[Updated August 9, 2011 - Rock Beyond Belief date set - March 31, 2011]
This is one more reason why we need your voice and your support. Join MAAF and send your support.
On Sep 25th, 2010, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association held a concert on the Fort Bragg Main Parade Field. Attendance was projected by BGEA to be 10,000, but photos indicate closer to hundreds than thousands. Whatever the size, this event was specifically "evangelical in nature" according to the event site and letters sent to the community by the senior Ft Bragg chaplain. The photos also show that the Golden Knights parachute team performed at the event, which requires special military authorization. An included "Family Fun Event" has balloons and face painting targeted at children and the "God Rocks" children ministry. The prayer call associated with the event calls for soldiers to bring their "battle buddies". The chaplain enthusiastically encouraged members of the local community to attend. New reports by the Freedom From Religion Foundation show the Army spent at least $50,000 of taxpayer funds on this event.
This encouragement by Ft Bragg chaplains to the surrounding area stated that the purpose of the event was to bring new church members and to spread Christianity. The documentation from BGEA unequivocally presented the event as an evangelical event. Chaplains provide secular services for the morale and welfare of the troops, and that includes providing for the free exercise of members. An event of this magnitude promoted by chaplains and held on post, with the stated purpose of bringing in new members breaches the authority of the chaplaincy. The chaplaincy is a support function, and should not engage in government-sponsored marketing of a particular faith message.
Prior to the event, MAAF contacted Ft Bragg directly and received a response from the Ft Bragg Commander through public affairs (below). The commander suggested that Ft Bragg leadership had properly reviewed the event to ensure it met Constitutional and military standards. We found the General's response to be inaccurate and joined partners including the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State to oppose this event. Until such time, MAAF continues to partner with affiliated secular and interfaith organizations to stop this type of abuse of government authority and funding to spread a particular faith message.
Rock The Fort 2009 at Ft Leonard Wood was the first event of this kind, with 2000 soldiers at the event. The site affirms that 123 attendees were converted at the event. J. Clarke of the Association shows his motivations in recognizing "Boot camp is one of the most ... spiritually vulnerable times of a soldier's life." Young soldiers under the stress of training are being targeted for evangelical exploitation. [update] There do not seem to have been many major reports of the success of the event or of those converted at the event. This is hopefully a result of an understanding that proselytism on government property and with government resources in damaging to the military mission and can not be allowed to continue.
The evangelical concert at Ft Bragg was one more in a long line of abuses that have made it more and more difficult to believe the military treats all service members equally regardless of belief. The Ft Bragg commander, in his response to letters of objection, states that the "event is tailored to the interests of a particular faith." This statement doesn't help because it deflects from the real issue, which is that this event is evangelical in nature and "tailored" to make the Army a marketing agency for one religion, evangelical Christianity.
On a positive note, the Ft Bragg commander's letter offered "similar support to comparable events." The fact is that only evangelical Christians would request an evangelical event, so there will be no request for a 'comparable event'. MAAF would oppose an military promotion of religion or nontheist beliefs like atheism or Secular Humanism just as it does Christianity. That having been said, nontheists at Ft Bragg may request the opportunity to hold an event for themselves with no atheist "evangelical" purpose. The new Ft Bragg military group Military Atheists & Secular Humanists is planning an event titled Rock Beyond Belief. While any event held should not be a "me too" copy of this evangelical concert, nontheists do come together and local nontheists may accept the commanding general's offer to host a nontheistic, non-evangelical event that has none of the Constitutional complications of Rock the Fort.
The Installation Commander, the final approval authority, denied the Rock Beyond Belief (RBB) event. More specifically, the RBB request for equivalent support as promised by LTG Helmick called for use of the outdoor Main Parade Field where Rock the Fort was held, funding on the order of $50,000 as was provided to Rock the Fort, and enthusiastic Ft Bragg promotion as Rock the Fort received. Colonel Sicinski in his response, offered a smaller indoor venue, denied any funding, and required RBB disavow any DoD endorsement. This constitutes a denial of the event. This denial comes less than a month prior to the requested date wasting reservations and travel expenses for planned speakers and attendees. This act causes great damage to the military's claim to support nontheists and Christians equally.
There is good news though. Ft Bragg has a strong local chapter of military atheists meeting and flourishing despite the roadblocks related to Rock Beyond Belief. MAAF is has scheduled a meeting with local chaplains to coordinate better support the nontheists at Ft Bragg. Rock Beyond Belief is one major and important way for Ft Bragg to show support, but there are many other resources and support chaplains can and should provide.