Thousands of people are expected to converge on Fort Bragg in North Carolina tomorrow for “Rock Beyond Belief.” The festival, featuring music, speakers and activities for children, may be unprecedented; it appears to be the first openly atheistic event to take place at a military installation.
How did this come about? Oddly enough, evangelist Billy Graham’s ministry had something to do with it.
Back in the fall of 2010, Americans United learned that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was hosting an event at Fort Bragg called “Rock the Fort.” Chaplains on base were heavily promoting the event, which they freely admitted would be proselytizing in nature and include “a clear Gospel message.” The rally was aimed at both military personnel and civilians in the surrounding community, and one of the stated goals was to increase membership in Christian churches.
Americans United tried to get Army officials to cancel the constitutionally problematic event, but they refused and there wasn’t time for a lawsuit. Not long after that, Sgt. Justin Griffith decided that if Graham’s outfit could use the base for an evangelistic rally, he should be able to do the same for an atheist-oriented festival. Griffith proposed an event to promote atheism called “Rock Beyond Belief.” Griffith argued that his rally should receive the same base support as Graham’s Christian celebration.
Base officials gave Griffith the go-ahead but then proceeded to play games. For example, they assigned Griffith an indoor venue with a modest seating capacity when he had clearly indicated that he wanted to hold an outdoor festival comparable to what Graham’s group did.
Americans United swung into action again. AU and the North Carolina ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request to gather information about “Rock the Fort” and determined that the festival violated several Department of Defense regulations.
The two groups also said that their research debunked claims that the Graham event hadn’t received tax support. In fact, the documents showed that “Rock the Fort” received $50,000 in financial support and $30,000 in logistical and security support.
AU and the ACLU also informed Army officials that they must cease discriminating against “Rock Beyond Belief.” While the groups didn’t advocate for direct public support for the event, they did insist that officials at Fort Bragg give the non-belief festival a comparable venue and the same logistical support that “Rock the Fort” received.
Facing the legal firepower of AU and the ACLU, officials at the fort agreed, and Griffith began planning the event. Speakers include Richard Dawkins, a world-famous Oxford University zoologist known for his defense of evolution; Todd Stiefel, a North Carolina church-state separation activist and member of AU’s National Advisory Council and Nathan Phelps, son of the controversial Kansas minister Fred Phelps, who rejects his father’s hateful theology.
Not everyone is happy about this event, of course. Religion News Service quoted retired Chaplain James Poe, president of the Associated Gospel Churches. Poe has demanded that the event be cancelled, mainly because he doesn’t like it.
“What we want to see is the Secretary of Defense say enough of this nonsense and shut this thing off,” Poe said. “It is not in any way constructive to military discipline. It reeks with rebellion. The Army has had for years a sense of core values and this tears down those values. It is an assault on the things Army people hold most dear and it needs to stop.”
Wow. It’s hard to know how to respond to such open bigotry. Poe believes a festival sponsored by non-believers undermines military discipline and “reeks with rebellion”? I would have thought that making it clear that men and women of all religions and none are welcome in our armed forces would do just the opposite.
Thankfully, officials at Fort Bragg aren’t listening to Poe and his ilk. “Rock Beyond Belief” is a go. Americans United is pleased to have played a role in seeing that justice was done.