Update: A letter to the editor of the Stars and Stripes questions Torpy’s “odd idea of religious freedom.”
Former Army Captain and current atheist Jason Torpy was working overtime doing damage control over the past week, as various outlets picked up the story of his complaint over the “live nativity” occurring during NSA Bahrain’s annual “Holiday Tree Lighting.” His comments appeared on a variety of sites covering the controversy; in each case, he basically said he didn’t demand NSA Bahrain cancel it — he just called it “unconstitutional” and a danger to US troops — that’s all. Of course, he did say that cancelling it was “preferable to” letting it happen:
If the scene had to be cancelled, that is unfortunate but it is also preferable to the government-sponsored proselytism [*See note, below] the Live Nativity would have added to an otherwise positive celebration.
FoxNews accurately reported that Torpy’s complaint to the Inspector General led to the cancellation of the event to occur during the Tree Lighting. To be clear, the ceremony occurred without the nativity; thus, the tree lighting nativity was cancelled. Torpy now says that claim (which he mysteriously says was reported on “evangelical outlets”) is factually incorrect, because a “live nativity” will occur later, during the chapel’s normal Christmas Eve services. No one has ever disputed what the chapel may or may not do during its Christmas services. The question was the tradition of participation in the annual tree lighting ceremony — which was turned off after Torpy’s complaint.
It is undeniable that NSA Bahrain cancelled their annual tradition of a children’s “live nativity” during the Holiday Tree lighting ceremony. Torpy’s weak efforts at spin and deflecting blame are likely a result of the significant bad press he got over his complaint (“Scrooge” and “grinch” were some of the nicer things said).
Even some fellow atheists felt Torpy went too far, questioning why he couldn’t just let troops of faith have their celebration. It’s Christmas, after all.
Subsequent news reports also undermined the very foundation of Torpy’s claim. He repeatedly called the event “command sponsored,” yet it was the MWR office, not a command channel, that organized the entire event. The MWR office organizing events at the tree lighting is no more “command sponsorship” than a morale or community services office hosting a rock band means the command “sponsors” or endorses the band. There is no way any reasonable person could view the presence of a nativity in this context as associated with the chain of command.
In addition, the Stars and Stripes noted with barely hidden feigned surprise that a local church — in Bahrain’s capital city, not on the US military facility — hosts an annual outdoor Christmas Eve service with 4,000 attendees:
The Rev. Fredrick Peter D’souza of the Sacred Heart Church in Manama said…the Catholic church receives permission from the Bahraini government to hold the outdoor mass and has never had any problems with protesters or critics.
Yet Torpy had claimed a group of kids wearing bathrobes standing around a plastic baby doll on the US base “threaten[ed] US security” due to its Christian overtones. (Torpy still fails to explain how the nativity on the 24th doesn’t threaten US security.)
It seems Jason Torpy lost what little credibility he had to determine what Muslims might consider inflammatory. While one could argue he should do more research next time, the opposite is true: A sensationalized (and disingenuous) complaint to the IG served as an effective heckler’s veto on the holiday celebrations of US troops overseas. Misleading though it was, it worked.
Like some others who have targeted public displays of Christianity, Torpy thinks religion is fine — so long as it is kept within the walls of home and church. While he’s entitled to that opinion, no military policy, regulation, US law, nor the US Constitution require such a sterilization of the public square — which is why the chaplaincy at NSA Bahrain was not obligated to cancel the public tree lighting nativity scene, as they did.
While the majority of US military atheists don’t care if Christians celebrate Christmas, or Jews celebrate Hanukkah, or Muslims celebrate Ramadan, it seems some atheists — or, perhaps, “anti-theists” — are intent on denying the freedom of public religious exercise or expression to their fellow citizens. They are so threatened by religion — or kids in bathrobes, in this case — they cannot stand even the thought of it simply happening. With this complaint, in addition to his demands that war memorials be torn down in California, North Carolina, and Arlington, atheist Jason Torpy has planted his feet firmly in that camp.
*Note: Torpy’s claim that the nativity was “proselytism” is an indicator of the sensational word choice now used often by critics. “Proselytize” is now considered an inflammatory pejorative, though its benign meaning is “to (attempt to) convert.” Torpy is claiming, in essence, that the mere public display of Christianity is, by nature, an illegal attempt to convert others. Even if one incoherently views every public expression of Christianity that way, it is difficult to see why Torpy feels so threatened. Does he really believe in ‘conversion by proximity?’