jesus camp bragg

Jesus Camp Bragg – US Army Provides and Funds Vacation Bible School

Earlier this month, all 50,000 troops stationed at Fort Bragg received a message from our Public Affairs Office. It was a brief announcement for the Annual Garrison Chaplain’s Vacation Bible School.

The annual Garrison Chaplain’s Vacation Bible School (VBS) will be held at Gordon Elementary (Linden Oaks) June 16-17 from 9 a.m.-noon and Devers Elementary (Ardennes) June 20-24 from 9 a.m.-noon. VBS is available for DOD Family members who have completed kindergarten through the sixth grade.

Okay, so there are some obvious issues already. The government is funding a religious summer camp for youths (why?). Public school buildings are hosting religious activities, albeit it seems to be during ‘summer break’. Don’t forget the raw marketing power of a huge user base for the email message announcing it.

So we are on shaky ground right off the bat. Pink flags are being raised, but then again, maybe I can delete this spam message and chalk this off to awkward efforts to get the word out.

After all… they didn’t even directly provide the VBS registration form.

You may obtain a registration form at any one of the chapels, Watters Center or Religious Support Office.

Giving them the full benefit of the doubt – the subject matter may be wince-inducing, but the message was refreshingly incomplete and bare-bones in content. Well, maybe that one message.

I’m all out of pink flags, the next one is bright redNote: I’m obfuscating some personally identifiable details to protect from possible harassment.

A 12 year old student from a non-religious Fort Bragg family brought home a permission slip for her parents to sign… so she could attend Vacation Bible School.

The student was basically just handed a form, and told to give it to her parents to sign. She didn’t even read this one until her mother pointed out exactly what the permission slip was for. This feisty and extremely gifted 12 year old grabbed the paper and crumpled it into a ball, shocked and angry. Her mother later rescued the permission slip from the trashcan for posterity, sensing its importance.

I am fairly sure that VBS is not as disturbing as the notorious Christian summer camp depicted in the heart-breaking 2006 documentary, Jesus Camp. But even just ‘macaroni necklaces for Jesus’ probably should not be funded and advertised by government agencies. First the DoD / Military angle, then the public school system… I’m very uncomfortable to say the least.

In case you are unfamiliar with just how extreme a Vacation Bible School can get, I urge you to watch the excerpts from Jesus Camp in the video below.

So, why are they doing a Vacation Bible School anyway?

To proselytize and evangelize youths in the military community, unfortunately. Look at the top of the permission slip (right):

See that strange PandaMania logo? Well poke around on the PandaMania website a bit, they don’t bury their intentions very deep.

PandaMania VBS is intentionally designed to focus on the things that matter—connecting kids to God—and eliminating the things that don’t. It’s about preparing each child’s heart to receive the gospel message in an unforgettable way. It’s about enabling kids to share God’s love with others. It’s about why you do VBS.

What does the Army say about VBS?

In 2009, Frank Leon – Director of Religious Education at Fort Knox, hosted a Vacation Bible School.

Although the summer activity was only five days longs, Leon said VBS serves a vital function.

“We do VBS to expose children to faith and to strengthen their faith,” Leon said.  “We join chapels around the world in conducting VBS and we’re united with them in this tradition.”

Where do we go from here?

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

We can easily foresee the same legal justifications used to defend the controversial evangelical Christian Rock the Fort concert also being used to defend VBS. Basically, in response to demands for cancellation they might say: “we would provide the same level of support to any other group.”

The foxhole atheists here at Fort Bragg don’t have a time machine. We can’t go back in time and make them ‘do the right thing’. Our only viable option is to take them at their word. At the very least, it is an opportunity to raise awareness, tolerance, and respect for non-believers in the military community.

I called the contacts listed for Fort Bragg’s Religious Education office, and they actually seemed receptive to provide such support to the non-theist community. The first question they asked was: “What would an atheist summer camp look like?”

This is what an atheist summer camp looks like.

Camp Quest explains:

Camp Quest is the first residential summer camp in the history of the United States aimed at the children of Atheists, Freethinkers, Humanists, Brights, or whatever other terms might be applied to those who hold to a naturalistic, not supernatural world view.

