Saturday, July 2, 2005

Stamping out evangelical Christian activity at the Air Force Academy could erode combat will, retention, and enlistments and violate the intent of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

On June 22, the Air Force released a report of investigation into complaints of proselytizing by and religious intolerance on the part of evangelical Christians at the academy. The 16-member investigation group found “a religious climate that does not involve overt religious discrimination, but a failure to fully accommodate all members’ needs and a lack of awareness over where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs.”

The Anti-Defamation League, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and legislators such as Rep. Lois Capps, California Democrat, pushed acting Air Force Secretary Michael Dominguez to stop academy evangelical Christians from sharing their faith. Ms. Capps’ May 16 letter to Mr. Dominguez expresses concern about “accusations of religious intolerance and harassment” at the academy.

Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. John Rosa admits there is a religious sensitivity problem but denies it is “systemic or pervasive” as suggested by former academy Chaplain MeLinda Morton. Gen. Rosa contends every allegation has been resolved of so-called religious intolerance such as the alleged “semiofficial” movement to endorse Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion,” and a Christmas message in the base newspaper proclaiming “Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world.”

Last year the academy, after “55 complaints” by 13 people, spread over the last four years, with only three incidents that rose to the level of malice, added religious intolerance questions to an annual climate survey that helped identify the problem. The remedy was a new program, Respecting Spiritual Values of all People, specifically designed to address religious intolerance by helping cadets to become more aware of the academy and Air Force diversity.

The academy also invited Yale Divinity School to evaluate the “quality of cadet-centered pastoral care.” Yale Professor Kristin Leslie co-authored with complainant Ms. Morton a final report last summer charging the academy has a “very strong evangelical Christian voice.” The report accuses academy Chaplain Maj. Warren Watties, the Air Force’s 2004 chaplain of the year, of preaching “stridently evangelical themes.”

Cited was a voluntary Protestant service during which Maj. Watties urged cadets to warn their bunkmates that anyone not “born again” would “burn in the fires of hell.” Maj. Watties explained unashamedly, “I just preach Jesus. That’s my work.”

Ms. Morton, a Lutheran minister and Texas-educated attorney, is no friend to evangelicals. Now out of the Air Force after 13 years service, Ms. Morton admits “the predominance of evangelical Christians [at the academy] reflects the chaplain corps of the Air Force overall,” because “major mainstream Protestant divinity schools are no longer sending many graduates into the armed forces.”

Evangelicals, about one-third of the corps of cadets, have the constitutional right to share their faith and they obey their Lord’s Great Commission to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” (NKJ Mark 16:15).

The critics of evangelicals in the military fail to understand the danger their attacks pose for national defense. The military code of conduct, to which each service member pledges, states, “I am prepared to give my life in defense of my country and our way of life.” Young military people who may face death soberly reflect on eternity and understandably are open to the evangelical offer of salvation and heaven through Jesus Christ.

Other faith groups have the same opportunity to share their views, but the evangelicals have an obligation to speak openly with others about Christ’s forgiveness and eternal life.

Service members who are confident of an afterlife are, generally, better prepared for combat and more willing to fight on. The expression “foxhole conversion” was not a Hollywood invention. Most soldiers admit praying before entering combat, and wounded and dying soldiers inevitably speak of their families and God.

Nearly a third of the 89 faith groups represented in the Air Force are evangelical. Denying them the right to express their faith within their profession violates the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and free exercise clauses and is likely to negatively affect both recruiting and retaining sincere believers.

The Air Force is close to institutionalizing religious intolerance. It has completed an investigation into “allegations of improper conduct” by Brig. Gen. John Weida, academy commandant, for such innocuous things as promoting the National Day of Prayer — a nonsectarian event — instructing cadets they are “accountable to their God” and urging them to pray, saying, “The Lord is in control.” Gen. Weida has been cleared of all but one allegation, “the proselytization of non-Christian cadets,” but investigators referred seven unrelated incidents to the academy for “followup.”

Lead investigator, Lt. Gen. Roger Brady, Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel, said academy officials “had the best intentions toward the cadets” and service officials are working to fill the academy’s need for guidance on religious activities. That guidance will hopefully alter the “insensitive” culture though it may take six years, Gen. Rosa said.

Early effects of the investigation have prompted the service to send a message worldwide promising to apply the lessons of the academy to the entire Air Force. The message implies free religious expression must be sensitive to listener’s views. This may cause commanders to chill all public expression of faith.

The Air Force is running from liberal antagonists who want to shut down evangelical Christians. Doing so could seriously affect retention and recruitment and ultimately the service member’s will to fight and possibly die for our freedoms.

The Air Force Academy anti-evangelical witch hunt must stop. It serves neither America’s nor the Pentagon’s best interests.

Robert Maginnis is a retired U.S. Army officer, a national security and foreign affairs analyst for television and radio networks and a senior systems analyst with BCP International Ltd. in Alexandria, Va.

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