What wild couple of weeks it’s been for the Pagans at the Air Force Academy! First it was announced that a special outdoor worship area was created for Pagan cadets and faculty (that had been in the works for some time), a positive step after past allegations of rampant Christian-fueled intolerance at the academy. Then, the story hit the national media, Tech Sergeant Brandon Longcrier was named an “intriguing person of the day” by Rick Sanchez at CNN, and the first rumblings of criticism were emerging. Sometime, during all this press, a “desecration incident” happened, when a large wooden cross was left at the site. Cue anger (and some debate over how serious of an incident this was) from Pagans, and strangely, anger from Christians at our temerity in claiming it a desecration.
Which brings us to today. While the initial flurry of national press seems to have died down, the Air Force Academy, and the Pagans on it, are still generating news. Some wondered if the Naval Academy would be building a worship area for Pagans, with the answer, for now, being “no”.
“Naval Academy officials said they have had no demand for such a spot. “At this time, there have been no requests for a worship location for earth-centered religions,” academy spokeswoman Judy Campbell said. “Midshipmen are always provided the opportunity to observe the religious obligations of their chosen faith, but their participation is entirely up to them,” she said.”
But you never know, perhaps we’ll see Naval Academy Pagans decide to organize and ask for one too?
Meanwhile, the Colorado Springs Gazette gives us some much-needed background concerning Pagans at the Air Force Academy, showing that this new stone circle wasn’t some rash action, but a response to a long-term need by an established community of cadets and service members.
“According to administrators, the traditions that some dismiss as “witchcraft” are nothing new at the Colorado Springs military academy. Wiccans, pagans and other followers of Earth-centered religions have been active on campus for at least a decade, and are now among 14 religious groups recognized under a program that sets aside time for cadets to worship on their own, said cadet wing chaplain Lt. Col. William Ziegler III. “We’re here to serve as caretakers to support every cadet’s religious freedoms,” Ziegler said of Special Programs in Religious Education, or SPIRE. Until recently, the pagan group met at a brick-and-tile worship area in Jack’s Valley, a sprawling, wooded training area to the north of the academy’s cadet area. About a dozen cadets belong, the academy said, and an additional 30 service members in Colorado Springs identify themselves as pagans. The group’s path to prominence began last summer, after an inspection determined the aging site was no longer “structurally sound,” Ziegler said.”
In other words, Pagans at the academy are nothing new, and the circle, built at “no additional taxpayer expense”, is the result of years of bridge-building and open communication. The article also notes that several military bases have established stone circles for Pagan soldiers, with the most famous being the one at Ft. Hood, the existence of which spurred the (in)famous “Witchcraft isn’t a religion” statement from George W. Bush, and a full-blown campaign against Pagans in the military by then-congressman Bob Barr.
Sadly, despite the genuine underlying non-controversy of all this happening, it has brought out the worst in some religious commentators. Like Catholic pundit Michael Terheyden, who calls this development “dangerous”, and essentially backs the flawed “two-tiered” religious arguments we see flying about in the Patrick McCollum case.
“Paganism and witchcraft are not equal to the major religions of the world. I believe that it largely died out throughout much of the world because, based on the idea of “survival of the fittest,” it was not the fittest. In general it was violent and blood thirsty and mired in superstition and magic. It was seemingly unable to provide the glue necessary to maintain a healthy culture and society. It is true that others have the right in our country to believe what they want, and we should defend that right, but it is another thing altogether to treat every belief as being equal when they are not. Consequently, it does not seem competent or rational when the Air Force Academy, one of the premier training institutions of our military, equates neo-paganism with the major religions of the world and claims this is, somehow, indicative of tolerance and respect.”
You know, there was a time, not so long ago, when Catholics weren’t seen as “equal” to the protestants that dominated the American political and cultural landscape. They were discriminated against, and viewed with suspicion. It was such a big issue that John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president, had to reassure voters that he wouldn’t take orders from the Pope.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”
So to see a Catholic, so seemingly blind to his faith’s history in America, so ready to spout half-truths and misinformation about modern Pagan faiths, so ready to see the government create barriers against non-monotheistic faiths, is bitterly ironic.
Anyone with a clear sense of history, and a clear vision of America’s values, would see this simple stone circle as a testament to our success. To begrudge the Pagans a circle, or to imply that some faiths should be more equal than others, are the subconscious stirrings of a theocratic mind. Because once you draw the line for one faith, you’ll soon want to draw more lines, until only the “pure” and “true” faith is left. As history has taught us, that way leads to madness and horror.