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Kristen Leslie, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling, in Center of National Debate over Religion at Air Force Academy

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications
Yale Divinity School

Prof. Kristen LeslieIt all began a couple of years ago during the sexual assault scandal at the Air Force Academy—when Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling Kristen Leslie was hired by Academy chaplains to help improve pastoral care to cadet victims of sexual assault. Now, two years and one summer-practicum-at-the-Academy later, Leslie is at the center of a growing national debate over the religious culture of the Academy—specifically, the “stridently evangelical themes” that Leslie and a team of Yale Divinity School students reported observing during their week-long summer 2004 practicum at the Academy.

A Spate of News Reports

Leslie appeared on a nationally broadcast CNN segment about the Academy on May 13 and has been taped by CBS's “60 Minutes.” The team's comments were referenced in April and May by major newspapers across the country, including the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angels Times. The story spawned a variety of editorials, including one in the New York Times calling for the chain of command to “deproselytize” the Academy.

“I always thought this work was exciting, but not exciting in this way,” quipped Leslie after the CNN taping session in the Day Missions Library. She had to juggle teaching duties with numerous interview requests from both print and electronic media since her team's observations were made public in mid-April. Ironically, she pointed out, the course her practicum students had enrolled in was strangely prescient. It was called, “Pastoral Care in the Public Arena.”

The practicum had developed out of the relationship Leslie built during her Academy work on sexual assaults. Based on their previous experience with her, Academy chaplains invited Leslie and her students to attend Basic Cadet Training in summer 2004, where they would assess the work of the chaplains and help enhance chaplains' skills in cadet-centered pastoral care.

Stridently Evangelical Themes

At the end of the practicum, during which Leslie and her students slept in tents and awoke to reveille at 4:45 a.m., the team submitted formal comments to Chaplain Captain MeLinda Morton, who shared leadership of the practicum with Leslie. The team's report, outlined in a memorandum signed by both Leslie and Morton, complimented the chaplains on their “enthusiasm and individual talent” in delivering “consistent and intentional pastoral care.” But it also made reference to “stridently evangelical themes” that the team said represented a challenge to “the necessarily pluralistic environment of Basic Cadet Training.”

As an example, the YDS team cited exhortations at general Protestant worship services, which included not only evangelicals but other Protestants as well, for cadets to go back to their tents and remind compatriots that those not “born again” will “burn in the fires of hell.” Leslie and her students urged a reconsideration of worship dynamics in favor of an approach “focusing on aspects of ecumenical teamwork and developing an appreciation of spiritual diversity.” The YDS team's observations stood alongside reports from other groups and individuals that made claims such as:

  • Commandant Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, a born-again Christian, sent an e-mail to cadets saying, “The Lord is in control. He has a plan... for every one of us.”
  • Faculty members have introduced themselves to their classes as born-again Christians and have encouraged their students to become born-again during the course of the term
  • A “Christmas Greeting” published in the Academy newspaper was signed by 300 Academy personnel who declared a belief that “Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world” and that there is “salvation in no one else.”
  • A banner hanging in the Academy football team locker room said, “I am a Christian first and last... I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.”
  • Although Christian students are able to obtain “non-chargeable” passes to attend religious study sessions off campus on Sundays, Jewish or Seventh-Day Adventist cadets are unable to obtain such passes to worship off-campus on Saturday.
The Decision to Go Public

The Yale Divinity team's observations— in combination with an Air Force Academy survey that identified numerous instances of religious insensitivity at the Academy and a highly critical report issued by Americans United for Separation of Church and State —have prompted a national debate about religious culture at the Academy and a Pentagon task force investigation of religious practices there. The Pentagon announced formation of an investigative task force on May 3, and that task force is scheduled to issue a preliminary report on May 23.

Leslie and Morton decided to go public with the memorandum after concluding that there was a lack of commitment by the Academy hierarchy—including head Chaplain Col. Michael Whittington, to whom the document was sent—to making the Academy a place where all faith groups feel welcome and respected.

