Home > Belief > The Death of “Rock Beyond Belief”

The Death of “Rock Beyond Belief”



How Evangelical Christian Commander Lt. General Frank G. Helmick at Fort Bragg, N.C., proved himself to be hypocritical, discriminatory and unworthy of his grade and position.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, in partnership with the leadership (specifically LT. Gen. Frank G. Helmick, Post Commander and Commander of the 18th Airborne Corps) of Fort Bragg, N.C. held a concert recently called “Rock the Fort”, where Christian musicians come and pander their religion through music to Soldiers.

In September of 2010, “Americans United for Separation of Church and State” wrote to the Secretary of the Army, asking for an injunction of this concert because it was a shameless attempt to recruit Soldiers into Christianity . The recruitment of Soldiers into any religion is against Army regulations.

Specifically, it violates Army Regulation 600-20 (Army Command Policy, Ch. 4-1b) which states:

b. While military discipline is the result of effective training, it is affected by every feature of military life. It is manifested in individuals and units by cohesion, bonding, and a spirit of teamwork; by smartness of appearance and action; by cleanliness and maintenance of dress, equipment, and quarters; by deference to seniors and mutual respect between senior and subordinate personnel; by the prompt and willing execution of both the letter and the spirit of the legal orders of their lawful commanders; and by fairness, justice, and equity for all Soldiers, regardless of race, religion, color, gender, and national origin.

That last line is important, as it dovetails nicely with the Army’s Equal Opportunity Policy, covered in the same regulation under Chapter 6, paragraph 2a which reads:

a. The U.S. Army will provide EO and fair treatment for military personnel and Family members without regard to race, color, gender, religion, national origin, and provide an environment free of unlawful discrimination and offensive behavior.

Sub-paragraph c. (10), goes on to define religion as:

A personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes, moral or ethical beliefs and practices held with the strength of traditional views, characterized by ardor and faith, and generally evidenced through specific observances.

I think you can see why these paragraphs are important, as they go towards the goal of providing equal treatment to anyone in the Army without regards to religion. Essentially, Lt. Gen Helmick was in clear violation of the Army Command policy and the Equal Opportunity guidelines when he authorized a Christian concert on the base.

He wasn’t in violation because Christianity is exclusionary (although there is that), but because he gave either the explicit or implied support of the chain of command by (first) authorizing the use of post facilities for an outside religion group, and (secondly) allowing a religious group to proselytize on a military facility. That is solicitation of a Christian agenda and discrimination against any non-Christian (not just Atheists).

There were complaints. Lots of them.  Mikey Weinstein of Military Religious Freedom claims to have received over 100 complaints.

The Fort Bragg Commander said that attendance is “not mandatory”. But I know from personal experience that any time that there is an event on post, Commanders will look at their First Sergeants and tell them that they want “maximum participation. At that point, the First Sergeant looks to his Platoon Sergeants and demands a list of names with a certain amount of numbers from each platoon.

This happens all across any military post when there is an event of ANY KIND. All events are mandatory to Soldiers. The difference is the amount, based on the size of the event.

Now, this being a religious event, they may have treaded a little lighter, but you can still guarantee that there was a quota.

In response to the complaints, the Fort Bragg Commander stated that non-religious (read: secular) groups would have the endorsement of the Chain of Command to put on a similar show if they wished.

One Soldier did.

SGT Justin Griffith (co-founder of Military Atheists & Secular Humanist or M*A*S*H) stood up and organized an event called “Rock Beyond Belief”.  P.Z. Meyers writes on RichardDawkins.net:

Justin Griffith began organizing another event, Rock Beyond Belief, that would be an equivalent opportunity for non-believers on the base. They went through all of the official protocols, got an excellent lineup of speakers (Richard Dawkins, Roy Zimmerman, Dan Barker, Mikey Weinstein), and watched their proposal get approved all the way up the chain of command…until it reached the garrison commander, who reversed all the previous decisions, cancelled any support, tried to get it moved to a lesser venue, imposed arbitrary demands on atheist speakers (such as requiring official statements of intent) that were not required of the Christians, and effectively shut down the event.

Lt. Gen Helmick withdrew approval for the event because SGT Jeremy Griffith supposedly did not furnish a “statement of intent” to the Chain of Command, though he was assured BY his chain of command (all the way up to Lt. Gen Helmick) that his request packet was complete. Because of this withdrawal of approval, the Stiefel Freethought Foundation withdrew its $10,000 pledge, which was to cover meal and lodging costs for Richard Dawkins, Baba Brinkman, Dale McGowan, David “Spoonboy” Combs, and Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard.

