Evangelical Proselytizing at the U.S. Air Force Academy: The Civilian-Military Controversy, 2004-2006

Article excerpt

November, 2004, marked the beginning of a two-year, very public controversy over religious advocacy in the U.S. Air Force. Initially, it focused on the religious climate at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as a result of extensive newspaper coverage of the promotion of evangelical Christianity by the administration, chaplains, faculty, staff, and cadets. The instances of such activity most often noted in news stories and editorials included the following:

--Administrators and faculty routinely made prayer a part of meetings, meals, ceremonies, and other events for which cadet attendance was mandatory. (1) Academy leaders, faculty, and staff endorsed religion in official and semiofficial pronouncements, often using the academy e-mail system. (2)

--Academy chaplains promoted evangelical Christianity in the General Protestant worship services, which are supposed to be nondenominational and nonsectarian.

In the summer of 2004, at services attended by some 600 cadets undergoing basic training, one of the chaplains told the cadets that those not "born again will burn in the fires of hell." He and other chaplains urged the cadets to "witness" to their fellow Basic Cadets and led them in prayers for the salvation of those who had chosen not to attend the services. (3)

--The football coach, Fisher DeBerry, an outspoken Christian, hung a banner in the team's locker room emblazoned with the "Competitor's Creed" of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It read in part: "I am a Christian first and last. .. I am a member of Team Jesus Christ." (4) DeBerry also led the football team in prayers and urged them to attend church on Sunday. (5) He claimed that he allowed non-Christians to forgo the prayers but said that no one had done so. He said he and the team prayed to "a Master Coach," (6) but a former player told a newspaper reporter that the prayer "was always to Jesus Christ." (7)

--Some faculty members introduced themselves to their students as evangelical Christians and promoted evangelical Christianity in their classes. (8) A Jewish cadet told a reporter she felt "uncomfortable" when her professor invited students interested in Christianity to talk with him after class. She also said she was reluctant to seek academic help from an instructor who displayed a "humongous crucifix and a basket of prayer cards" in his office. (9)

--Cadets provided considerable information on the religious climate at the academy. In an opinion survey that academy officials conducted in August, 2003, some fifty percent of cadets said they had heard some type of religious slur or joke, and somewhat more than thirty percent of non-Christian cadets thought that Christian cadets received preferential treatment at the Academy. Some of the cadets reported being ostracized by their classmates because of their religious beliefs--or lack thereof--or pressured to accept Christianity. (10) Newspaper reporters interviewed non-Christian cadets who described instances of intolerance and discrimination. One said he was called a "filthy Jew" and was told he was responsible for killing Jesus Christ. (11) Another cadet reported that during basic training he and other cadets who chose not to attend religious services were marched back to their tents in a formation called the "heathen flight." (12)

--A final example of evangelical activity at the academy was the advertising campaign that evangelical cadets conducted for the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ with the approval and perhaps the assistance of the administration. They hung posters, distributed notices at meal time, and used academy computers to send hundreds of e-mails to their classmates urging them to see the film. (13) Superintendent (Lieutenant General) John W. Rosa later admitted that cadets "felt they were being coerced." (14)

These and other revelations of evangelical activity prompted considerable criticism of the religious climate at the academy. …

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