Skip to comments.The Architecture of a Smear: the campaign to end public prayers at the Air Force Academy
Posted on 10/12/2005 4:49:37 PM PDT by rhema
The news could have been worse. The U.S. Air Force's new guidelines for religious tolerance, released in late August, didn't ban all forms of public prayer and worship at the Air Force Academy, as some liberal critics had demanded. The Air Force still allows "brief, nonsectarian prayer" at special ceremonies or in "extraordinary circumstances" such as "mass casualties, preparation for imminent combat and natural disasters," but "usually" not at "staff meetings and sporting events."
By all accounts, the policy is aimed directly at evangelicals, whose numbers are growing among the ranks of cadets and chaplains at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Air Force football coach Fisher DeBerry, a churchgoer, got the message. Soon after the guidelines were released, he canceled team prayers in the locker room.
Around the same time, officers at the U.S. Naval Academy said they would continue to allow mealtime prayers, rejecting demands from some of the same critics who pressured the Air Force Academy. But the Navy is becoming increasingly isolated in its acknowledgment of faith.
The trend alarms some key members of Congress.
"While religious intolerance is inappropriate, so is trying to scrub religion from public life, including at the [Air Force] Academy," said U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., whose district includes the Academy. "We're trying to build character in young Americans there, and for many their religious faith is a part of their character. It's the kind of thing that drives people many times to make sacrifices you wouldn't make otherwise. You jump on a live grenade so it won't kill your buddy."
Yet some pressure groups refuse to back down in their efforts to eliminate all expressions of faith in the American military. They're the same people who criticized Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ as anti-Semitic, and who demand that Ten Commandments displays be removed from courthouses and state capitols. But some faces are not as familiar; they include a Yale Divinity School professor who's protested the military, and a newspaper in the Air Force Academy's hometown that was more than willing to report the Yale professor's allegations.
This ambush led a Texas congresswoman to write her colleagues a letter of warning.
"I am very concerned about the long-term impact this excessively negative publicity will have on these bright, energetic young people from all over America who are dedicating themselves to the service of our Nation," wrote U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, in a letter last summer to her colleagues. "The steady stream of untrue, and sometimes outlandishly unfair, assertions leaves the totally inaccurate impression of rampant proselytizing."
The fight spilled onto the floor of the U.S. House when Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., offered an amendment to a military appropriations bill to condemn the Academy for "coercive and abusive religious proselytizing." U.S. Rep. John Hostettler of Indiana, incensed by Obey's language, rose to the podium to launch a salvo of his own.
"Like a moth to a flame," he declared, "Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians." Hostettler later retracted his remarks; Obey's amendment was rejected.
Hostettler, a church-going Baptist, told Citizen, "We should recognize what's going on for what it is, and that is the attempted removal of Christianity from virtually all public forums."
Blue-state military base closures and other factors have contributed to a rise in enlistments from the so-called "Bible Belt" in the South and West, with greater numbers of born-again Christians who believe in evangelizing. As Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, Air Force deputy chief of chaplains, told The New York Times, "We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched."
Given that zeal, conflict between evangelicals and other faith groups and atheists was inevitable.
Trouble at the Academy began in March 2004, after the release of The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's blockbuster movie about the final hours in the earthly life of Christ. The film had alarmed Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who accused Gibson of "classic anti-Semitism." Foxman and others pressured 20th Century Fox, which normally releases Gibson's movies, to pass over The Passion.
When The Passion finally reached theaters, some zealous cadets papered the Academy mess hall with fliers promoting the movie. Some Jewish cadets complained to The [Colorado Springs] Gazette. That got the attention of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), led by the Rev. Barry Lynn-a frequent opponent of Focus on the Family and other faith-based groups.
Americans United released a 14-page report in April 2005, alleging "systematic and pervasive religious bias and intolerance at the highest levels of the Academy command structure." The report accused Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, commandant of cadets, of endorsing "religion generally and his own faith [as an evangelical Christian] in particular, in clear violation of the Establishment Clause."
