‘Heathens’ Not Welcome at Air Force Academy

In late April, the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a longtime religious watchdog group, called the nation’s attention to numerous incidents of religious bias and the official promotion of fundamentalist Christianity at the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based United States Air Force Academy – a problem that apparently has been brewing for quite some time.

Unlike other recent scandals at U.S. military academies involving cadets cheating, the violation of the honor code, and cases of sexual harassment and rape – which were often written off as the behavior of a few errant cadets – attorneys for Americans United found that at the Air Force Academy there was "systematic and pervasive religious bias and intolerance at the highest levels of the academy command structure."

This included pressuring cadets to undertake religious instruction and proselytizing by faculty members in the classroom. In one instance, cadets who declined to attend chapel after dinner were marched back to their dormitories by upperclass cadet staff in what was dubbed a "Heathen Flight."

The immediate reaction was somewhat predictable: Academy officials circled the wagons, while evangelical Christians claimed to be victims of an orchestrated campaign against them, or dismissed the incidents as the product of overzealous youth.

An official with Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family – the hometown multi-million dollar, multimedia, and politically powerful ministry – claimed evangelical Christians were victims of "a witch hunt."

Jerry White, president emeritus of the Navigators and a former academy instructor, denied that religious bias was "a pervasive or major problem." In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, White chalked it up to the natural over-exuberance of youth, as well as "a bit of [youthful] intolerance."

However, now that the Academy’s superintendent has admitted that religious intolerance is a deeply rooted problem that will take years to correct, the Christian Right’s rationales no longer hold water.

According to Americans United’s well-documented 14-page report [.pdf], the problem is not that evangelicals haven’t been able to speak about their religious beliefs; the problem is that cadets who aren’t evangelical Christians, and have no interest in converting, were dive-bombed by religious propaganda intended to convert them to the faith.

In 2004, when Mel Gibson’s controversial movie The Passion of the Christ was about to be released, Cadet First Class Casey Weinstein, a Jewish graduate of the Air Force Academy, discovered that Gibson-backers had placed promotional leaflets advertising the film on the breakfast plates of the school’s nearly 4,000 cadets.

"As the cadets ate, images from the film were flashed on cafeteria screens used for official academy messages," the Charlotte Observer recently reported. In the next few days, more flyers would appear at breakfast and in addition, "mass e-mail messages" were sent recommending that cadets "attend special screenings of the film."

Weinstein is the son of Mikey Weinstein, an attorney and academy graduate who over the years had expressed his consternation over the Academy’s religious practices.

In an opinion piece published by the Colorado Springs Gazette, John J. Michels Jr., an Academy graduate and former military attorney who now works in the corporate world, suggested that the incidents of bias could not have happened with the knowledge of Academy officials.

"Large crucifixes being erected in the cadet area outside of the chapel, fliers placed under doors on Easter morning celebrating the reincarnation of Jesus, and video projections of Bible verses on screens in the dining hall during mandatory meal formations do not occur without the blessing (figuratively, and perhaps literally) of the commander," he wrote.

Officials at the Academy were unprepared to deal with the sudden media scrutiny: In mid-May, the Associated Press reported that shortly after a Pentagon task force assigned to investigate the charges arrived at the Academy, the No. 2 chaplain claimed that "she was fired by her boss for speaking up about religious intolerance among cadets and staff, including allegations that evangelical Christians wield too much influence."

Capt. Melinda Morton, a Lutheran, "said she was pressured to deny a report by Yale Divinity School professor Kristen Leslie that a chaplain told 600 cadets during basic training last year ‘to go back to their tents and tell their fellow cadets that those who are not born again will burn in the fires of hell.’"

In an early June meeting of the Anti-Defamation League’s executive committee in Denver, Lt. Gen. John Rosa Jr., the Air Force Academy’s superintendent, admitted that the campus had been inundated by cadets bent on evangelical proselytizing, and acknowledged that it might take several years to root the problem out.

No one is suggesting that evangelicals at the Academy surrender their religious beliefs.

"Sharing your faith with another is not a problem," said Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United. "But in a hierarchy, when highly placed individuals manipulate a chain-of-command structure to pressure others to adopt their faith, that is a problem."

Meanwhile, Jennifer Stephens, an Air Force spokesperson at the Pentagon, told the Charlotte Observer that the Pentagon had "not seen any evidence of this being an issue throughout the Air Force."

She acknowledged that the Americans United report provided "a good opportunity to take a look at the policies, the procedures, and the religious climate at the Academy."

On May 27, a new Air Force policy statement was issued. "Senior leaders, commanders and supervisors at every level must be particularly sensitive to the fact that subordinates can consider your public expressions of belief systems coercive," said the statement. "Using your place at the podium as a platform for your personal beliefs can be perceived as misuse of office."

However, a week later, Wing Commander Nicholas Jurewicz sent an e-mail to thousands of fellow cadets that listed "a number of quotations including several about Jesus. He also included a Bible verse, ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ,’ the Associated Press reported.

"Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People" – which deals with aspects of religious intolerance – is a mandatory training given to cadets, faculty members, and staff on campus.

In another move, Lt. Col. Vicki Rast was recently appointed to the newly created position of director of the Climate and Culture Office. One of the things the Climate and Culture Office might consider looking into is the effect that the Colorado Springs evangelical community has on the cadets.

"Focus on the Family is the single biggest employer in Colorado Springs, with its $90 million dollar budget," Lynn told IPS in a telephone interview. "When cadets go out into the community, they experience a world outside the institution that is heavily steeped in evangelism."

During a recent drive through Colorado, Lynn said he "turned on the radio and a number of Christian programs were being aired on different stations at the same time. There is no question that the community’s general atmosphere is supportive of extensive evangelical activity."

After issuing its report, Americans United recommended that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld immediately investigate the situation.

"So far, I would give the Department of Defense a reasonably good grade in dealing with the religious intolerance problems at the Academy," Lynn said. "They’ve sent out the task force and we are expecting their report any day now. They’ve taken this seriously, as we hoped they would."

(Inter Press Service)