Granted, I don’t blame the Steifel Freethought Foundation. I wouldn’t give $10,000 to a canceled event, either. But the statement of intent that was supposedly required for “Rock Beyond Belief” was not ever requested of any member of the “Rock the Fort” event.  Lt. Gen Helmick made up the requirement specifically for the purpose of canceling the event.

So now, not only is Lt Gen Helmick a proselytizing evangelical Christian in charge of a military installation, he is also a liar and a hypocrite. Military discrimination against atheists (and pandering to Christians) was a major reason for my exit from the military. Primarily, my drive to become a civilian was to go home to my family.

My last 16 months in Korea , however, were spent being subjected to a religious chain of command that passed out bibles in the Battery Headquarters and set up quotas for participation in things like “prayer breakfasts” and religious retreats.

The chain of command is not supposed to endorse or support any group with an agenda. Not only should he have steered clear of “Rock the Fort”, he should never have made a promise to promote a second concert of any kind.

Department of Defense Directive 5410.18, paragraph 4.2.9 states:

Community relations activities shall not support, or appear to support, any event that provides a selective benefit to any individual, group, or organization, including any religious or sectarian organization, ideological movement, political campaign or organization, or commercial enterprise, to include a shopping mall or motion picture promotion. When DoD support is provided to one non-Federal entity, the DoD Component commands or organizations providing such support must be able and willing to provide similar support to comparable events sponsored by similar non-Federal entities.

Your tax dollars (and mine) went in financial support of this concert that promoted Christian agendas. We don’t have enough money to pay federal workers, and we don’t have enough money to improve housing conditions in the barracks, and we can’t feed and support people across the nation, but we can afford to rally Soldiers under a bible?

Soldiers can’t hold religious meetings during work time, and can’t go door to door drawing out church members, but the Chain of Command at Fort Bragg can entertain Christian concerts with you money?

This pandering to Christian organizations is discriminatory, and shows itself clearly in the forced cancellation of “Rock Beyond Belief”.  My opinion is that Lt. Gen Helmick needs to be excused from his post as Commander of both Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps. Both for supporting a discriminatory event with the explicit purpose of recruiting evangelical Christians as well as for removing promised support for a secular event.

SGT Jeremy Griffith has decided to attempt to reschedule “Rock Beyond Belief” for 2011, and try to maintain the current lineup of speakers, and I am certain he can do it. Take a moment to go over to their website and sign the petition requesting this event. There are other ways there to help out, but please start with the petition. Do it in the name of equal treatment. Do it because it forces the Fort Bragg commander to live up to his word. Do it because it is free. Do it because it promotes secularism. Hell, do it for whatever reason you want. I did it because it is the right thing to do.

  1. Charles De Farias
    March 21, 2011 at 2:09 am

    I messaged Mr. Abel with the following:

    “My name is Charles Domingos De Farias Jr. I’m a senior at Dedham High School in Dedham, Massachusetts. I say this only so you know that I’m not really anybody of importance but am just a high school student that’s soon to be a college student. I usually don’t involve myself in such matters as this, I’m usually more quiet and isolated from controversial events and protests and petitions, but this latest event just really struck home for me.

    I realize you probably have a lot on your plate and you’ve probably received a few of these annoying E-mails, but I feel like I speak on behalf of a large portion of, not just non-theists, but Americans as a whole when I say that this just isn’t right. I’m referring to the Army’s lack of funding towards the “Rock Beyond Belief Festival”. If this were done to avoid supporting non-theists and making theist soldiers feel uncomfortable, it’d be understandable had the army not provided considerable funds for the heavily Christian “Rock the Fort” event, for which the “Rock Beyond Belief Festival” was created as a response to. The fact that the “Rock the Fort” event was allowed and supported in the first place is already a political error which brushes up against the separation of church and state, but the equal treatment of a non-theist concert, such as the “Rock Beyond Belief Festival” would certainly balance this. It seems incredibly discriminatory and against the very constitution.

    So if you are to read just one thing from this E-mail, I guess it would be this: It bothers me when the army of the nation I belong to violates one of the most dearly held principals of the nation they have sworn to protect. How am I to trust or even support an army that can’t even stick to the laws set down by their own nation? I can’t, and I’m sure others feel the same. So for the sake of not only justice and equality, but also for morale and continuing support our valiant men and women, I hope to see the “Rock Beyond Belief Festival” given the support it’s entitled to.

