Culture

The Atheist Who Silenced the Astronaut

When we talk about “taking back the culture,” people get apprehensive and worry that we are trying to overthrow our republican form of government and form a theocracy. The reality is something a lot less ambitious. Those of us who grew up in post-1960’s America don’t always fully grasp how much we have lost since that turbulent decade because we’ve always lived in a world where radical atheists have enjoyed influence and a degree of social acceptance. We forget that it wasn’t always this way and that the scrubbing of religion — Christianity in particular — from American public life is a relatively new phenomenon.

In a recent blog post, Eric Metaxas shared the little-known story of astronaut Buzz Aldrin taking communion on the surface of the moon:

The background to the story is that Aldrin was an elder at his Presbyterian Church in Texas during this period in his life, and knowing that he would soon be doing something unprecedented in human history, he felt he should mark the occasion somehow, and he asked his pastor to help him.  And so the pastor consecrated a communion wafer and a small vial of communion wine.  And Buzz Aldrin took them with him out of the Earth’s orbit and on to the surface of the moon.

I am just old enough to remember our family gathered around the black and white TV, my dad adjusting the antennae, as we watched man’s first steps on the moon. An unprecedented 125 million Americans tuned in to watch the fearsome event on TV — it wasn’t a given that the men would survive outside the lunar module or that they would make it back to Earth. William Safire had prepared a speech for President Nixon to deliver in the event of a disaster and protocols were established for contacting the wives of the astronauts in case the unthinkable happened.

Even after they returned to earth, the astronauts remained in quarantine for 21 days in compliance with the recently passed Extra-Terrestrial Exposure Law.

It was a perilous mission, one for which President Nixon called Americans to pray:

Apollo 11 is on its way to the moon. It carries three brave astronauts; it also carries the hopes and prayers of hundreds of millions of people…That moment when man first sets foot on a body other than earth will stand through the centuries as one supreme in human experience…I call upon all of our people…to join in prayer for the successful conclusion of Apollo 11‘s mission.

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Unfortunately, along with the event “supreme in human experience” came advances in militant atheism. In 1960, American Atheists founder, Madalyn Murray O’Hair sued the Baltimore schools over objections to required Bible readings. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court in 1963, when the court effectively banned mandatory Bible reading in schools. The year before the Supreme Court had banned mandatory school prayer.

In 1968 O’Hair sued NASA after the Apollo 8 astronauts read from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the earth with millions of Americans listening in on Christmas Eve. The case was dismissed by the Supreme Court due to lack of jurisdiction, but it had a chilling effect on the Apollo 11 mission. Aldrin wrote in Guidepost a year after the moon landing that he wrestled with how much he should say publicly about his plans to take communion on the moon:

And how much should we talk about our plans?  I am naturally rather reticent, but on the other hand I was becoming increasingly convinced that having religious convictions carried with it the responsibility of witnessing to them.  Finally we decided we would say nothing about the communion service until after the moonshot.

In fact, O’Hair and the threat of lawsuits dictated the decision. As Aldrin wrote in his book, Magnificent Desolation:

I wanted to do something positive for the world, so the spiritual aspect appealed greatly to me, but NASA was still smarting from a lawsuit filed by atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair after the Apollo 8 astronauts read from the biblical creation account of Genesis. O’Hair contended that this was a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. Although O’Hair’s views did not represent mainstream America at that time, her lawsuit was a nuisance and a distraction NASA preferred to live without.

Instead, Aldrin offered what he described as “inclusive” comments:

Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM Pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence.  I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to invite each person listening, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.

We would recognize this today as political correctness, although I doubt the term was in use in 1969, and certainly, the consequences of decades of political correctness could not be known.

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Aldrid’s radio went silent as he pulled out the tiny communion kit his pastor had helped him prepare and privately took the bread and the cup. Neil Armstrong looked on as Aldrid silently read John 15:5: “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.”

He later said that,

“[A]t the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God. It was my hope that people would keep the whole event in their minds and see, beyond minor details and technical achievements, a deeper meaning — a challenge, and the human need to explore whatever is above us, below us, or out there.”

Sadly, on one of the momentous nights in American history, Americans never heard this story — it was a victim of militant atheism. To this day, most Americans have never heard about it, nor have they heard the story of the creation narrative reading on the Apollo 8 mission. And Aldrid’s story was something of a canary in the coal mine. O’Hair and her comrades began a long, steady march to scrub every vestige of religion from our history and our public life — and they’ve been successful beyond their wildest dreams. The pendulum has swung so far to the left that we can no longer see the center.

So when we say we want to “take back the culture,” most of us simply want the political correctness, the bullying, the intimidation, and the lawsuits to stop. We’re tired of a small minority of militant atheists dictating how we should design our town seals and whether or not our children can pray at their graduation ceremonies. We’re tired of them scrubbing religion from our history and removing the religious elements from events that are by nature deeply spiritual. We want to “take back” our right to speak openly and honestly about our faith in a culture that desperately needs it.