As evidence of Weida's violations, the group cited his e-mail to cadets inviting them to participate in the National Day of Prayer-an event that all 50 governors and the president of the United States have endorsed. AU also said that Weida uses "a system of code words" alluding to Scripture verses in formalized exclamations and responses to cadets.
The AU report appeared to have its intended effect. Weida was passed over for promotion, although he was later cleared in an Air Force investigation of charges of improper "proselytizing."
Foxman said he was "delighted" to hear about Weida's misfortune. "I hope they pass him by for good," he told The Gazette.
AU's report also seemed to make the mainstream media hypersensitive to any forms of religious expression. The Associated Press breathlessly reported on May 31 that graduating cadet wing commander Nicholas Jurewicz cited verses from the Old and New Testaments-yes, Scripture-in an e-mail to fellow graduates and underclassmen earlier this year. The AP report quoted an Academy grad, Mikey Weinstein, who called for congressional intervention at the Academy.
"There couldn't be a more wretchedly timed example of the total and dismal failure of the senior leaders of the academy than having the No. 1 cadet breach the most fundamental and elementary rules of the religious tolerance program," Weinstein said.
The initial AP report failed to mention that the Scripture-just 17 verseswas included in an attachment along with 300 other quotations on leadership and character from distinctly non-Christian sources such as Buddha, Gandhi, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Artistotle, Erma Bombeck and the rock group Pink Floyd.
The Air Force conducted an investigation, and a week later cleared Jurewicz of any wrongdoing, saying he had not violated any Academy or Air Force policies.
The Yale Liberal
It also didn't help the cause of faith that a Yale Divinity School consultant, the Rev. Dr. Kristen Leslie, worked on campus. She had been hired to investigate sexual harassment charges, but she also made note of what she considered offensive religious remarks. In a report leaked to The Gazette, she said that one Protestant chaplain had warned cadets that anyone not born again would "burn in the fires of hell." She and some graduate students said they heard an "overwhelmingly evangelical tone" during a Protestant chapel service. Such incidents allegedly "encouraged religious divisions rather than fostering spiritual understanding."
Within days, Leslie appeared on CBS' 60 Minutes and a CNN special report. She gave interviews to numerous newspapers, including the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Her allegations triggered a flood of editorials across America denouncing the Academy's evangelical culture.
But the media decided not to report some facts that have suggested Leslie's motive for attacking the Air Force.
For example, Leslie admitted she has been an anti-war protester.
"We had all participated in protesting the military," Leslie wrote in a Yale publication The Spectrum. Elsewhere, she explained that she had been active in opposing the presence of military recruiters on Yale's campus "because of the military's position on gays and lesbians."
Leslie also endorsed a declaration in 2000 that called on religious communities to bless same-sex couples, allow homosexuals to be ministers and provide free access to abortion.
The declaration, circulated to hundreds of clergy for signature, was the creation of Leslie's colleague at Yale Divinity School, Dr. Debra W. Haffner. Abstinence education leaders recognize Haffner as the former chief executive officer of their biggest foe--the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which is the nation's most aggressive, and successful, promoter of anything-goes sex education in American schools.
In spring 2003, Leslie also taught a Yale course with radical feminist Letty Russell. The course, entitled "Feminist Liberation and Feminist Pastoral Theologies," was listed in the Yale "Pink Book" under "Lesbian and Gay Studies."
The Air Force solution to the religious conflict stirred by Foxman, Lynn and Leslie doesn't sit well with some graduates and their parents.
One of the graduates Citizen interviewed said there's more pressure on campus to drink alcohol than to pray.
Duncan S. Bremer of Colorado Springs, the father of three Academy graduates and a former El Paso County commissioner, said there's a lot of anger and bitterness toward the news media and public officials for the way the Academy and cadets have been portrayed.
"There's a revolution brewing among the grads because of the way the Academy has been intimidated by these cultural attacks," he said. "They're particularly irate at the politicians for not standing up for the Academy."
Academy grads contacted by Citizen said the religion controversy is trumped up and the guidelines unnecessary.
