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Prayer and the Joint Chiefs

June 02, 1985

I am sure Watkins is an honorable and sincere person, but in his letter he displays some sloppy arguments and a mind frozen in the purblind social attitudes of his religious, class and institutional background. He cannot distinguish between religion and religiosity.

Let's examine a few of his statements. He says, for example, "Our ancestors in declaring our independence, invoked the name of 'Creator' and 'Nature's God' ". Then he goes on to say that the "Founding Fathers and Mothers . . . knew that without a strong belief in God" there could be no virtue, dreams, hope and democracy. On the contrary, there is ample historical evidence that many of the framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights regarded religion as a menace to the infant nation because of the sectarian strife that had inevitably followed in religion's wake, up to that point in human history. Thanks largely to doubters or unbelievers such as Franklin, Jefferson and Madison, they produced some of the most cherished documents the human mind has conceived.

Then Watkins points to gloomy Russia as a paradigm of the godless state. Well, what was Russia like before communism? It most definitely was a fervidly religious state, practically a theocracy. And a land of tyranny, of enslaved peasants, of ignorance and superstition, of blinding wealth and privilege for a few and abject poverty and hopelessness for the many. Not to mention pogroms and wars and the annihilation of cultural minorities. A truly Christian state.

I think the Russians are better off now. And one can make a strong argument that they would be even more better off now if the Russian soul had not been imbued by a thousand years of orthodoxy to give unquestioned obedience to authority, whether bishops, czars or Politburos. Without this onus the Russian people might have evolved a more democratic form of communism.

The admiral mentions opposition to the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Does he perhaps think that this phrase was handed down to us by the "Founding Fathers"? I wonder if he knows that "Under God" was added to the pledge only in 1954, by an act of Congress, which is certainly not sacrosanct.

In common with many of his class and background and age the admiral has an idealized view of the American past, one in which everyone lived in a Norman Rockwell painting, went to church on Sunday, and pastoral peace and harmony prevailed everywhere. The history of this nation is gloriously diverse, with many shameful episodes as well as grand achievements. Religion, directly or indirectly, is involved in some of the former, while the latter are largely due to the expansion of the human spirit fostered by our humane system of government.

The admiral is a perfect example of Santayana's cliche that he who does not know history is doomed to relive it.



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