Debate reignites over religion at Air Force Academy
Monday, July 16, 2012
Selected Article Excerpts:
- (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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”