Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The VA’s Religious Bias

Memorial Day weekend is a perfect time to report again on this story. Wiccans have been trying for years to get the Veterans Administration to allow soldiers buried in military cemetaries to have Wiccan symbols on their headstone. The latest such case involves Sgt. Patrick Stewart, a soldier who was killed in battle in Afghanistan (and posthumously awarded a Bronze Star for his actions). The VA currently recognizes over 30 religious symbols that may be placed on gravestones. There’s even one for atheists, and for religions as obscure as the United Moravian Church. But no Wiccans need apply. The VA will only say that the matter is under consideration, but they’ve been saying that for years.

Why do you suppose they’re dragging their feet? Believe it or not, I think it’s to avoid angering the religious right in the buildup to a midterm election when they need their base to turn out and vote. Most are not aware of the long battle over the issue of Wiccans in the military. Many will remember that back in 1999, Congressman Bob Barr found out that a group of Wiccan soldiers was performing religious rituals on a military base (with the full permission of the military) and threw a hissy fit. He actually tried to put in an amendment to a military appropriation bill that banned all such services; the bill failed.

What most probably don’t know is what happened in the aftermath: a group of over a dozen religious right organizations, led by Paul Weyrich (founder of the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, and probably the single most powerful unknown person in the religious right leadership) actually declared that Christians should boycott the military and refuse to join until they refused to allow Wiccans to serve their country:

“The official approval of satanism and witchcraft by the Army is a direct assault on the Christian faith that generations of American soldiers have fought and died for,” Paul Weyrich added. “If the Army wants witches and satanists in its ranks, then it can do it without Christians in those ranks. It’s time for the Christians in this country to put a stop to this kind of nonsense. A Christian recruiting strike will compel the Army to think seriously about what it is doing.”

And you want real irony? One of the groups joining in this boycott was called the “Religious Freedom Coalition”. Mr. Orwell, call your office.

Comments

  1. #1 Matthew
    May 28, 2006

    I think this highlights a major problem with U.S. protestantism that needs to be reformed if we are ever to have a more religiously free society. The reason religious conservatives do not want to allow Wiccan headstones or Wiccan services in the military is because doing so would acknowledge that Wiccans exist. As that quote by Paul M. Weyrich shows, what they believe is that Wiccans are actually worshipping Christian demons. This also comes up often in Christian presuppositional apologetics, where they always argue that the Christian worldview (their brand of christianity, of course) is unavoidable. Until protestantism reforms to allow the possibility that other people can sincerely believe in other religions and/or worldviews this will continue to be a problem.

  2. #2 PennyBright
    May 28, 2006

    This offends me, and I have written to the VA about it. I encourage others to do the same.

    You may contact the VA online here: US Department of Veterans Affairs
    – this links directly to their contact page.

    On the form options, I chose “Complaints about lack of courtesy or service recieved from VA” and the topic “Burial and Memorial Benefits.”

    Snail mail letters should go to:

    Department of Veterans Affairs
    Jim Nicholson
    810 Vermont Ave., N.W.
    Washington, DC 20420

  3. #3 Kele
    May 28, 2006

    “The VA currently recognizes over 30 religious symbols that may be placed on gravestones. There’s even one for atheists, and for religions as obscure as the United Moravian Church.”

    Why do any need to be “recognized” at all? Shouldn’t people be able to put up whatever they want? Of course, the people aren’t around to decide but why do “religious symbols” need to be recognized? I don’t see why they need to have any say in it. Does the peace sign count?

  4. #4 Dexceus
    May 28, 2006

    As a pagan, this is the sort of thing that I am more then aware of. This is were the religous right shows thier true colors. They do not want a ‘christian nation’ were others are still free to practice thier own faith. They want to get rid of all other faiths.

    Beyond more organized forms of discrimination, is the discrimination that Pagans face on a daily basis. I could not count how many times I have been called a satanist because of the pentacle I wear around my neck.

    Satan is part of the Christian faith, not mine.

  5. #5 VisualFX
    May 28, 2006

    You have to remember some of the history as to why Pagan faiths are called Satanism; it was the demonizing of Paganism when Christianity was making its conquest of Europe. This is what ended the Viking era in northern Europe, the push north by Christian crusaders. Not only did the Viking gods and beliefs “die,” so did the Pagan faith. Parts of pagan rituals were co-opted into Christian holy days; winter solstice being turned into Christmas, spring celebrations being turned into Easter. At the same time, Paganism itself was declared “evil” and branded “which craft” and “Satanism” by the Catholic church. This has stuck through to today hence our popular images of witches, demons, and Satanists. And, to this day, Christians – mostly through ignorance, not knowing the real history – continue to view Paganism as “Satanic” and evil.

