Why We Stopped Prayers At VMI (October 2003)

I felt it was very simple from the get-go, and somewhat na•vely I was sure that once it was all laid out others would inevitably come to the same conclusion (a childish Platonism that was quickly slain). I was a student at a public college (though like the majority of cadets I was a non-Virginia resident) funded by state and federal money.

Each evening, when the mass of cadets necessarily formed up to eat in the dining hall, a young man (hand-chosen by the school’s chaplain) stepped forth and recited a prayer through the public address system. Conveniently, and quite coincidently VMI insists, the entirety of the corps was already summoned to attention and were now in place in the silently reverent position. It was mind-boggling to me that few around me seemed to note the absurdity in this, and that fewer still were rightly infuriated.

How could a government institution of higher learning, outspokenly dedicated to the molding of civil and military leaders, see itself as above the very rule of law so many of its graduates had fought for? What’s more, was it not clear that the highly authoritarian and coercive atmosphere of a small southern military college meant that the cadets were not simply being prayed at, but rather proselytized to, and that their submissive heads-down posture symbolized a sort of willing submission? Paul and I went to the low-level school administrators whom we as cadets interacted wtih regularly.

There, our concern was met at first with confusion and, in time, amusement. Finally, when we persisted, we faced anger. We asked simply if the policy could be revisited. It could not. Our clear and well-intended effort to bring VMI within the law–first through questions and complaints inside the system (Cadet Newspaper editorials, complaints through the cadet-implemented regimental system, and, in time, speaking directly with the superintendent) and then (unfortunately) vis-a-vis legal channels–quickly became muddled. The ordeal was spun as just another attack on VMI from godless, liberal bomb-throwers, hell-bent on destroying another decades-old tradition that they did not understand or appreciate.

Worse still, it was claimed, this all might well pave the way for the abolition of all prayer and religion in the armed services themselves! Attending a school where marks from hazing are secretly seen as a badge of honor, and living in a town where the “war” still referred to the “War of Northern Aggression,” I knew full well that attempting to explain my actions through the lenses of a detached humanism would be a hopelessly Sisyphean task. I was satisfied to point out to my fellow future civil servants and military officers that we best live by those very laws that we sought to someday uphold. Simple, right? As lines were drawn, cadets, administrators, and those outside the barracks often withdrew to blind fanaticism.

At a small, closely-knit school where a rigorous academic, athletic and military gauntlet leads to high rates of attrition, and even higher levels of loyalty, any attack on a perceived tradition is blasphemy. Very un-VMI men such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Buchanan shot insults at Paul and me for being immature and weak iconoclasts, tearing down a 50-year-old tradition. Five decades do not properly constitute a significant tradition at a school founded a generation before the Civil War. More important, the Superintendent himself noted that he had formalized the prayer only five years ago upon being hired. Such gaping holes in the armor of the self-selected righteous defenders of the faith were of course inconsequential.

This was a gut level, shoot-from-the-hip type of fight.

The fact that Paul was commissioned in the decidedly unmilitary Air Force (USAF) and I, worse yet, aspired to join the Peace Crops, did wonders to deepen the stereotypes and the resentment. It is of course a very small, closely-knit school, with all 1,100 men, and a handful of recently arrived women, living in the same common spartan barracks building, a place where these things don’t go over well. My friends agreed with me. My companions understood my reasoning. Even my professors were very sympathetic toward my efforts. But the mass of cadets, most notably those cadets chosen by the administration for leadership positions, found me detestable. My demerits quickly skyrocketed (more in the weeks following the case, than in the prior three and a half years combined) and the smiling and nodding heads in the hallways became thousand-yard stares. Even the hate mail from concerned grandmas in the Midwest piled up.

Thousands of miles and many months away from it all, I am now a Peace Corps Volunteer on a small Pacific atoll, and it seems quite simple again. I am piecing together a library for an elementary school (grade one through eight, roughly seventy kids) where the little ones seem quite unconcerned with institutionalized prayer. I eat rice, taro, fish and breadfruit.

My house is made of plywood, tin and thatch. I fish and read a great deal. I am no utopian but I am surely enjoying myself. These islands are very much the Third World though, and I have often enough traveled to the big island that houses the state capital (and the bigger islands where the federal government is seated) to cling firmly to my faith in a transparent and unobtrusive government, the type that would not for an instant tolerate its taxpayers bankrolling religion at a public school. Perhaps more profoundly, though, I have heard enough local “true” stories of ghosts and spirits, of enchanted fish and talking whales, to know that my selfishly guarded humanism is even further from universal realization than the “hands-off” government I hope will protect it.

Freedom From Religion Foundation