The purpose of Camp Quest is to provide children of freethinking parents a residential summer camp dedicated to improving the human condition through rational inquiry, critical and creative thinking, scientific method, self-respect, ethics, competency, democracy, free speech, and the separation of religion and government.

Amy Monsky runs the nearby Camp Quest South Carolina. I’m working with her behind the scenes to hammer out the details for a 2012 summer camp with full Fort Bragg support and sponsorship. She is setting up the new location there in SC, and is already a big player in the established Camp Quest location in Virgina.

You may or may not be aware of the epic Camp Quest donor wars going on between many prominent bloggers / activists (a few are on our lineup!) In the last few months, non-believers have come together to raise nearly $20,000 for the overall CQ organization. They could surely use all the help they can get.

If you are able, please consider donating directly to CQ South Carolina.

Simply fill out this form, and please put in the comment box a note indicating your wish to contribute to CQSC. Amy Monsky really supports the foxhole atheist community. She is spearheading something that will have a lasting positive impact, and we salute her.

As always, I’m also going to provide you with a painless way to support this effort. Unable to donate? No problem, I’m in the Army – I know what it’s like! But – do you have 5 minutes to spare? Please write an email expressing your excitement / support / feelings about Fort Bragg officials working with us on this project. Please be tactful if you must express your feelings about the VBS situation that sparked this.

Here are the contacts:

jeffrey.nevin@us.army.mil | timothy.s.mchale@us.army.mil

14 thoughts on “Jesus Camp Bragg – US Army Provides and Funds Vacation Bible School

  1. Tammy Jacobson

    I’m sorry can you clarify this a little bit. Do you already have support from Fort Bragg or you are still trying to get them to support this effort? By the way, while my children haven’t yet gone to CampQuest I am hoping to send them when they are older. Sounds like an amazing experience.

    1. Justin Griffith Post author

      The officials at Fort Bragg have responded to my inquiries with optimistic interest. At least verbally, they indicate confused but eager willingness to provide support for all religious preferences. They appreciate that I’m patient enough to expect movement by Summer 2012. They will certainly be reading this piece, and probably even this comment (Hi guys!) Hopefully, the momentum we have built for the military’s secular community will continue to grow – and be embraced by the Army.

      To be realistic though – I’ve poured an amazing amount of time, effort, love and even money into 4 major ‘front page news’ projects in the last 8 months or so. So far, not even the ‘easy ones’ have reached any sort of final decision from Army brass. The one most likely to succeed at this point is the most difficult and ambitious project: the Rock Beyond Belief festival that sparked my activism in the first place. Go figure.

      I want to believe that they mean it when they say they will support the non-Christian issues / events / communities too. I can tell they are sincere in their voice, and in their eyes. But the lack of concrete action thus far speaks volumes too. Perhaps this new endeavor will surprise me and be super-easy to accomplish.

      No matter what happens – I’m not going away. I promise you that.

    1. Justin Griffith Post author

      That’s basically the optimal course of action. It’s more complicated than that, but I’ll spare you. However, Camp Quest South Carolina needs to get some funding now in order to give a great experience next year (regardless of the future outcome of the fort bragg endeavor).

  2. Jesse Skaggs

    My unit where I’m stationed in Fort Carson, CO has a similar tactic that I have seen regarding VBS. However, I think my unit goes even a step more. Rather than simply mass-emailing information on the event, my unit publishes the information under a FRAGO. Fragmentary Orders, as I have been led to understand , are intended to be updates and changes to authentic military orders directed by the unit commander. Our unit has instead morphed the FRAGO system into a sort of bulletin awareness system. I’ve seen everything from local civilian parades to post events to blood drives. VBS, in addition, is not the only religious-oriented ‘event’ that I’ve seen posted via unit FRAGO (for example, Friday night Vespers for Seventh-Day Adventist churches). I’m not sure how widespread this practice is, whether it is only my unit or post wide or Army wide.
    I don’t think it takes a lot of critical thinking to see the implications of having religious oriented events published officially through military Fragmentary Orders.

  3. Han Hills

    “Pandamania” is utterly disturbing in every way! Talk about a shameless indoctrination program! Thanks for bring that to everyones attention. Stuff like this represents a genuine problem. I was actually wide-eyed and jaw-dropped reading the propaganda and shameless consumer targeting strategies on their site. This is “Happy Meal Jesus” extended to a remarkable degree!

