Beliefs Politics

Debate reignites over religion at Air Force Academy

Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force Academy

(RNS) The long-smoldering debate at the U.S. Air Force Academy over the role of religion in cadets' lives has reignited, just as a new class arrives on campus for basic training.

Accusations of improper proselytizing on the Colorado Springs, Colo., campus have been challenged by those who argue that AFA guidelines curtail religious expression.

(2005) Conjuring images of fighter jets aimed skyward, the chapel at the Air Force 
Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., has been hailed as an example of expressionist modern architecture.

(2005) Conjuring images of fighter jets aimed skyward, the chapel at the Air Force
Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., has been hailed as an example of expressionist modern architecture.

The two sides recently clashed over a letter from 66 House Republicans urging Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to investigate the USAF’s growing “hostility toward religious freedom” under guidelines set last September by USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.

In response to allegations of proselytizing, Schwarz mandated that only chaplains could endorse religious programs.

But the congressional letter argues that the new policy goes too far.

“While we agree that leaders should not use their positions to impose their religious beliefs or extend preferential treatment to those who share their beliefs, the decisions that have been made in reliance upon this policy go beyond what is required by the U.S. Constitution,” the letter reads.

The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, a conservative Christian organization representing evangelical chaplains, applauded the letter.

“There’s nothing wrong with a commander attending, even publicizing and encouraging … a good and positive event for the morale and the welfare of military personnel,” said executive director and retired Col. Ron Crews, a former chaplain with 28 years of military experience.

“There’s nothing wrong with a commander saying, ‘This is an event that I support and I am going to.’ You’re encouraged to go, but you are not ordered to go,” he said.

But David Mullin, a former AFA economics professor, said military culture muddies the distinction between encouragement and orders, so only chaplains should speak on religious matters.

“When a military commander says ‘you are encouraged to attend,’ whether it is to military officers or civilians, that is an effective order,” Mullin said. This constitutes improper proselytism, he added.

A self-described evangelical, Mullin is one of the few to openly criticize what he calls an unhealthy religious climate in the AFA. He is represented in court by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a legal watchdog.

Mullin was one of five academy professors who sued unsuccessfully in January 2011 to stop a school prayer luncheon that would feature as keynote speaker a veteran who calls himself a “U.S. Marine for Christ.”

He alleges his dog was poisoned after he protested about the school's religious climate later that year.

Mullin suggests part of the problem stems from the AFA's Colorado Springs location. The city hosts many evangelical parachurch organizations, such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, as well as New Life Church, an evangelical church founded by its former pastor Ted Haggard.

He added that some of these groups have access to the academy, including cards that get them into dorms.

“You have very strong encouragement — basically carte blanche access to cadets by the leadership of the academy by these groups,” Mullin said. “It is corruption, and there is substantial religious discrimination as part of this corruption,” he said.

The AFA has long struggled with setting boundaries for religious expression.

In 2004 a team of Yale Divinity School students and professors found “challenges to pluralism” at the academy. A memo expressed “concern that the overwhelmingly evangelical tone of general Protestant worship encouraged religious divisions rather than fostering understanding among basic cadets.”

An internal AFA investigative panel in 2005 found religious “insensitivity,” but not “overt religious discrimination.”

Still, the Air Force that year issued guidelines that banned some public prayers and discouraged public discussion of religious belief by commanders and enlisted personnel. A 2006 revision relaxed the guidelines somewhat by allowing personal religious discussions that are not coercive.

A 2010 survey found 41 percent of non-Christian cadets faced unwanted proselytizing, even as the religious majority felt that their freedom of speech was being infringed upon.

This is bad for cadets and bad for the country, says Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 academy graduate and founder of MRFF.

The congressional letter, he said, is part of a larger cultural battle to hold personal Christian rights over civil rights. “It’s just another example of the level of stupidity and unbridled fundamentalist Christian cancer,” he said. 

MRFF has 362 clients at the AFA, triple those at the Army and Navy academies, according to Weinstein. He claims 35 families from the incoming class have already contacted him, though no suits have been filed.

Crews said Weinstein’s message is misguided, and that the Constitution protects the right to evangelize in ways that are not belligerent or coercive.

“As I understand, Mikey Weinstein’s interpretation of the First Amendment is that we have freedom from religion instead of freedom of religion.” Crews said. “Just because someone puts on the uniform does not mean that they give up their God-given, constitutionally protected religious liberties.”

About the author

Chris Lisee

4 Comments

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  • I served 20 years in the Air Force, primarily as a JAG officer (attorney). I was stationed in Colorado Springs and my son was born at the AF Academy Hospital.

    I don’t see any evidence in this story of any coercion. People complaining because they were “proselyted”–invited to listen to a religious message–apparently want something that they would not have in civilian life, the ability to censor any speech they disagree with. As adults, they are expected to be able to hear and read all sorts of diverse viewpoints expressed and make up their own minds whether to believe the messages or not. So long as no one is constraining them, speaking to them is not an infringement on any right, but restraining others from speaking to them would deprive the speakers of the right of free speech.

    If everyone could censor anyone else, would the students with Republican leanings get to censor the Democrats? Would a student who wants to tell another student about Darwin’s theory of evolution be censored? Students speak to each other about sports, politics, dating, and all sorts of other topics. Censoring speech about religion, when it is not forcing anyone to listen against their will, violates the First Amendment.

  • “good and positive” for whom, exactly? Conservative fundamentalist Protestants only.

  • They were not “invited” and they were constrained – that’s the whole point. When a military commander tells cadets that they are “encouraged” to attend an evangelical proselytizing talk, effectively they are being ordered to be proselytized.

  • I am glad that the Air Force made the call, leaving religious matters to chaplains. I am also very disappointed that these congressmen/women insist on sticking their noses in something they do not understand. I have served over ten years in the military and have seem commanders on both sides of this issue. Those who are obviously biased and promote their own beliefs while ignoring or even discouraging beliefs other than their own. And then those who let a person’s personal beliefs remain personal.

    By writing this letter to the Secretary of Defense, they have displayed a complete disregard for every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marines and Coastguards-men who holds beliefs contrary to their own. It creates a hostile environment for these service members and I for one will not stand for it.

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