The U.S. Air Force Academy is embroiled in a growing scandal over alleged religious coercion, following an investigation triggered by complaints from a Jewish student distressed over evangelical Christian proselytizing.
Earlier this year, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group launched an investigation. Its report alleges that academy leaders, including faculty, chaplains and senior cadets, have created an environment inhospitable to those who are not evangelical Christians.
The release of the group’s report April 28 prompted a nationwide furor, with Jewish organizations demanding a congressional investigation of the academy. The Air Force has launched its own investigation of the events, due to be released next week, but critics claim the process is flawed. Such concerns intensified last week, after a liberal Christian chaplain at the academy was transferred overseas — a move some said was in retaliation for the chaplain helping investigators examine issues of religious intolerance at the elite institution.
The swirl of allegations has pushed the Air Force Academy back into the limelight of controversy. In 2003, an investigation of the academy’s general treatment of women, as well as allegations of sexual assault, led to the dismissal of four top officers in the Air Force. The current charges, insiders say, show an institutional pattern of religious intolerance and a breach of the First Amendment’s prohibition of state-sponsored religion.
“We did find a poisoned atmosphere of discrimination,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Whether they were non-believers, Jews or mainstream Christians, there seemed to be a pervasive sense at the academy that there was only one way to heaven and, by extension, one way for you to advance your career, and that was to get with Jesus.”
The report alleges that while Christian cadets are routinely given special permission to attend off-campus prayers services on Sundays, Jews and other Saturday Sabbath observers are not given similar dispensations, and are forced instead to attend training exercises, parades and football games scheduled as official Saturday activities. It also alleges that some of the academy’s senior leadership have insinuated their faith, which is often a form of evangelical Christianity, into their professional duties: A number of faculty members, it claims, have introduced themselves to their classes as born-again Christians and encouraged students to become born-again. Officials have allegedly opened mandatory meals, trainings and ceremonies with prayer.
One of the more specific charges is that Johnny Weida, commandant of cadets, routinely initiates the call-and-response chant — “Airpower! … Rock Sir!” — which the report claims is based on the New Testament’s parable of building one’s life on the rock-hard foundation of Jesus. Another is that senior officials allowed students to advertise a showing of “The Passion of the Christ” as an academy-sponsored event and to put fliers for the event on every plate in the dining hall.
“It was really not a good situation,” said Casey Weinstein, 22, who touched off the Americans United investigation when he shared such stories with his father, Mikey, an attorney who served in the Reagan administration. “The best way I can put it is that a large vocal minority had their way at the academy with nobody to hold them in check from crossing the line between church and state.”
In a conversation with the Forward, a spokesperson at the academy said leaders are facing issues of religious intolerance head on by asking students to come forward with complaints, and by mandating that all cadets and staff watch a 50-minute video on diverse values and beliefs. The video was produced last year after the academy surveyed cadets about these issues and found that over half had heard derogatory comments or jokes of a religious nature. The 16-person task force deployed by the Air Force to assess the academy’s religious issues is expected to present its findings to acting Air Force Secretary Michael Dominguez on May 23.
Despite these efforts, critics of the Air Force Academy say that its attempts at reform are disingenuous. The Americans United report asserts that last fall, weeks after the academy began the religious sensitivity program, head football coach Fisher DeBerry hung a banner in the locker room that read, “I am a Christian first and last; I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.” The report also alleges that the very officer in charge of the academy’s equal-opportunity office, Captain Joseph Bland, refused to recognize the complaint of a self-described atheist cadet and instead attempted to proselytize the student into Catholicism.
Several observers contacted by the Forward connected the rise in religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy to the increasing numbers of evangelical Christians within its leadership, as well as to the growth of the movement’s overall size and political muscle. A central tenet of evangelical sects is the belief in proselytizing nonbelievers.
“Evangelical Christians and those who are affiliated with the religious right have been gaining a great deal of confidence in various political activities and pushing their agenda on the cultural front,” said Randall Balmer, a Columbia University professor of religion. “They have a real sense that they have enough clout to force real change.”
Colorado Springs, the hometown of the Air Force Academy, is the stronghold of America’s best-known evangelical organizations, including Focus on the Family and the 11,000-member New Life Church. Both institutions are located across the highway from the academy and interact with faculty and students. Cadets often invite evangelical leaders to Bible study programs on campus, while the New Life Church deploys vans to transport between 100 and 200 cadets who attend Friday night services there, according to pastor Aaron Stern. Students are encouraged to pass out fliers and to recruit their friends to come, he said.
The academy’s leaders extend that kind of proactive approach to proselytizing cadets, according to MeLinda Morton, 48, the Lutheran chaplain allegedly pushed out of her executive position as a captain at the academy after another critical report, conducted with a Yale Divinity School professor, was released last month. “In their training and their practice [they] find it very hard to reach across the denomination line and appropriately minister to people who come to them from a nonevangelical perspective,” she said.
Jewish leaders have reacted strongly to the recent allegations. Last week, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman called on the Pentagon to freeze its recommended promotion of Weida, as reported in The Jewish Week, while the American Jewish Committee called for an independent congressional investigation.
Morton also said she has little faith in the Air Force-appointed task force, which she criticized for not contacting her despite her crucial role in identifying signs of religious coercion on campus. She also reported a “significant” number of new grievances brought to her attention since the Americans United report was released last month.
The academy “doesn’t seem to be really interested in seeing what’s going on,” she said. “Even when I called them on a purely perfunctory matter, and asked did they need information from me, their answer was no.”