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.
“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.”
West Point spokesman Francis DeMaro Jr. told CNN that Page's claim that prayer is mandatory is not true. "The academy holds both official and public ceremonies where an invocation and benediction may be conducted, but prayer is voluntary," he said. "As officers, cadets will be responsible for soldiers who represent America’s great diversity in faith and ethnic background."
Though Page says he occasionally felt targeted for his nonreligious views, he also reports that he came to admire many who went out of their way to understand his concerns. He recalls one professor, an evangelical Christian, who called him in for a talk. “He genuinely asked me, ‘Would you please explain to me where you get your morals if you don’t get them from God?’ ”
This professor also asked Page how he could help to prevent a climate of religious intolerance. “He has a moral character, and he really inspired me,” Page says.
Mikey Weinstein, a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, calls Page the “Rosa Parks” of his generation. “Blake is in every way, shape, and form an American hero,” he says, adding that “mandated religion has no place within the technologically most lethal creation of the US government.”
Page, for his part, says he decided to go public with his resignation after learning that he would not receive a commission for the US military. Because of his struggle with depression, he received a medical waiver.
“When I knew I couldn’t commission, I knew that there was something I could do. I had such limited time remaining in the system, I thought that by doing this I could get people to think about it as well,” he says.
Since then, Page says, he has received “many, many” letters of support from faculty members and fellow cadets.
That said, many other cadets “respected my decision but didn’t agree with my method,” he says. The way he wrote his public letter, which he released to the Huffington Post, “was very hostile and confrontational – I acknowledge that – but there’s no way to get attention in this country without being confrontational,” he adds.
His next step is to finish his degree at a state university – he’s thinking Georgia or Minnesota. Then he plans to write a book about his experience at West Point, likely focusing on the culture among the corps of cadets.
“There are many other organizational problems at West Point that need to be addressed,” Page says. “The cadets know it, and talk about it all the time – but we’re addicted to tradition.”