Jesus Is Not Our Co-Pilot, Academy Insists

The U.S. Air Force continued to carry out damage control Tuesday before a congressional committee looking into religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., which trains future officers.

A military task force reported last week that there was no overt religious discrimination at the academy but that it found insensitivity by cadets and staff members. It said the Air Force Academy failed to accommodate the diverse religious needs of cadets and staff.

Among the incidents highlighted in the report were fliers that advertised a screening of The Passion of the Christ at every seat in the dining hall; more than 250 people at the academy signing an annual Christmas message in the base newspaper that said, "Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world"; and an atheist student who was forbidden to organize a club for "Freethinkers."

On Monday, a rabbi who retired as one of the military’s top chaplains was appointed by the Air Force to help carry out the recommendations of the task force. Arnold E. Resnicoff was named special assistant to acting Air Force Secretary Michael L. Dominguez and chief of staff for values and vision.

The House of Representatives Military Subcommittee heard testimony from Lt. Gen. Roger Brady, the Air Force officer who headed the task force. Other witnesses were retired Chaplain Jack C. Williamson of the Evangelical Friends Church, which helps recruit Air Force chaplains, and Dr. Christian Leslie, an ordained minister who is a professor at the Yale University Divinity School.

Gen. Brady told the panel he thought the major cause of religious intolerance at the 4,000-student campus was that guidelines provided to commanders contained "no useful operational guidance." He said this guidance was now being prepared.

"Religious slurs and disparaging remarks have no place at the Air Force Academy," Gen. Brady said.

But Chaplain Williamson said problems of religious intolerance "were not unique" to the academy, but rather reflected a national debate on issues of religious interpretation. He cited Monday’s Supreme Court decisions on display of the Ten Commandments on public property as examples of these disparate interpretations of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The current situation at the academy, he said, was the result of "years of practice that have gone unchallenged," adding that the problem "goes far beyond tolerance."

Dr. Leslie, who with a team of her Yale students recently spent a week "shadowing" academy chaplains, expressed concern about the appropriateness of "sectarian prayer in a multi-religious environment." She said her group also found that chaplains who were members of the Air Force Reserve were not experienced in pastoral care.

The issue, she said, is "good pastoral care versus evangelism."

She said she was also concerned about the power relationship between teachers and students. There is a problem when a chaplain defends saying "Jesus will be with you, Jesus will save you" with the response "That’s the way we do it here – we promote Jesus."

In response to a question from Rep. Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican, about chaplains invoking Jesus in prayers, Gen. Brady said the academy should have "a generic prayer."

"How do we fight proselytizing?" asked Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat.

"We need to stop this stuff," Gen. Brady responded.

The Air Force Academy is located in an area that houses many of the nation’s most evangelical Christian ministries, and representatives of those organizations have visited and led prayer meetings at the academy.

A chaplain at the academy, Capt. Melinda Morton, made public last month accusations that the religious problem at the academy was "pervasive."

Morton had been on a team asked to draw up a program to promote religious tolerance. Last week, she resigned from the Air Force saying that she did not believe her superiors genuinely wanted her to stay on to help resolve the problem.

Before she resigned, she was transferred to another post. She lodged a formal complaint, which is currently being investigated by the Air Force Inspector General. Gen. Brady declined to comment on Morton’s case since it was under investigation.

Rep. Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, said he found the discussion "biased against Christians." Noting that he believes in sharing his faith, he said he felt "attacked for my Christian beliefs."

Rep. Walter Jones, the North Carolina Republican who recently broke ranks with the George W. Bush administration in calling for an end to the Iraq war, said a "generic prayer" – not mentioning Jesus – is analogous to singing "From the hall of Montezuma to the shores of political correctness." He was referring to the question of whether a chaplain should mention Jesus in a prayer to a dying soldier.

The Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs reports that 60 percent of the cadets are Protestant, compared with an average of about 35 percent at West Point and the Naval Academy.

Rabbi Resnicoff served with the Navy in Vietnam and retired as command chaplain for the U.S. European Command. He is a former national director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and was one of a group of veterans who helped create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Gen. Brady said his panel had referred seven cases of questionable behavior to the Air Force for further investigation.

The academy has 19 clubs for religious groups. Many of the clubs and educational programs are led by outsiders, some affiliated with ministries in Colorado Springs.

The commandant of cadets, Brig. Gen. Johnny A. Weida, came in for particular scrutiny by the Air Force panel. He sent an academy wide e-mail message to announce the National Day of Prayer, instructed cadets that they were "accountable to their God" and invented a call-and-response chant with the cadets that went, "Jesus … Rocks."

An inspector general’s report attached to the task force findings indicated that General Weida’s case was among the seven referred to the Air Force command. The inspector general found no wrongdoing or misconduct by General Weida on six points. But it said that one problem, "the proselytization of non-Christian cadets," continued to be investigated.

Focus on the Family, an evangelical ministry in Colorado Springs that had called criticism of the academy unjustified, said in a statement, "We fervently hope that this ridiculous bias of a few against the religion of a majority – Christianity – will now cease."

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.