  4. D W

    Justin, you may say you “believe” the powers that be at Ft Bragg, and I hope you are right. However, in my time in (now retired) I saw nothing but lies when it came to supporting the non-religious. I do not personally believe you will get any support – other than lip service from the CoC there. I hope I’m wrong…but I doubt it. I saw too much discrimination which was always brushed off. They would make you attend a briefing with a mandatory “generic prayer” and not understand why it was offensive. Yet if anyone left there were repercussions.

    No, I don’t believe they will help. Just more lies, IMO.

    1. Justin Griffith Post author

      Thanks. I too hope that you are wrong about the future, but I’d be crazy to think you are wrong about the past.

      One of the reasons that we’ve been systematically maligned is because we didn’t have a unified front. We’re starting to organize, and we realize just how many of us are out there. I’m hoping this new and passionate organized group will do great things to raise awareness, tolerance, and respect for the non-believing military community.

      “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” (John was an atheist too.)

  5. D W

    Justin, try working with the Military Pagan organizations that represent other diverse beliefs, such as Wicca. They have already set into motion some of the framework for representation of other faiths. This could be used to help get the items going better for atheists, too.

    Good luck. I will keep my fingers crossed for you and our fellow non-believers.

  6. Richard Toland

    Justin, and all others,

    When working toward religious freedom, please keep in mind that one of the goals of the religious right in America is to classify atheism as a religion. We cannot allow this to happen. Remember that religion means reverence or obligation to the gods. It is a spiritual connection with a symbol. An atheist would not have these things, nor connect to other atheists with a common symbol or spiritual belief; therefore atheism is not a religion.

    Where an atheist may see a benefit is to compromise politically. To be classified as a religious group for some benefit. Money is given to religious groups on installations so they can complete certain activities. The post commanders say that atheists don’t belong to religious groups so they should not get any of this money. Unfair we say. So we work a deal that equal money and time is given to all.
    Atheists just got classified as a religion.

    This works against secularism and progress in many ways but specifically in our school system. Evolution can then be watered down to “just a theory” and “a belief like any other”, or worse, “the atheist religious belief.” Their next move is to claim that the schools are favoring one religion over another, and the only solution is to teach them both through ID.

    This is not a slippery slope, this is published “Wedge Doctrine”.

    The problem is that Camp Quest is exactly how federal money should be spent. When you go to Yellowstone, are the park rangers speaking religiously? Is there a prayer before Old Faithful erupts? Our national parks use federal money the way it is supposed to be used. Secularly. Kids learn about wildlife, geology, biology, astronomy, etc. They are unapologetically taught how old the earth is believed to be by scientific consensus. Not by Bronze Age revelation. There are chapels and places of worship there as there should be, but they are for people who want a place of privacy. Not to proselytize.

    We should be demanding that Camp Quest be the model of summer camp when federally funded in any way. Not VBC.

    Thank you for bringing this to light, I am already planning a week for my family next summer around this.

    Rich

    Any who chooses is free to contact me at tolandr@gmail.com.

    1. Justin Griffith Post author

      Thank you for the clearly well-thought out comment. I’d just like to point out that we are quite aware of the issues with the semantics, and we would never want atheism to be considered a religion. It is a religious preference though, and that is what the Army calls it (and this religious preference populates our paperwork and dogtags, etc.) However, I think it’s perhaps the lack of information in my post that sends you a little off track with your assessment. The CQSC situation isn’t seeking ‘religious money’, but rather equal representation in what the Supreme Court has unfortunately ruled to be a ‘limited public forum’ – our public school system.

      The Freedom From Religion Foundation has excellent summaries of the frighteningly common issue here:

      http://www.ffrf.org/faq/state-church/religious-take-home-fliers/
      http://www.ffrf.org/faq/state-church/churches-meeting-at-public-schools/

      The military angle adds a second layer, but the issues should be the same. Basically, CQSC is functioning as a Private Organization – not a religion. At the same time, approaching Fort Bragg’s Directorate of Religious Education is entirely appropriate and consistent with the establishment clause (not favoring religion over non-religion etc.)

      The issue is much more complicated, but I think you can rest a little better with this in mind.

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