A thirteen foot tall cross atop a mountain near Camp Horno on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in California has become the source of much controversy over the past few weeks, sparked by a Los Angeles Times article about a group of Marines erecting the cross on Veterans Day.
The cross put up this Veterans Day is actually the third cross to adorn this hill. The original cross, erected by a group of Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment in 2003 was destroyed in 2007 by a brush fire. That cross was then replaced in early 2008 with a second cross. The cross erected earlier this month is a fire-proof replacement of the second cross, which was also made of wood like the original one destroyed by the fire.
In virtually all cases like this -- whether its a Ten Commandments monument in a courthouse or a cross on a military base -- you'll hear the same few talking points coming from those who claim that religious neutrality by the government is somehow tantamount to persecution of Christians. I call these the "Persecuted Christians Myths," and here's how they relate to that thirteen foot tall cross at Camp Pendleton.
Persecuted Christians Myth #1 -- Nobody is being forced to look at it
Well, in the case of the Camp Pendleton cross, this is certainly not true. From postings on message boards from Marines at Pendleton who say that they can see it from their office windows to commanders boasting about its visibility, it is clear that this cross is intended to be seen by everybody, whether they want to look at it or not.
Just read the 2009 article that appeared on the official Marine Corps website, which began:
"Although many Marines may not know where the heart and soul of 1st Marine Regiment is, they have two ways to find it: either look far off behind Camp Horno or run up the hill and see it firsthand.
"'It's the biggest hill around here,' said Sgt. Parker C. Vaculik, a reconnaissance Marine with Company B, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. 'Really, by coming up here, you are killing two birds with one stone. You're exercising and you're showing your respect to the fallen.'
"'If you look way up to the top of the hill, you will see a cross,' said Col. Daniel J. O'Donohue, the commanding officer of 1st Marine Regiment. 'It is the heart of 1st Marines. It's a monument put up by Marines for Marines.'"
And, it's not just that this cross is visible from various areas of the base. It goes far beyond that. The cross is the destination of many mandatory training hikes, forcing countless Marines of all religions and no religion not only to visit it, but to participate in the rituals that have grown up around it and to listen, often in formation, to Christian prayers and sermons delivered by their superiors.
This completely inappropriate and unconstitutional practice has been going on since the original cross was erected in 2003, and has been well documented in articles on the official Marine Corps website, such as this one from 2005, and this one from 2006.
To fully grasp what occurs during these mandatory hikes, just watch this video from one that took place in 2008.
That's not a chaplain delivering that Christian sermon (beginning at 3:36 in the video); that was the battalion's sergeant major, Jeffrey D. Moses, and the Marine speaking right before him was the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Benjamin T. Watson. Get that? The superiors that a non-Christian or non-religious Marine should be able to go to when they have an issue with being forced to participate in religious exercises are the ones who are leading these forced religious exercises. Is it any wonder that so many service members say that they can't go to their chains of command to resolve these issues and instead come to organizations like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF)?
Persecuted Christians Myth #2 -- The "lone atheist troublemaker"
Now, whenever one of these issues makes the news, there must be someone for the persecuted Christians to blame. Typically, they go after someone who they can turn into what I call the "lone atheist troublemaker." In the case of the Camp Pendleton cross, the "lone atheist troublemaker" of choice has been Jason Torpy, a West Point graduate, former Army captain, and Iraq veteran, who now serves as president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF). From FOX News to Jay Sekulow to The Christian Post to outspoken fundamentalist Christian military officers like Air Force Major Jonathan Dowty (a.k.a. JD the Christian Fighter Pilot), all were quick to make Jason Torpy the requisite "lone atheist troublemaker" on this one after he wrote a blog post about it on the MAAF website.
Persecuted Christians Myth #3 -- Only non-Christians object to government promotions of Christianity
Contrary to Persecuted Christians Myth #2, it's not only atheists who are objecting to the Camp Pendleton cross and calling for its removal. While MAAF is an atheist organization, MRFF is not, so MRFF hears from service members of all religions as well as those of no religion. In fact, 96% of the now over 25,000 service members and veterans who have come to MRFF for help are actually Christians -- both Catholics and Protestants who just aren't "Christian enough" for the military.
