Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Problem With Authority

In the late fifties, a man by the name of Sonny Curtis joined the Crickets (taking the place of the late Buddy Holly) and they recorded a song Curtis wrote entitled I Fought the Law. It was a top ten hit for the Bobby Fuller Four in 1965, and was even covered by the Clash in 1979. In each version, however, the inevitable outcome was the same - the law won. John Mellencamp practically paraphrased the chorus of I Fought the Law in his 1984 rebel anthem Authority Song: "I fight authority and authority always wins". Since then a number of other popular American songs (and movies) have revolved around rebels, both with and without a cause.

With all due respect to the idealism of Superman, one could say that even from the colonial age, it's fighting authority that has been the American way - but there is another "problem with authority" that is sometimes overlooked: the limits on personal freedom that come with actually being in a position of authority. Recently this problem caused a ruckus at the US Air Force Academy, causing several right-wing news outlets to pounce on an act of apparent religious intolerance. The official response from the Air Force Academy can be found on their Facebook page here. Personally, I take no umbrage at the posting of  a verse from the Bible, the Qur'an, or any other text on a dorm room door, but according to the USAFA the problem is one of authority: "...we in the military who are charged with the important burden of leadership or command must avoid the actual or apparent use of our position to promote personal, political, religious, or other beliefs to our subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for said beliefs."

I should note that I have never served in the armed forces. While I have a great respect for those who do sacrifice years (and some their lives) to serve our nation, it seems to me that doing so also involves surrendering many of the same personal freedoms that many have suggested our military fights for. So, where writing a verse on a whiteboard at a dorm at a secular state university would likely be protected as "free speech", it may be inappropriate according to the Air Force. I may not agree with their call, but I have far more ability to write a critical opinion of their process as a civilian than I would if I were a cadet. For better or worse, the armed forces don't always operate by the same set of rules.

To be fair, though, it's not just the military that has exercised authority at the expense of individual freedoms. Many private schools (especially religious-based) require students to abstain from the consumption of alcohol even when they are of a legal age to do so. They may require attendance to religious services or ban student organizations they oppose (theologically or politically). I don't imagine a student at Liberty University, for example, would be allowed to maintain a whiteboard on their dorm room door quoting the Qur'an (4:171): "...Jesus, son of Mary was only a messenger of Allah...Verily, Allah is the One and only worthy of worship, He is Holy. Far above having a son." Reprimand would be fierce and swift...and that's assuming the student had no authority. Imagine if the student posting was in some leadership role over a number of other students, and suddenly the Air Force's stance doesn't look so harsh.

Personally, I think it has been a great detriment to our society that we have largely abandoned public discourse of certain subjects. However, any productive discussion must be among equals; if any one has authority over another, it is easy for that person's opinions to be considered superior. Such an egalitarian ideal is all but impossible in the armed forces, which is built on rank and chain of command. And because our forces are made up of volunteers (usually) with many ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds, there can't be any response that would make everyone happy.

To some degree, this recent conflict reminds me of the reports of Bibles being burned by the US Army in Afghanistan, sent by a US church to a base there. The Bibles were in Pashto and Dari - obviously intended for the indigenous population and not for American soldiers. In that case, it is interesting to note that the reports came out in May of 2009, giving many perceived fuel for criticizing the Obama administration, even though the actions actually took place in the spring of 2008. To my knowledge, no one suggested that these actions by a military commander, while regrettable, were evidence of George W. Bush being "a Muslim" and/or "anti-Christian".

I can say, however, that I would not want to be in a decision-making role when placed in such a position by the ambition of an American church. It's certainly easier to criticize those in authority than to take responsibility ourselves - I noticed that the church in question had just enough zeal to get the Bibles and send them to our military (which is not in the Gospel business), but not enough to send their own pastors and deacons into a civilian area so they could distribute them personally.

We would do well to keep in mind that those in authority are just like anyone else, in the sense that they are fallible human beings yet equally entitled to their own beliefs (religious or otherwise). I would consider it a positive thing to have more openness from those in authority, but if we're only going to condemn them when their opinions are not our own, who can expect anything different?  We get cold, impersonal authority figures because we demand them.

I'd suggest changing that, but I don't want to be offensive.

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