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Tolerance gone wild

February 9, 2010

You may have heard about the controversy surrounding the construction of a pagan worship site on top of the hill behind the Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy.
Of course, the stone circle constructed by the civil engineers goes by the more politically correct name of Earth-Centered Worship. The superintendent, Lieutenant General Michael C. Gould, defends the decision as supporting religious rights outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

The general is mistaken.  The portion of the First Amendment of the Constitution regarding freedom of religion states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

Which phrase supports the erection of the stone circle?  Establishment of religion means exactly that: establishing a religion or a denomination of a religion as the official state religion like Islam in Iran or the Church of England in the United Kingdom.  Building someone their own worship circle does not “establish” religion; it does lend government support to that religion—in effect, legitimizing it.  That has been ruled unconstitutional and so this act the general claims is constitutional may well be the exact opposite.

The second phrase is clear enough.  If the Academy had not erected this special worship place, would they have been prohibiting the free exercise of religion?  Since 1970, when mandatory chapel attendance was ruled unconstitutional, cadets have been free to worship or not as they choose.

I’m afraid the general is on the wrong side of the Constitution.  But it does not matter:  the issue is really all about a misplaced sense of toleration. It’s not really about the Constitution at all.

According to Lt Gen Gould, it’s about toleration of and respect for all beliefs. Cadets are taught that to be a leader of integrity they must have complete toleration for all beliefs.  To act otherwise would not be fair.  In other words—ironically—in order to lead they must give up their own beliefs and impartially support all belief systems.

That’s asking too much.  It is a position that is the result of fuzzy thinking and a lack of historical knowledge.  Edmund Burke wrote regarding the leaders of Revolutionary France:

We hear these new teachers continually boasting of their spirit of toleration. That those persons should tolerate all opinions, who think none to be of estimation, is a matter of small merit.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the revolution in France, 1790

A proper spirit of toleration may allow us to tolerate activities and beliefs we don’t approve of, but we still have a right to our opinions about those beliefs.  We should not be forced to approve or support those beliefs, as the general and the Academy seem to think.

This misplaced spirit of toleration is indeed toleration gone wild.  As classmate Robert Marsh wrote to me:

There’s a battle for ideas, and those without intellectual rigor are winning.  I don’t care that this silly circle exists, but let’s use it as a springboard to emphasize how important the big ideas really are – those ideas that form the foundation of the constitutional republic we all enjoy.  The foundational belief behind western culture is a belief in the primacy of reason over authority and superstition.  The religions behind the circle, at their core, do not really celebrate reason.

By building a stone circle the Academy is not merely acceding to the demands if a fringe group; they are not just being tolerant.  They are actively approving and promoting pagan worship.

  1. Bob Adelmann permalink
    February 10, 2010 7:52 am

    Good for you, Al! Insightful, relevant, pithy and accurate. What more needs to be said about your article?


    • February 10, 2010 7:52 pm

      Thanks, Bob: high praise indeed. Yet my classmate Clay Stewart raises some good questions.

  2. Clay Stewart permalink
    February 10, 2010 2:01 pm

    Quoting Burke and Locke on the same blog?
    Burke was no fan of the unwashed masses and their populism, especially given what the masses in France destroyed during their Revolution. I’d be careful quoting Burke, who was somewhat of an elitist against the masses, when modern conservatism is very much anti-elitist. My question: how do you reconcile Burke’s anti-populism with modern conservative populism? Burke was afraid of the energetic involvement of the masses in politics; modern conservative populism celebrates the everyman’s poliltical involvement. And yet you quote Burke.
    And then you quote Locke in your article on Bastiat. See Locke’s “Letters Concerning Tolerance” that he wrote in response to the horrors of religious intolerance during the 30 Years War.
    There is a common thread between Locke and Burke: they both wrote opposing the devastation caused by the fear and hatred of their time. Locke against the religious intolerance of the 30 Years War, and Burke against the populism of the French Revolution.

    • February 10, 2010 7:51 pm

      Pretty neat trick, eh? You’re right of course. Burke as a British conservative is nothing like what we in America call conservatives. American conservatives are more like Locke as classic liberals–but the term liberal has been so debased in the 20th century as to be meaningless. Take a look, for example, at who Wikipedia lists as liberals.

      The kind of tolerance I write against–and which I think Burke supports–is the kind of tolerance that accepts absolutely anything in the name of “fairness” and “equality.” To quote songwriter Harry Nilsson, “A point in every direction is the same as no point at all.” We lose our values and the ability to discriminate between right and wrong…but that’s another post.

      We know our Aristotle as did the Founders. Unfettered democracy is something to be guarded against. There are (or were) several checks against the passions of the masses in the Constitution–and rightfully so. Look what the masses gave us in 2008.

  3. Bill permalink
    February 14, 2010 11:44 am

    I find it interesting in your article when you make statements like this – “Building someone their own worship circle does not “establish” religion; it does lend government support to that religion—in effect, legitimizing it. That has been ruled unconstitutional and so this act the general claims is constitutional may well be the exact opposite.”

    Yet there is no mention of the fact that there is a government built place of worship for Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths on the same base. Does this then mean that you are going to decry those as being Unconstitutional as well? Could this be viewed as an obligation that they (the government) must live up to since the have already gone down the unconstitutional path and built those areas of worship for all those other faiths?

    Wicca and “earth-based” faiths are legitimate religions according to our own government, and are practiced by approximately 5% of the population at large. Those that worship this way, chose to do so because they have used reason and intellect. Then decided not to follow the blind path that is forced them by organized religious businesses (for what else are they as they demand you pay them for the right to worship there).

    Since this criticizes your article I doubt it will be on your site long enough for others to see. I hope that you learn to practice the tolerance you preach instead of the bigotry that this article is based on.

    • February 14, 2010 12:20 pm

      Have no fear: this comment will remain on my site because it illustrates exactly the kind of blind tolerance I write against. It is the Left that censors opposing viewpoints, not me. Look around: you’ll find more dissenting opinions here. I only block ad hominum attacks and wildly off-topic comments.

      You mention the Cadet Chapel (thought not by name). There is ample precedent for chapels at institutes of higher learning, public and private. They support the religions of the vast majority of the people of this country. Can I make a distinction between 90% of the population and less than 1%? Yes I can. I can tolerate Earth-centered worship without having to support it. That is reasoned toleration. Because I am tolerant it does not follow that I must tolerate everything. If someone claiming Aztec beliefs or heritage goes to the Academy and demands blood sacrifice, will you feel compelled to tolerate that, too? I won’t.

      Whether Wicca is or is not a legitimate religion is not for our government to decide–and that is a very key objection I have to this stone circle. Earth-based religions have nothing to do with “reason and intellect;” it is the superstition of a bygone age when the forces of nature were not understood and stones were erected to mark the paths of the sun and the moon.

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