC-designated anti-gay hate group, the Family Research Council (FRC). While the vigilance of MRFF and our valued allies from the Constitutional and interfaith communities squelched the opportunity extended to this vile Islamophobe to speak at West Point’s National Prayer Breakfast, such a public outcry should not have been necessary in the first place. Egregious offenses to the U.S. Constitution in our nation’s armed forces should not be taking place in any way, shape, or form whatsoever, least of all at USMA.
When former bitter enemies can unite on a solid base of non-partisan, patriotic interest and loyalty to the democratic values embodied by our nation’s founding document, the Christian theocrats and extremists have profound reason to shudder in trepidation. Likewise, advocates and supporters of the continued separation of church and state within the armed forces should have a firm reason for optimism. Simply put, the separation of church and state neither portends nor champions the elimination of either. Indeed, quite the contrary. As our founding fathers made crystal clear, both church and state flourish most optimally when rationally and reasonably separated from each other within common sense constraints as outlined by Constitutional bounds.
MRFF intends to remain vigilant – we don’t make the mistake of “burying hatchets” (historically, this has proven to be a poor strategic choice) – but in Caslen’s case, we’re placing our hatchets in our holsters and effusively outstretching our arms for a firm handshake and following embrace with Lt. Gen. Caslen. The time has come for hand-in-hand collaboration, when people of good worth, dignity and good faith can unite in defense of our nation’s welfare and the protection of our national security interests.
Lt. General Bob Caslen is such a person of this rarified valor. If we all work hard enough at it, we all can be.