LtGen Caslen: West Point Prayer ‘Crossed the Line’

The video below is a Washington Post interview in which LtGen Robert Caslen, US Military Academy Superintendent, addressed his response to Michael “Mikey” Weinstein’s complaint about the team prayer requested by West Point football Coach Jeff Monken. The 4 minute response is worth watching, as he speaks with nuance that is often lost when he is subsequently quoted.

That said, nuance isn’t everything:

LtGen Caslen said they removed the original video that included the prayer because it was “offensive” — a seemingly illogical explanation. PETA finds the use of live mules as Army mascots offensive, but the Army continues to do it. The practice of liberty ensures that someone will be offended, and since the US military protects the liberty of its troops, it intentionally puts itself in the position of allowing others to be offended so that rights can be exercised.

This is not unlike the Air Force Academy’s treatment of Weinstein’s complaint about their football prayers: He was offended. USAFA showed more concern for the human rights of their cadets than they did Mikey Weinstein’s hurt feelings. (A few people noticed at the time, too, that Weinstein ignored West Point doing the same thing as USAFA, apparently because Weinstein didn’t want to burn a bridge with LtGen Caslen.)

Unfortunately, it seems in this case LtGen Caslen borrowed the language of Mikey Weinstein, who has previously demanded the US military restrict religious freedom so as not to offend the enemy we are trying to defeat.  By that logic, the reaction of others governs the acceptable exercise of liberty.

With that background, this is LtGen Caslen’s nuance about his decisions [emphasis added]:

Caslen said it was incorrect for Monken to direct or strongly encourage a prayer while serving in a leadership position at a government-funded public institution.

It creates an atmosphere where it is expected from everybody to say a prayer regardless of their faith or no faith,” Caslen said. “It’s like me as the superintendent of the Corps of Cadets saying, ‘Let’s take a knee and say a prayer together.’ I don’t have the authority to do that. I cannot use my position of authority — my public position of authority — to direct my subordinates to do something that is inconsistent with their rights. So, that’s probably where we crossed the line.”

Leaders should build teams where everyone feels they’re a valued member. And this includes in faith and no faith…Everybody in that room should feel that they are comfortable and that they were not under coercion to be able to have to say that prayer.

There’s a way to make that happen with the chaplain, and an invitation without creating a coercive effect and without showing reprisal against some of the other people that had elected not to participate. That’s the proper way to do that.

The assertion that a leader asking, requesting, or leading in prayer “creates an atmosphere” where everyone is expected to pray is no more accurate than the assertion that a leader holding a beer at the end of the day “creates an atmosphere” in which everyone is expected to drink — and yes, that does happen, and no, not everyone is expected to drink.

Coach Monken is precisely that — a coach. He isn’t a General officer. The football players are adult college students and members of the military; they’re not grade school kids. It is true that the US service academies are leadership laboratories, and cadets may need to be taught/learn some of these concepts, but they cannot be taught such lessons if the institutional mandate is to ban their practice.

The Washington Times took a decidedly defiant view, wondering why Army cadets were strong enough to fight for their country but so weak they couldn’t be in the room while an assistant coach offered a prayer.

More importantly, the inexplicably common perception that members of the US military are weak-willed, brown-nosing sycophants is an insult to US service men and women who every day display the intestinal and moral fortitude to stand by their principles (irrespective of religion).

A General officer (or any officer) certainly cannot order a subordinate to pray with him — but no one is suggesting anyone did or would. And while LtGen Caslen clearly says what cannot be done, he does not just as clearly explain what can be done — leaving a large window of intimated repercussions without reassurance to those who might want to act faithfully within the commander’s guidance.

For example, when Army Lt Schmuckitelli finishes his premission brief prior to a convoy in Afghanistan, is LtGen Caslen saying he can’t encourage, conduct, or even permit a premission prayer absent a chaplain (who is probably hundreds of miles away)?

Is LtGen Caslen’s guidance limited to prayer? Or does an officer merely mentioning his faith use his position and authority to create the very environment LtGen Caslen criticizes? (Weinstein has certainly said it does.)

For that matter, will the Army cadets fear they will not be “valued” if they see Coach Monken walk into a church?

(And as you consider the angst expressed over any remote association of religious belief with a military officer, remember a homosexual commander called a staff meeting for the sole purpose of telling her subordinates she was gay — and no one batted an eye.)

More disturbing is the idea that prayers and other religious liberties have to be restricted to create a more “inclusive” environment. Regrettably, in today’s society “inclusive” increasingly means adversely affecting the group least likely to complain to satiate the group most likely to complain.

Put another way, the social trend has been to silence or restrict the majority to appease the minority — not because the minority’s rights were infringed, but because the minority was either offended or “uncomfortable.” LtGen Caslen said somewhere around 90% of people supported the prayer. Using his statistics, publicly admonishing someone who asked for a team prayer runs the risk of making 90% of cadets and troops feel “uncomfortable” — for no other reason than to help the other 10% feel “comfortable.” That isn’t inclusive, by any definition.

Finally, to LtGen Caslen’s apparent corrective action: The idea that using a chaplain will appease Mikey Weinstein belies Weinstein’s long history. For years Weinstein has decried various forms of “mandatory formation prayer” — even when chaplain-led. Such prayers have long been the focus of Weinstein’s complaints and even a lawsuit — including complaints at West Point, the very institution LtGen Caslen currently leads. While Weinstein will claim “victory” for his influence over his friend, does anyone really believe Weinstein now supports chaplain-led prayer in “mandatory formations?”

From LtGen Caslen:

As leaders, our responsibility is to build inclusive teams, where everybody…feels they are a valued member…

If I show [preference of] Catholics over Protestants, then the Protestants in my group will feel partial that they’re not accepted…

It may be true that if a leader shows preference to one group then others may “not feel accepted” — but that isn’t what happened with the team prayer. This idea repeats a common misconception that the mere existence or expression of something is equal to its promotion, endorsement, or favoritism. If one can prove that Coach Monken did, indeed, show favoritism to one group over another, that’s another matter — but merely taking part in the exercise of that group does not equal impermissibly promoting it.

Further, the long discussions held in many places about ‘not endorsing’ one idea or another in scenarios like this ignore the simple truth that somebody is going to get “picked.” To wit, if there is a prayer, someone will say the “theist” group was favored. If prayer is proactively restricted or banned, someone will say the “atheist” group was favored. By the extreme logic of partisanship today, someone is going to be made to feel they’re a “second class citizen.” It’s just a question of who.

Regrettably, it has become increasingly socially acceptable to “pick” whoever is opposing men and women of faith.

So what happens when a military leader shows “preference” for atheists? Well, it seems the cadets and troops of faith — and those who support their rights of free exercise, even if they don’t agree with their beliefs — may feel they’re “not accepted.”

That’s apparently 90%.