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Education Reporter

Blind Guides, Cultural Malaise and the VMI Dinner Prayer 
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By John W. Whitehead

"How have we come to this?" That's what an increasing number of Americans want to know as the nonsense surrounding the acknowledgment of God in America reaches epic proportions.

It is one thing for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide that forcing young schoolchildren to recite a prayer is unconstitutional. However, it is totally different for a panel of judges on a federal appeals court to rule, as they recently did, that a brief dinner prayer, lasting less than 20 seconds, recited by future officers at the Virginia Military Institute is now unconstitutional because it offends several cadets.

When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held last year that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance made it illegal for schoolchildren to recite, it was clear that some judicial minds had short-circuited. That case may now be on its way to the Supreme Court.

More is at stake here, however, than mere malfunctioning judges. Indeed, the entire foundational structure of our society is under attack. Our society faces a nervous breakdown of the sort that could destabilize the country. And like nations and empires that have gone before us, when they renounce their basic religion and condemn it, collapse is inevitable.

As any schoolchild should know, this country from its inception was strongly undergirded by religion - the Judeo-Christian religion in particular. This is reflected in the prayers of those who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, to the affirmation in the Declaration of Independence that God created all men equal, to the prayers and God-affirming language found in the Inaugural Address of every President from George Washington to George W. Bush.

God is emblazoned on our money as well. And as Judge H. Emory Widener, Jr., said in his dissenting opinion in the VMI case, our government has sanctioned religious rituals and symbols on and in our public buildings, including a sculpture of Moses with the Ten Commandments - "the most flagrantly religious document of Judeo-Christian religion" - on the wall of the U.S. Supreme Court building.

With such a backdrop, we have now been handed the decision of the federal appeals court that VMI's dinner prayer "exacts an unconstitutional toll on the consciences of religious objectors." The brief prayer, which is given by a cadet captain, is typical of prayers of thanksgiving and ends by stating: "Now O God, we receive this food and share this meal together with thanksgiving. Amen." There is no mention of any particular God-such as Jesus Christ, Buddha or Allah-and no cadet is required to recite the prayer, bow his or her head or participate in its recitation.

Dinnertime prayers at VMI have been in place at the 162-year-old military academy since Civil War General Stonewall Jackson taught there. The prayers are, thus, part of VMI's educational program. And they are precisely the kind of prayers recited in the U.S. military, on ships at sea each night and before lunch at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The military is a special society, and prayer has been a mainstay of the American soldier since 1774, when the first prayer book was issued to members of the Continental Army. And no less than 67 different prayer books have been adopted by the branches of the American armed forces over a 225-year period.

History is, therefore, one reason why a prayer was recited at VMI's dinnertime meal. And as history illustrates, VMI is first and foremost a military institute, not a civilian college. VMI's purpose is to prepare our men and women for war.

This, of course, brings us to the compelling reason for military prayer, which stems from the old axiom that there are no real atheists in foxholes. Men do not generally die for their country or for their buddies. They enter the heat of battle believing that, if they are fatally felled by a bullet, there is something beyond our chaotic and violent world. And many die with a prayer on their lips.

This fact has been recognized by the most unlikely of characters. For example, in December of 1944, General George Patton ordered that 250,000 prayer cards be distributed, one to every soldier in the Third Army, and 3,200 training letters to officers and chaplains.

"Urge, instruct, and indoctrinate every fighting man to pray as well as to fight."

We are supposedly turning out soldiers who can stand against the most ferocious enemy - men and women who will not be intimidated by anything. Simply put, then, whatever coercion a 20-year-old military officer trainee may experience at VMI during a 20-second dinner time prayer pales in comparison to the military's need to prepare its people to fight and possibly die in combat. "With all due respect to the panel, its ruling goes too far," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in dissent to the appeals court decision in the VMI case. "The supper prayer at Virginia Military Institute is the most benign form of religious observance." Indeed, as Judge Wilkinson recognized: "I doubt that cadets who are deemed ready to vote, to fight for our country, and to die for our freedoms, are so impressionable that they will be coerced by a brief, nonsectarian supper prayer."

We live in a curious time where it is advocated that virtually everything is acceptable and that tolerance is to be our guide. However, at the same time, it is increasingly apparent that it is a hypocritical tolerance that our society advocates. And less and less does it include any public reference to God within its bounds.

This is all too evident in the growing number of court cases that are erasing our cultural-religious heritage. Nothing too small seems to escape the judicial eye when it comes to religion.

The average person is often confused by the decisions of our judges. There is a sense that our guides are leading us astray. As a wise master once proclaimed: "Blind guides, who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel!" How much more can they swallow before they explode?

John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. The Rutherford Institute’s website is www.rutherford.org.

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