Lt. Kenyatta Ruffin, a 2003 grad who now flies F-16 fighter jets at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, said the news media sensationalized the situation almost beyond recognition. "They were half-truths, at best, of an extreme minority of circumstances being made to look like the overall prevailing atmosphere," he said. "That's the biggest distortion."
Lt. Katie Veseth, now a pilot at McChord Air Force Base in Washington, recalled Spirit Hill, a place on campus where cadets gathered every night at 2100 hours-9 p.m.-to pray for each other, spontaneously. That tradition continues to this day, at least for now.
"It's true that a strong Christian environment permeates the Academy," she told Citizen. "But the neat thing about it is that such an environment exists because it is cadet-initiated. It is cadets who stop by their squadron-mates' rooms to ask, 'Hey, wanna join me at Bible study?' It is cadets who organize nightly prayer on Spirit Hill. It is cadets who can be found reading their Scripture during down time on a bus ride. These kinds of actions are not forced in the least bit by any officer-cadets initiate them of their own free will."
Lt. Ryan Kaldahl, a 2002 grad who's now a personnel officer and section commander at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, said he believes the answer to much of the Academy trouble is simply for cadets to be mature and confront someone who offends them. "The first step, in my opinion, is not to go talk to The Gazette," he said.
Kaldahl added in retrospect, "We might have gone a little too overboard on talking about Christ rather than acting like Christ. If they were living the best they could like Christ, that would do far more than any poster for a movie or a cross on a hill."
A Better Solution?
Mat Staver, a constitutional lawyer based in Florida, said religious liberty at military academies must be protected.
"We are a 'nation under God,' as our Pledge says," Staver told CitizenLink, a weekday news service of Focus on the Family, "and once we forget that, we've forgotten our heritage. And once we do that, we're no longer America."
Tom Minnery, vice president of government and public policy at Focus on the Family, has been pressing the Pentagon to lighten up on the new religious expression guidelines. He noted that Article Six of the military Code of Conduct calls for military personnel to rely on God in time of acute distress.
"The new religious guidelines say, however, that the military will not advocate religion over non-religion," he wrote in a letter to the Air Force general counsel. "There is a substantial dischord here. How can the military on the one hand direct personnel to depend on their notion of God, and then suggest in the guidelines that no God is equivalent to God?"
Just prior to the August congressional recess, Congressman Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., introduced the Military Academy First Amendment Protection Act (HR 3430). The bill would establish the right of all three service academies-Army, Navy and Air Force-to include voluntary, nondenominational prayers during official activities, such as meals.
Jones, senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Citizen he has spoken with military chaplains who want the freedom to "pray for what God puts in their heart, in their mouth," not the opinions of men. He said he was especially moved by an Air Force chaplain who told him, " 'Congressman, I hope you will do something about this. I cannot tell you how many times'-and he started crying-'I've gone back to my office and got down on my knees and asked God to forgive me because I was afraid to say the name of His Son when I closed my prayer.' "
Jones, who is Catholic, said, "I think there's going to come a time, if we don't draw the line in the sand now, that we will lose the right to practice freely what we believe.
Let's not let those outside anti-religion forces influence the policy decisions of the academies."
"The Air Force still allows "brief, nonsectarian prayer" at special ceremonies or in "extraordinary circumstances" such as "mass casualties, preparation for imminent combat and natural disasters," but "usually" not at "staff meetings
and sporting events."
IOW, in case of thermonuclear attack, the ban on prayer
will be temporarily suspended. . .
At the moment, I don't know what to say, except for that this country is going to hell in a handbasket.
Bet the lesbian priestess from Yale didn't retract hers.
The guy is a mind-numbed, vicious religious bigot who would take us back to the age of the Religious Wars when children were kidnapped to grow up in households with the approved non-evangelical religious atmosphere, and women were raped by the King's guard until their husbands attended an approved non-evangelical religious service.
Did I miss the repeal of that one?
They are going to hate the void when God is not there.
They will truly be alone then in their foxholes, cockpits, ships, subs, and tanks. He is the umpire for all battles.