The Air Force Soars to the Right
April 7, 2006
By Gene C. Gerard
Air Force recently released new guidelines on religious expression.
The guidelines come after several investigations that documented
a lack of religious tolerance at the Air Force Academy. Consequently,
last year the Air Force issued revised guidelines that struck a
good balance between the right to free speech and religious toleration.
But evangelical Christian organizations and members of Congress
complained, prompting the Air Force to issue new guidelines that
pander to the religious right.
In 2005 the Air Force received numerous complaints of religious
discrimination, coercion, and intolerance at the prestigious Air
Force Academy, where an elite group of young cadets are trained
to become officers. In response to the complaints an Air Force review
board investigated the academy. The board's report maintained that
although there was "no overt religious discrimination" there had
been instances of "insensitivity," which was putting it mildly.
Cadets were asked to sign a message affirming, "Jesus Christ is
the only real hope for the world." Although the academy had 19 clubs
for religious organizations, an atheist cadet was not allowed to
form a club for "Freethinkers." A chaplain at the academy routinely
told students that if they didn't believe in Christ they would "burn
in hell." The commandant of the academy, Brigadier General Johnny
Weida, wrote a military chant for the cadets that proclaimed "Jesus
Rocks." The football team's locker room contained a banner stating,
"I am a Christian first and last, I am a member of Team Jesus."
Jewish cadets were told that the Holocaust was revenge for killing
These and other instances were obviously much more than merely
religious insensitivity. They prompted the Air Force to release
revised guidelines of religious expression last year. To its credit,
the Air Force struck the appropriate balance between the right to
free speech and religious tolerance with the guidelines. In fact,
it's this balance that offended evangelical Christians.
The conservative organization Focus on the Family asked its members
to complain to President Bush about the guidelines. The organization
released a statement characterizing the investigation of the academy
and the revision of the guidelines as a "ridiculous bias of a few
against the religion of the majority – Christianity." More than
70 members of Congress signed a letter asking President Bush to
publicly criticize the guidelines and to issue an executive order
that would have military chaplains invoke the name of Jesus during
prayers at public ceremonies.
As a result of the criticism, the Air Force caved in and recently
released new guidelines clearly intended to appease the religious
right. In fact, Major General Charles C. Baldwin, the chief of chaplains
for the Air Force, admitted, "My evangelical friends were concerned
that we did limit, and somehow restrict, the chaplains' service."
He complained that the revised guidelines required chaplains to
be "as sensitive to those who do not welcome offerings of faith
as they are generous in sharing their faith with those who do."
The revised guidelines stated, "A brief non-sectarian prayer may
be included in non-routine military ceremonies or events of special
importance where the purpose of the prayer is to add a heightened
sense of seriousness." In striking contrast, the new guidelines
state, "Public prayer should not usually be a part of routine official
business." The use of the term "usually" creates a loophole big
enough for a squadron of Air Force planes to fly through it. The
new guidelines also advise, "Non-Denominational, inclusive prayer
may be appropriate for military ceremonies or events of special
importance," but fail to indicate that this should serve the purpose
of making the event more solemn.
Both versions of the guidelines address the role of chaplains.
Last year's version stipulated that chaplains should minister to
those of their own faiths, those of other faiths, and provide care
for all service members, even if they had no faith. However, the
new version asserts that chaplains "will not be required to participate
in religious activities, including public prayer, inconsistent with
their faiths." This permits chaplains to service only those of their
own faith, and ignore those of other religious beliefs.
The revised guidelines warned superiors that their personal religious
expressions could be interpreted by subordinates as official comments.
While the new guidelines similarly caution superiors, they stress
that "nothing in this guidance should be understood to limit the
substance of voluntary discussions of religion…where it is reasonably
clear that the discussions are personal, not official." This is
another loophole intended to gratify evangelical Christians and
create ambiguity. Should it be reasonably clear to superiors or
subordinates that religious comments are not official?
The U.S. government, and in particular the military, is facing
its worst public image abroad in almost half a century. Much of
this has been created by a perception in the Muslim world that the
military does not respect religious freedom and tolerance. The charges
made against the Air Force, and the subsequent influence of evangelical
Christians, only reinforces this perception. If the military isn't
free from religious coercion at home, there's little reason for
foreign nations to hope that their beliefs will be respected.
Gene C. Gerard has taught history, religion, and ethics for 14
years at a number of colleges in the Southwest and is a contributing
author to the forthcoming book Americans at War, by Greenwood Press.
He writes a political blog for the world news website OrbStandard