© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

“This just isn’t going to happen”

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:


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.



This was written on Sunday, 06. March 2011 at 09:29 and was filed under belief and believers, church-state separation, diversity, fear, Kerfuffles, nonbelief and nonbelievers. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. Was the event strictly secular or was it anti-religious? It’s hard to tell based on the speakers and poster (“A day for the rest of us”)?

    Comment: Mikey Cooper – 06. March 2011 @ 4:45 pm

  2. @Mikey: From the post: “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.”

    Comment: Dale – 06. March 2011 @ 6:13 pm

  3. This is what we get for taking the high road. This is what we get for accommodating these people. The FFRF and the MRFF should have started with lawsuits. These people at Fort Bragg will only listen when forced to listen. They cannot be trusted to act in good faith, and they deserve neither the benefit of the doubt nor the extension of anything resembling trust. I’ve been following this all week and it has me STEAMED. The people who volunteer to defend this country and/or multinational oil interests deserve better than this.

    Comment: blotzphoto – 06. March 2011 @ 7:29 pm

  4. @Dale: Man, that went in one ear, right out the other somehow. 😉

    As much as I’d love them to change their tune and support secular events like this, I’d prefer them to not use the perceived “equal time” as an allowance to violate the establishment clause. Supporting a secular rock concert should not give them the all clear to continue supporting religious events with taxpayer money.

    Comment: Mikey Cooper – 06. March 2011 @ 7:40 pm

  5. @Mikey: Yeah, that would certainly be my preference as well. There is also a way to see this as the best possible result, since it lays the hypocrisy bare in a way that was only implicit before. Perhaps now we can move toward a total ban on these events. (Then on to even more obvious violations, like the friggin’ money. Oy!)

    Comment: Dale – 06. March 2011 @ 7:54 pm

  6. “The FFRF and the MRFF should have started with lawsuits.”

    @blotzphoto: I disagree. The fact that the garrison commander was given an opportunity to act in good faith and refused to do so paints the situation in a much clearer light than if the FFRF had begun by firing off lawsuits. It makes the duplicity obvious

    It also allows individuals along each step of the process the opportunity to show exactly where they stand, just as it did in Dale’s story about Ms. Warner.

    Comment: Michelle Galo – 06. March 2011 @ 10:40 pm

  7. @Michelle: Oh my word, you said that so well. That’s exactly the point. Greater clarity AND the chance for individuals to differentiate themselves.

    Comment: Dale – 07. March 2011 @ 8:14 am

  8. This isn’t just a one time occurence.



    Aggressive evangelism is rampant within the Army and Air Force. Some Army training centers (for basic and advanced infantry training) have “days off” where one has an option of attending a church sponsored “picnic” or staying behind and cleaning the barracks. That the “picnic” includes hellfire-and-brimstone preaching and full immersion baptism is conveniently overlooked by oversight committees.

    Even the Navy has the “Evening Prayer” aboard ship which is broadcast over the ships public address system and is inescapible.

    I have nothing but respect for SGT Griffith and hope that it all works out in the end.

    P.S. Off topic – Your blog is awesome. Your books even more so. Thanks so much.

    Comment: Medardus – 07. March 2011 @ 9:52 am

  9. @Michelle: I don’t disagree with you at all, you’re exactly right. I guess I’m just seeing with 20/20 hindsight and what i see is classic bullying behavior. This base commander , in retrospect, comes across as sooo obviously a scoundrel, how could people have not seen this coming? He may as well be the asshole dean from a wacky college hijinks movie.

    Comment: blotzphoto – 07. March 2011 @ 9:53 am

  10. @Medardus: I was gobsmacked by this when I toured the Air Force Academy in 2002. I simply couldn’t believe how overt it was. (And thanks for the kind words.)

    @blotzphoto: My guess is that he got pressure from outside — or more likely, from up the chain of command — and did a quick 180. That’s also what probably happened with the college president in my case. She surely knew about the event long before, then someone (a big Catholic donor, I’m guessing) saw it in the paper, picked up the phone and spit nails at her.

    As I’ve said, there’s often just one nut among the reasonables in these cases. The dark side: that’s often all it takes.

    Comment: Dale – 07. March 2011 @ 10:02 am

  11. I hope there’s another Judge Jones out there somewhere to give the base commander a good spanking. It would be nice if it came from a Bush appointee this time too, but I’m not holding my breath.

    What I’d really like is for this case to kick the legs out from under the Office of Faith-Based Foetid Dingo’s Kidneys. But we probably have to wait for a changing of the guard at the supreme court before that happens.

    Comment: Hamilton Jacobi – 08. March 2011 @ 11:37 pm

  12. Is there any update on the lawsuit filed by Rock Beyond Belief?

    Comment: JaniceOly – 11. June 2011 @ 2:01 am

  13. I haven’t heard any recent updates on the MRFF suit, but Rock Beyond Belief has resubmitted a request for a fall date for the event itself.

    Comment: Dale – 11. June 2011 @ 7:49 am

  14. It looks like it is going forward! http://rockbeyondbelief.com/2011/08/02/fort-bragg-approves-on-post-atheist-festival-rock-beyond-belief/

    Comment: JaniceOly – 03. August 2011 @ 7:23 pm

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