Christian Emphasis on Evangelism at Heart of Air Force Academy Scandal
By Steve Rabey
Religion News Service
Colorado Springs, Colo., June 2 – There’s “a heck of a battle” going on at the Air Force Academy, says legendary football coach Bobby Bowden. The problem is deciding who started it.
Bowden and other evangelicals rallying around the Colorado-based Academy contend opponents are trying to limit their freedom to talk about God. “If you knew the cure for cancer, would you tell somebody or would you keep it a secret?” asked the Florida State coach at a May banquet in Colorado Springs sponsored by the nonprofit group, Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “The problem with us Christians is we won’t speak out.”
But others say evangelicals in and out of uniform speak out too aggressively at the Academy, creating an environment that Americans United for Separation of Church and State described as “systematic and pervasive religious bias and intolerance at the highest levels of the Academy command structure.”
It’s a classic battle between evangelical Christians, who say they are commanded to share their beliefs, and people of other faiths or no faith, who say they shouldn’t have to tolerate constant proselytizing or harassment. And the battle lines extend far beyond Colorado Springs, an evangelical epicenter, to similar religious freedom battles around the country, as well as other world hot spots where America’s global aspirations seem to be cloaked in Christian rhetoric.
For now, both sides are waiting for an Air Force task force report expected later this summer that will address issues of religion at the Academy, which has been the subject of complaints for decades.
“We have not seen any evidence of this being an issue throughout the Air Force,” said Jennifer Stephens, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon. But she says complaints from Academy cadets and faculty, growing press coverage, and a detailed report from advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State convinced top brass that “this was a good opportunity to take a look at the policies, the procedures, and the religious climate at the Academy.”
Casey Weinstein is a Jewish graduate of the Academy who says he was frequently subjected to evangelical overkill. He is the son of Mikey Weinstein, an attorney and Academy graduate who has been complaining about the institution’s religious practices for years.
It was the spring of 2004 when Cadet First Class Casey Weinstein says he and fellow Academy cadets were exposed to an aggressive promotional campaign for Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.”
Promotional flyers were placed on the breakfast plates of all the nearly 4,000 cadets one morning, followed by more flyers on each place setting at lunch and at other meals during the following days. As the cadets ate, images from the film were flashed on cafeteria screens used for official Academy messages. In addition, “Passion” posters hung from walls in offices and dormitories. And mass e-mail messages urged cadets to attend special screenings of the film.
The flyers disappeared after Weinstein and a handful of fellow cadets complained about the campaign. But he says such complaints did little to stop the continuing barrage of Christian messages that critics claim are a routine part of daily life at the Academy.
“I could give you a million examples,” says Weinstein, now a second lieutenant at the Los Angeles Air Force Base. “There was a large and vocal minority of evangelical Christians who regularly blurred the line between church and state, but there was no system at the Academy to keep that in check.”
The Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which opposes most government funding of military chaplains and other faith-based activities, cites numerous other complaints in its 14-page report. It claims that evangelical commanders, chaplains and even the football coach aggressively promote their own born-again beliefs, routinely dismiss complaints about religious harassment from cadets, and also make it difficult for those of other faiths or no faith to enjoy the constitutional freedoms the military should be fighting to preserve.
In an interview, AU director Barry Lynn said, “Officials at the Air Force Academy do exercise a certain amount of control over the academic lives of the cadets, but they should have no control over their spiritual lives.”
On Thursday (June 2), the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism joined the chorus of concern, sending a letter to Michael Dominguez, acting secretary of the Air Force.
“We find these allegations profoundly troubling not only as concerned American citizens, but also as members of a religious minority that has historically faced innumerable instances of religious intolerance and hatred,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the center’s director, adding that he speaks for more than 900 Reform congregations across the country.
Similar problems were cited in a 2004 report by a pastoral care consultant from the Yale University Divinity School who was asked to assess the Academy’s chaplaincy programs.
That report found “stridently evangelical themes” in the chaplains’ programs. And in an interview, report author Kristen Leslie said similar themes are found throughout the Academy.
“There’s one religious voice, the conservative evangelical Christian voice, that has decided that it has the right to lay claim to the environment,” she says, “and it is able to do that by working with the Academy power structure.”
An executive with Focus in the Family, a conservative Christian oganization based in Colorado Springs, described the campaign against evangelicals at the Academy as “a witch hunt.” Focus on the Family isn’t registered to conduct religious activities on Academy grounds, but other evangelical groups are, including the Navigators, one of many international evangelical organizations with active military ministries.
“I don’t think there’s a pervasive or major problem at the Academy,” says Jerry White, president emeritus of the Navigators and a former Academy instructor. “If anything, it’s a bit of intolerance among the cadets, who are young kids and sometimes say stupid things.”
The Navigators got its start working with military members more than 70 years ago. The mission of its U.S. Military Ministry is “to help reach the nations of the world by multiplying disciples of Jesus Christ in the military.”
White, who retired as a major general in the Air Force Reserve, says the Christian tone of many Academy events reflects the beliefs of the majority of its population. And while acknowledging possible episodes of “inappropriate” zeal by some, he says it’s evangelicals who have been on the receiving end of most of the religious abuse. “In my 40 years experience with the Academy, it’s been people calling evangelicals `Bible thumpers.”‘
Academy critics say they aren’t asking evangelicals to give up their beliefs. They’re only asking them to express them in ways that acknowledge increasing pluralism of American life.
“Sharing your faith with another is not a problem,” says Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “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.”
Academy Chaplain MeLinda Morton has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Academy’s religious culture. She contends her criticism of the Academy is one of the reasons she received an early transfer to Japan — a charge being investigated by the Air Force’s personnel office.
Morton says evangelicals need to realize that the kinds of aggressive evangelistic appeals that are completely acceptable in the civilian world aren’t appropriate in a military environment.
“The problem is that the Academy is a regulated market. And many of the evangelicals at the Academy have disregarded and attempted to subvert the regulations about what is or isn’t appropriate,” says Morton, who served a decade as an Air Force officer before completing her theological training and being ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
While both sides await the final Air Force task report, those who think evangelicals have gone overboard at the Academy drew comfort from a new Air Force policy statement urging restraint that was issued May 27.
“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.”
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