  6. #6 kehrsam
    May 28, 2006

    The problem is precisely that many of my fellow evangelicals do not want to know about other religions. It is easier to slap a caricatured label on the other, and then move on. Hence Muhammed = Compulsive liar and child molester, or Wicca = Satanist witches and child sacrifice a la the McMartin case.

    Since the goal is to convert those of other faiths, apparently understanding is not necessary, even though (for instance) the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention explicitly trains its missionaries in the language culture and predominant religion of their service fields. The logic appears to be, “To convert them we need to understand their worldview, but to talk about converting them on Sunday morning we don’t need to know anything.” Curious.

    My church had an especially anti-intellectual asst. Pastor for several years, and one time he gave a series of sermons on the New Age movement. It was all the usual caricatures and half truths, so I offered to teach a class on the New Age as part of the church’s regular religious education series to bring a little reality to the discussion, particularly since I live in an area with a large and growing Wiccan community. No need for that. (I have been allowed to teach a number of non-SBC courses on subjects such as income tax preparation or probate and elder law, so that was not the issue: There was just no need to talk about other beliefs other than to demonize).

    From our national political perspective all a politician has to do to endear himself to the Christian right is to publicly state that he is a Christian: No content is required. Then any policy followed by that politician is spun as somehow being the biblical perspective: Since the assertion goes largely unchallenged, they often get away with it. Hence the monstrous image of Tom DeLay as a martyr.

  7. #7 FishyFred
    May 28, 2006

    The VA has a symbol for atheists? What is it?

  8. #8 PennyBright
    May 28, 2006

    The currently approved emblems can be seen in this pdf file: http://www.vba.va.gov/pubs/forms/40-1330.pdf

    The atheist emblem is the 3 hoop atomic orbits symbol, with an A in the center of it.

  9. #9 Matthew
    May 28, 2006

    Is it just me or does the Sufism reoriented symbol look exactly like the aerosmith symbol….

  10. #10 plunge
    May 28, 2006

    Ug. That’s not a symbol for athiesm. That’s a symbol for the American Atheists cult/public access laughingstock.

    Give me just a nice plain jane stone and I’ll be happy.

  11. #11 dogmeatIB
    May 28, 2006

    I’m a bit upset, were I to lose my life serving in Iraq, I’d much prefer a nice “bird,” pointed directly at the Whitehouse and Congress.

    Hell those are virtually all Christian denominations. Even the Native American Church is traditionalism morphed into Christianity.

  12. #12 Andrew Wade
    May 29, 2006

    “The official approval of satanism and witchcraft by the Army is a direct assault on the Christian faith that generations of American soldiers have fought and died for,” Paul Weyrich added.

    He is slightly right: the Church of Satan (and I presume Satanism in general) does explicitly reject and oppose many of the tenants of Christianity. (The Wiccans however, merely aren’t Christians. WooOooOoo.). I am presuming however, that the Army doesn’t actually approve of Satanism or Witchcraft or Wiccanism and merely accomodates their practitioners, as indeed it ought to. The battle for souls is rather outside the scope of the Army’s purview, and I daresay many Christians recognize that.

  13. #13 David Mazel
    May 29, 2006

    “The official approval of satanism and witchcraft by the Army is a direct assault on the Christian faith that generations of American soldiers have fought and died for”?

    And all this time I thought that those generations of American soldiers had fought and died for their country, not their religion. Thank you, Mr. Weyrich, for setting me straight. Does the Islamic world know that our soldiers fight for Christianity?

    Ya gotta love Weyrich’s rhetoric, too. In Weyrichese, allowing members of another religion to place their own symbols on their graves somehow constitutes “official approval” of that religion, and a “direct assault” on Christianity to boot. Kinda like allowing gay couples to marry constitutes a direct assault on marriage….

  14. #14 Miguelito
    May 29, 2006

    No symbol for Scientology. Would they even be able to use it because of copyright issues?

  15. #15 ulg
    May 29, 2006

    No symbol for Scientology. Would they even be able to use it because of copyright issues?

    How little you know! All Scientologists, in fact, are infected with an Alien Brain Parasite, known as an ‘Operating Thetan’ . Operating Thetans have lots of neat special powers, including immortality, and a fetish for clams. Put yourself in their valves: If you were an Alien Brain Parasite, with neat special powers and a fetish for clams, would you care about having a particular symbol on the stone which marked the site of your discarded host? Of course not.

