The 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 Christ.
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 several colleges in the Southwest, and is a contributing author to the forthcoming book Americans at War, by Greenwood Press. He writes a blog for the world news web site OrbStandard at: www.orbstandard.com/GGerard.
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