A 24-year-old cadet dropped out of West Point this week, less than six months before graduation, saying he could no longer be part of the school’s Christian culture.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Blake Page criticized the U.S. Military Academy, where cadets stand silently for prayers, basic training instructors refer jokingly to nonreligious cadets as "heathens" and one officer told him he'd never be a leader until he filled the hole in his heart.
To those who want the nation’s military to sever its ties to religion, Page is a hero.
"This is an extraordinary act of courage that I do compare directly to what Rosa Parks did," said Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group with which Page was involved. Weinstein considers Page’s action a milestone in the fight against “fanatical religiosity” in the military.
But Page’s decision may have had little to do with the academy’s religious climate.
Page told The AP that he was medically disqualified this semester from receiving a commission in the Army as a second lieutenant—the commission his classmates will receive in May—because of clinical depression and anxiety. He said his condition has gotten worse since his father killed himself last year. He admitted West Point’s determination he could not become an officer played a role in his public protest against what he calls the unconstitutional prevalence of religion in the military.
Even those who share Page’s disdain for religion say his description of persecution at the academy might have gone too far.
Maj. Nicholas Utzig, the faculty adviser to West Point’s Secular Student Alliance, for which Page served as president, said he doesn't doubt some of the moments Page described, but he doesn't believe systematic discrimination against nonreligious cadets exists.
"I think it represents his own personal experience and perhaps it might not be as universal as he suggests," said Utzig, who teaches English literature.
One of Page's secularist classmates went further, calling his characterization of West Point unfair.
"I think it's true that the majority of West Point cadets are of a very conservative, Christian orientation," said senior cadet Andrew Houchin. "I don't think that's unique to West Point. But more broadly, I've never had that even be a problem with those of us who are secular."
Page, who is from Stockbridge, Ga., was accepted into West Point after serving in the Army. Despite his criticisms, the Army is making his exit as painless as possible. Cadets who drop out of West Point usually do so within the first two years. After that, they risk penalties. But Page received an honorable discharge and will not have to meet his service commitments or reimburse the cost of his education.
He plans to remain an activist on the role of religion in the military.