Dogma Alert

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Loosening Religious Grip at Air Academy

The school launches a sensitivity course in response to complaints about evangelical Christians infringing on other faiths.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — In a crowded room on the edge of the Air Force Academy, Chaplain Melinda Morton was doing her bit for culture change.
She dimmed the lights and rolled the video.

It was Mel Gibson in a scene from the film "We Were Soldiers" addressing his troops on the eve of battle. "We are moving into the valley of the shadow of death," he said solemnly. "Where you will watch the back of the man next to you, as he will watch yours, and you won't care what color he is, or by what name he calls his God."
Morton stopped the tape, and flicked on the lights.

"In past years we have had incidences of spiritual insensitivity here at the academy," she told the 25 civilian and military personnel in the room. "Sometimes it was out of ignorance but sometimes it was out of maliciousness. Respect is essential for mission success."

Morton was teaching an RSVP — Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People — class, a 50-minute exercise in trying to stop what critics called a culture of intolerance on campus. Over the last four years, there have been 55 complaints of insensitivity, many dealing with alleged harassment of religious minorities by evangelical Christians.

Cadets and employees are being told they can't proselytize on campus, use government e-mail to send religious messages, put up posters with religious themes or use positions of authority to endorse a particular faith. They must also attend one RSVP class.

About 90% of cadets here are Christian and many of them, as well as teachers and high-ranking officers, are evangelical.

Academy Commandant Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida is a self-described born-again Christian. Last year, football coach Fisher DeBerry hung a banner in the athletic complex that said, "I am a Christian first and last … I am a member of Team Jesus Christ." He later removed it and underwent sensitivity counseling.

When the film, "The Passion of the Christ" came out, some cadets hung posters and sent hundreds of e-mails on campus computers urging people to see it.

Lt. Col. Edie Disler, an English professor who helps run RSVP programs, said some Christians questioned the value of the classes. "They have said: We are in the majority, why do we have to do this?"

Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate and lawyer in Albuquerque, has a son who is a sophomore at the school. The cadet has been called a "filthy Jew," among other things, Weinstein said.

"This is not a Jew-Christian thing, it's an evangelical versus everyone else thing," he said. "I am calling for congressional oversight and for the academy to stop trivializing the problem by calling it nonsystemic. If they can't fix it and Congress won't fix it, the next thing to do is go to the federal court and file a lawsuit alleging a violation of the Constitution and civil rights."

Members of the Yale Divinity School, who visited the academy last year to observe pastoral care on campus, were surprised by the overtly evangelical tone they found.

During Protestant worship services, the report said, cadets chanted, "This is our Chapel and the Lord is our God." They were encouraged to proselytize to others and "remind them of the consequences of apostasy."

"Protestant cadets were reminded that those not 'born again will burn in the fires of hell,' " the report said. "Protestant cadets were regularly encouraged to 'witness' to fellow Basic Cadets."

Kristen Leslie, an assistant professor in pastoral care at Yale, led the team.

"There was a religious arrogance," Leslie said. "It suggested that you would have to learn a whole different way of being to survive in that environment if it wasn't your faith tradition."

She was lukewarm about the RSVP program.

"It is geared toward cadets," she said. "I think it should be geared more to those who can effect change."

Accusations of religious chauvinism come as the academy struggles to recover from rape and sexual assault scandals that erupted two years ago. A number of female cadets said that they had been ignored or threatened with punishment when they tried to report rapes.

Col. Debra Gray, vice commandant, arrived in 2003 to help repair the damage done by those scandals and change the culture of the place. She began hearing anecdotes about religious harassment that matched concerns voiced in student surveys.

"I believe we have a few individuals who were a little out of the box in terms of how they were sharing their faith," she said. "I never perceived it as pervasive or systemic but to someone who feels persecuted maybe their perception is that it is systemic."

Gray said no one had been punished over the complaints but some had been talked to by school officials and could face more serious consequences if their behavior persisted.

"The RSVP classes are a kick-off," she said. "This gets the dialogue going and raises the collective consciousness."

Back in the classroom, Capt. Paula Grant, a law professor, told participants they must balance their right to exercise their religion with the right of others not to be intimidated or harassed.

"We are not trying to stamp out religion," Grant said. "It's a matter of how you go about it. You cannot use your uniform to further your personal agenda, whether it's religion or sports or anything."

So far 1,500 of 4,300 cadets have taken the class and eventually all 9,000 employees and military personnel at the academy will complete it.

As the class ended, one participant, Lt. Col. Marcia Meeks-Eure, paused before leaving.

"I think this sort of thing is very good because it underscores what we are supposed to be doing," she said. "I am Baptist but I won't talk about my faith unless someone asks."


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