  16. #16 VoiceOfGrog
    May 30, 2006

    Does the authorization of an atheist emblem by our government prove once in for all that there are atheists in fox holes?

    I tried to find out how many tombstones displayed the “atheist” symbol but apparently there isn’t a database for this information… Or I couldn’t find it.

  17. #17 Raging Bee
    May 30, 2006

    PennyBright: I do not believe your document contains all of the approved symbols. First, where’s the symbol for “Roman Catholic?” And second, I vaguely remember seeing a LOT more choices when I had to select a symbol for my father’s marker in 1997 (at Arlington Cemetary). I vaguely remember a pentagram or something else in the “Pagan” category, but I could be wrong about that, since my dad was Catholic and I wasn’t interested in non-Christian symbols then.

    Could some Pagan symbols have been removed due to Bush-fundie pressure since 1997?

  18. #18 Raging Bee
    May 30, 2006

    Here’s a link to a list of authorized religious symbols from the Arlington national Cemetary webpage:

    http://www.arlingtoncemetery.org/funeral_information/authorized_emblems.html

    Still nothing for “Pagan” or “Roman Catholic.” I notice that there are separate crosses for “Lutheran,” “Episcopal,” “Russian Orthodox,” and other Christian denominations. Maybe they typical Catholic symbol of a cross with Christ still on it was too elaborate to carve into a headstone? Or did the Vatican make a ruling to use the generic cross?

    And what the hell’s with that “Atheist” symbol? Why an atom? That looks like the insignia of a nuclear missile command! I’m almost certain that wasn’t on the list in 1997.

    And what’s with the five-pointed star for Islam that can’t be shown due to “copyright” considerations?

  19. #19 nm
    May 30, 2006

    You have to remember some of the history as to why Pagan faiths are called Satanism; it was the demonizing of Paganism when Christianity was making its conquest of Europe.

    This is true, so long as “conquest” is understood for the most part to be metaphoric.

    This is what ended the Viking era in northern Europe, the push north by Christian crusaders.

    This is not true. The Viking era was ended by the consolidation of royal control in the Scandinavian region and in areas Viking groups had conquered; some of those consolidating rulers were Christians and some of them were pagans. There was nothing resembling a “crusade” in Viking territory at any time; the Teutonic Knights, who did fight against (pagan) Balts, Wends, etc. in the eastern Baltic, didn’t do so until around 1300, by which time the Viking era had been over for 300 years or more.

    I mention this not (just) to be pedantic, but to point out that ignorance goes in a lot of directions, and that the response to monotheistic demonization of paganism should not be an equally unfounded demonization of monotheism.

  20. #20 PennyBright
    May 30, 2006

    Raging Bee,

    I know of at least one symbol (a humanist logo) added to the list after the Feb 2000 publication date of the form I linked too. I can’t get the link you gave to work – keeps sending me to the MSN search page – probably because my connection is wimpy.

    I do not believe that any pagan symbols have been removed – Selena Fox from Circle Sanctuary says that the pentacle emblem has been being considered by the VA for about 7 years now, and I recall from desert storm (I was involved with military pagan community then – not military, civvie stuff) that there was not a pagan emblem at that time. I do think that if there had been a symbol that was removed since there would have been a great deal of noise about it in the pagan community at large, and I haven’t heard anything.

  21. #21 Raging Bee
    May 30, 2006

    Penny: I think there’s something wrong with the Arlington Cemetary site: it worked when I first posted the link, but now hesitates and gives me the “file not found” message. Maybe Ed’s audience are crashing their server?

    I’ll take your word about the Pagan symbols. AS I said, my father was Catholic, so I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to Pagan symbols at the time.

    PS: the USAF Chief o’ Chaplains’ website used to have thumbnail descriptions of many religions; now the info seems to have vanished from the .MIL sphere, and been replaced with links to similar descriptions on a .EDU site. Do you know anything about this?

  22. #22 PennyBright
    May 30, 2006

    Raging Bee, I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the Chaplains website. Sorry.

  23. #23 Ginger Yellow
    May 31, 2006

    Since when did generations of American soldiers fight and die for the Christian faith? I thought they fought and died for, you know, America.

  24. #24 Chance
    May 31, 2006

    Until protestantism reforms

    You mean Christianity? The Catholics certainly don’t get a free pass on exclusion.

    In general I find most Protestant denominations much more accepting than the Catholic counterpart. But of course there are many branches.

  25. #25 doctorgoo
    April 23, 2007