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Too much religion at military academies? West Point cadet revives charge.

Citing overt religiosity on campus, a West Point Academy cadet publicly quit this week just months before graduation. This is not the first time the military has come under fire for practices that nonreligious students see as aggressively evangelical.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / December 7, 2012

In this 2001 photo, United States Military Academy cadets stand in formation at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Blake Page, a cadet quitting West Point less than six months before graduation, says he could no longer be part of a culture that promotes prayers and religious activities and disrespects nonreligious cadets.

Jim McKnight/AP/File



When Blake Page announced this week that he was quitting West Point a few months before graduation, citing the overt religiosity on campus, he raised recurring questions about the pervasiveness and impact of evangelical Christianity within the ranks of the US military.

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“I do not wish to be in any way associated with an institution which willfully disregards the Constitution of the United States of America by enforcing policies which run counter to the same,” Mr. Page wrote in his letter of resignation to the US Military Academy at West Point, in New York.  

He cites, among other things, routine prayers at mandatory events for cadets and the practice of awarding off-campus passes and credit to students who take part in religious retreats and chapel choirs. These activities, in turn, foster “open disrespect of non-religious new cadets,” Page argued, adding that he had been told at West Point that it was not possible for people to have morals without believing in God.

This is not the first time such charges have been leveled within a military training academy. The US Air Force Academy came under similar criticism in 2005 for conferring preferential treatment on cadets who were evangelical Christians and promoting proselytizing in the ranks.

A survey commissioned by the Air Force Academy in 2010 showed some improvements in the climate of religious tolerance on campus, but also found that many cadets still felt pressured to take part in religious activities. Nearly half of the non-Christian cadets surveyed, for example, said their fellow students have a “low tolerance” for atheists, a 20 percent jump from a similar 2008 survey.

Charges of evangelism went international when the Pentagon came under fire in 2010 for using gun sights engraved with Bible verses, fueling concerns that the war in Afghanistan would be seen as a military crusade. Some Pentagon officials at first dismissed complaints against the gun sights, comparing them to US currency engraved with “In God We Trust,” but senior officers demanded that the military stop using them.

This came on the heels of reports that Air Force missileers were receiving Bible-centered ethics training, with the aim of helping them shake off lingering doubts about firing nuclear weapons. The training – which had been in place for almost two decades and was known jokingly among the airmen as “Jesus loves nukes” – was halted in 2011.

“God and country is a big part of the military culture,” says Page in a phone interview with the Monitor. “Anytime we have a ceremony of any type, there’s always prayer.”

During his time at West Point as the head of the Secular Student Alliance, Page helped to establish “nontheist chapel time,” an alternative for nonreligious cadets. “Before [that, if you didn't go to chapel] you could either go back to your room or have cleaning detail,” Blake recalls. “A friend of mine was made to sing and dance and recite knowledge and do all sorts of embarrassing things while everyone else went to church.” 


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