Onward godless soldiers?

Terry Jeffrey

5/21/2003 12:00:00 AM - Terry Jeffrey

Mark Warner, Democratic governor of Virginia, committed a deed last week some federal judges might deem disgraceful, but conservatives should applaud.

He lined up on the right side of a battle in the cultural war.

Warner, reported the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press, "bowed his head in prayer" during graduation exercises at the state-supported Virginia Military Institute (VMI).

As Warner listened reverently, VMI's chaplain, Col. James S. Park, unambiguously endorsed belief in God. "In this commencement ceremony, oh, God," said Park, "culminate each cadetship with the sure and certain truth that You are faithful, that You are able and that You alone are God."

Warner's quiet participation in this prayer delivered a loud message to the federal courts. The day before, the governor had informed The Washington Times that he supports VMI's practice of dinnertime prayer (a voluntary nonsectarian invocation recited each evening by the college chaplain). "While I support the long-held principle of the separation of church and state," said Warner, "I am comfortable that the VMI prayer does not infringe on constitutional rights."

At VMI, the governor said: "Let the record show that I understand, and I support, the unique traditions of this institution -- including the saying of grace before meals."

As the Daily Press reported, Warner's remarks drew "whoops and cheers" from cadets and their families.

But will they cheer when Supreme Court Justice David Souter reviews their prayer? For, along with the recent appellate ruling that struck God from the Pledge of Allegiance, this is another church-state issue likely headed to our highest court.

On April 30, a three-judge panel of the Richmond, Va.-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that VMI's prayer violated the First Amendment ban on a government-established religion. Inspired by the panel's decision, the American Civil Liberties Union has asked the Naval Academy to end its traditional lunchtime prayer.

In contrast to the Richmond court's prohibition on dinnertime prayer, federal appeals courts elsewhere have ruled that state-supported colleges can indeed sponsor prayers at graduation ceremonies.

So far, the Supreme Court has banned prayers sponsored by public grade schools and high schools. But it has not yet banned prayers sponsored by public colleges.

Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, a Republican, has asked the full appeals court to reverse its panel decision. Barring that, the Supreme Court is VMI's last chance.

Yet, if the Supreme Court follows its pattern in such cases, prayer will be banned at VMI and the Naval Academy, and at all public universities. Sherman will have marched to the sea, having expelled God from every government school in America.

It is telling that some of the last state-run schools still sponsoring prayers are places where we train military officers. Fearing God and wielding high command have always gone hand-in-hand in this republic -- which is as it ought to be, but is not the norm in human history.

Ask Caesar whether he worshipped anything more than power.

Only a few weeks ago the world watched in awe as the U.S. armed forces executed a war plan of flawless moral design. Our commanders never targeted civilians and always minimized collateral damage.

Even in war -- especially in war -- they were guided by the unchanging moral rules of Judeo-Christian tradition.

Had God Himself not issued these burdensome rules, why should anyone -- let alone a general controlling an unrivaled army -- condescend to follow them? Were there not divine authority behind the law, why should any person bend to an inconvenient code when they have the means to overwhelm its temporal enforcers?

In the school system being constructed by our courts, a future admiral could pass from kindergarten through Annapolis to command of a fleet armed with nuclear weapons without once being told there is a God who has very definite expectations about our behavior. We would have to count on the admiral's parents defeating the state-run schools in the battle for the admiral's soul.

Americans, of course, are a long, long way from having to fear destruction of our culture at the hands of our military commanders. Too bad we can't say the same about our judges.