MRFF has been contacted by well over one hundred Marines at Camp Pendleton, as well as many Marine Corps and Navy veterans, some of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all of whom want the cross removed.
Are all of these Marines and veterans atheists? Of course not. The following email is from a highly decorated senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) in the Marine Corps, who identifies himself as a devout Lutheran, writing on behalf of himself and fourteen of his fellow NCOs at Camp Pendleton, all of whom have served multiple combat tours.
Subject: Marines Fight and Die for America and Fellow Marines, PERIOD!!
My name is (name withheld) and I am a (senior USMC Non-Commissioned Officer rank withheld) stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. I am a "lifer" in the USMC. I am here until they kick me out of the Corps. Thank you to MRFF for being there so that I can express my feelings on behalf of myself and my fellow Marines. If I said these same things to my superiors in the Corps I probably would get kicked out.
I am a veteran of many, in fact (exact number withheld), combat tours to both Iraq and Afghanistan. I have been awarded many combat decorations including (combat awards and decoration names withheld) for my combat tours which have always included much hand-to-hand combat. Now, about that cross being lugged up that hill on the federal land controlled by Camp Pendleton. Fuck those Marines who did that! FUCK THEM TO HELL! What, they think that that cross stands for and represents all the dead Marines that have fallen in the combat zones where we have fought and bled? I happen to be a devout Lutheran myself but I lead now and have led, as a senior Marine NCO, USMC combat units which have Marines in it from DOZENS of different religions and atheists and agnostics too. I have fought and bled with my fellow Marines all over the desert down range in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many might have been Christians like me and many were not Christians but that didn't matter worth a shit when my hands were on their open wounds trying to plug bullet and shrapnel holes to keep them from bleeding out. No, in the Marines we do not honor those who have fallen by the religious symbol of ONE religion. Doing that on Camp Pendleton land itself is in fact a DISGRACE TO THE MARINE CORPS AND ALL OF AMERICA! We Marines fight and die for America and our fellow Marines, PERIOD! Last time I checked, the cross of Jesus and Jesus himself, who is my personal Lord and Savior, does NOT represent my country of America! Nor was Jesus ever a member of the United States Marine Corps! Those Marines who put up that cross disgrace all we fight for in the Corps. Why did they do it then? They did it to let everyone know that, at Camp Pendleton, the USMC-approved, supreme religious faith is their version of fundamental Christianity. Ironic and outrageous, as the Marines they claim to honor with their cross died fighting fundamental Islam. What if Muslim Marines had dragged a giant symbol of Islam and erected it up on that same Camp Pendleton hill? We would be waist deep in blood and guts if that had happened. I and my fellow Marines did not fight and get wounded and almost killed numerous times for that cross to be put up there by those fucking pathetic Marines. They should be severely disciplined and made an example of immediately.
(USMC Sr. NCO's name, rank, position and title and combat unit withheld)
Persecuted Christians Myth #4 -- Blatant displays of Christianity by the government are OK because most Americans are Christians
Well, this is about the stupidest argument used in these cases, given that we have that pesky Constitution to prevent the majority from trampling on the minority, but it's always pulled out by somebody, so I should include it.
Listen to Jordan Sekulow (from the American Center for Law and Justice just like his father Jay Sekulow) in this clip from FOX News as he explains that the great big cross on an Army chapel in Afghanistan should not have been removed because the majority (inflated by Sekulow to be 90%) of the military is Christian. This chapel cross, currently being lumped into stories with the Camp Pendleton cross, as it is in this clip, was removed by the chaplain, who was correctly following an Army regulation that clearly states that symbols of any specific religion can only be displayed at times when worship services of that religion are in progress. This is not persecution of Christians, but merely a common sense regulation to keep Army chapels that are shared by a variety of religions neutral and welcoming to people of all faiths, as Kathleen Johnson, former military director and now vice president of American Atheists, explains.
The bottom line is that religious neutrality by the government DOES NOT equal persecution of Christians, no matter how many times FOX News and "Team Sekulow" keep claiming it does.