    Sorry for taking your time,
    A concerned Citizen.”

    he responded with:

    > From: benjamin.abel@us.army.mil
    > To: charles37@live.com
    > Date: Sun, 20 Mar 2011 21:53:56 -0400
    > Subject: Re: Sorry to bother you, Mr. Abel. (UNCLASSIFIED)
    > Classification: UNCLASSIFIED
    > Sir,
    > Thank you for your note. You are certainly someone of import and I hope I can address some of your concerns.
    > First, I think one of the most important parts of this controversy, that is largely being overlooked by those criticizing Fort Bragg’s actions, is that the Garrison commander is responsible for the health, safety and welfare of the Fort Bragg military community. He is not responsible for the entertainment of those groups not directly supported by the installation – our Soldiers, Families, retirees and civilian employees. If, in the course of events on post, we have the opportunity to include members of the general public, that is great. But the garrison commander must evaluate how he can best support the military community, with limited resources.
    > Col. Sicinski, the garrison commander, did approve the event on post. Our analysis of attendance by our supported communities suggested that the main post parade field would not be suitable, so one of the theaters on post was offered. The Rock Beyond Belief organizers then cancelled the event.
    > As for the funding of Rock the Fort, that has been the subject of a good deal of misinformation. The funds that came from the Fort Bragg community were not appropriated monies (government funds) but rather weekly tithes and offerings that came from the various Christian congregations on post. A bit more explanation may be warranted. The Army recognizes a number of Distinctive Faith Groups – the variety of Christian denominations, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Wiccans. Each of these groups has a separate and independent Chaplain Tithes and Offerings fund which the congregation uses as it sees fit. In the case of Rock the Fort, the Christian congregations elected the use their donated funds to help produce the Rock the Fort concert. The other non-Christian groups did not participate. I believe that the Rock Beyond Belief organizers have petitioned for Distinctive Faith Group status, but they are very early in the process and so have no discrete funding like the recognized congregations on post.
    > A good analogy would be to transplant this situation into any city or town across the country. A group wants to produce an event on city property, lets say the town square, and requests that the city pay for the production of the event. Unless the event is of every great benefit to the entire community, it wouldn’t be a wise investment to spend town or city funds for an event that shows little potential for return on investment. I would argue that it would be unwise for that community’s leaders to not use the monies in the best manner possible. Now if the event’s organizer were to fund the event on their own, that would be a different story and a much easier decision to make.
    > The situation surrounding the Rock Beyond Belief concert is fraught with emotion, so it would be difficult to envision assuaging all the concerns that our fellow citizens have. We understand that Rock Beyond Belief is being reconsidered for later this year, and we hope that the event can happen at some point.
    > Again, thank you for your note. I hope that my explanation is of some value to you.
    > All the best,
    > Ben”

    and my last response waas:

    “Thank you for replying. Seeing as how all my information has been one sided and now I’m hearing another side to the story, I feel it’s best I sit this one out. I’d rather not put myself in a debate where I don’t actually know all of the facts. Not to question your honestly or your access to information, but I know all too well that when it comes to situations like these where one side says one thing and the other says something else, it’s best staying out of it. Plus, if what you tell me is true, it seems I have no chance here. Although it certainly bothers me a great deal that it’s so much more difficult for a non-secular concert to occur than a religious one. With no offense to any military official, I can’t help but feel like there’s some prejudicial force behind it, forgive me for my ignorance if I’m wrong. But then again, it seems like this is more of a society issue than a military one.

    I’ll make sure to send your response to those that feel the same way I do and to post it where I got my information. I’m sure many will continue to argue that there is injustice in this, and I don’t blame them.

    I wish you and our forces the best and equality to both our theist and non-theist soldiers, hopefully this resolves without too much of a mess.”

    Btw, Ben abel was one of the contacts listed on the site this links to.

  2. Immovable Atheist
    March 21, 2011 at 4:29 pm


    As you know from the conversations over on http://www.thethinkingatheist.com, I do not believe that his answers are satisfactory. I am of the opinion that the parade field would have been the appropriate place to hold this venue. The move to the theater which partially caused the cancellation of this event was of arbitrary reason. It costs nothing for the Army or Fort Hood to let out their parade field to an event. It’s not even fenced in. It is the equivalent of loaning out a meadow.

    Additionally, Mr Abel does not address (because it was unasked, not because he is evasive) the issue of statements of intent, which were not required of the religious group but that were a serious enough matter to shut down an atheist gathering at the 11th hour.

    Thank you for your comments, I hope that you continue to be a reader over here.

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