“Part of it is because it's truth telling and because I think that there's a chance that we can be part of the solution and not just... naming the problem,” said Leslie of the decision to go public. “I and my students have something to offer.” Students who took part in the practicum at the Academy included three members of the class of 2004 and three members of the class of 2005.

Academy officials contend that they are dealing with issues of religious tolerance through their ongoing RSVP program, “Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People.” But Leslie and Morton say the program is aimed at individuals, avoiding broader questions that are systemic in nature.

One of the biggest issues, Morton contends, is the extent to which the Academy's location in politically and religiously conservative Colorado Springs has had an impact on the Academy's religious culture. Sometimes called the “evangelical Vatican,” Colorado Springs is home to hundreds of evangelical parachurch organizations, including Focus on the Family, and 11,000-member New Life Church. A profile of New Life in the May 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine reported that the silver and blue (Air Force colors) church was built there “in part so it would be visible from the Air Force Academy.” The church's founder and pastor, Ted Haggard, talks to President George W. Bush or his advisers every Monday, Harper's said.

A Need to Name Sufferings

Good pastoral care is especially critical for cadets at the Academy, according to Leslie, because the stress levels are so high. “They have such strong motivation in the midst of all sorts of adversities,” she said. “Not just physical adversities, but many of the cadets come with normal struggles. And in that context... giving the sense to be a real human being and to name their sufferings (is important) in an environment where you're not supposed to really name the sufferings but just kind of persevere through it. So the role of the chaplains is to create a time and space and a relationship where in fact they can attend to the suffering.”

Leslie recognizes the inherent tension between her belief that the service academies need good chaplains and her support for banning military recruiters from the Yale Divinity campus because of the military's position on gays and lesbians.

“In order for places like the Air Force Academy to have good chaplaincies... they need to have well-trained folks,” Leslie said. “Until the military can come to some better terms around the ‘don't ask, don't tell' policy, until that can happen, I think the one solution is to find ways (for) places like Yale to resource the chaplains who are already going in.” She feels the trip to the Air Force Academy last summer was an example of that kind of approach.

Leslie says she is grateful to the Academy for inviting the Yale team to have a practicum there and for the opportunity to provide feedback that she hopes will improve religious life at the Academy. “The Air Force Academy has been hospitable in allowing us to take our students into that environment, and it was to benefit both places, although I don't know that they are looking at it that way right now. But they allowed our students to learn a phenomenal amount.”

Chaplain Whistleblower Reports Firing

In the midst of the publicity surrounding allegations of religious favoritism at the Academy, Morton reported in mid-May that she had been fired from her post as executive officer of the chaplain unit—Academy officials counter that that was part of a natural transition process—although she remains a chaplain at the Academy until a pending transfer to Okinawa takes place.

“She's enormously devoted to an institution that has given her a hard time,” said Leslie. “I think places like the Air Force Academy should fight for people like Mel because she really is devoted to making them the best they can be.”

In a prepared statement, Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said, “The Divinity School is delighted that the Academy invited Professor Leslie and her team of YDS students to assist in addressing these issues and to submit their findings for inclusion in a descriptive report to the Air Force Academy.

“Professor Leslie has extensive expertise in the area of pastoral care and counseling, positioning her well to work with the Academy on these important issues. I am confident that the findings of Professor Leslie and her team will be of great benefit to the Academy and its fine cadets, and I join Professor Leslie in looking forward to her continued work with the Academy.

Samples of news articles and editorials about Yale Divinity School 's involvement with the Air Force Academy :

Persecuted? Take it on Faith, Denver Post column, May 9, 2005

No Place for Religious Intolerance, Philadelphia Inquirer, editorial, May 9, 2005

Academy Critic Says She Was Fired, USA Today, May 11, 2005

Air Force Chaplain Tells of Academy Proselytizing, New York Times, May 12, 2005

Air Force Removes Chaplain From Post, Washington Post, May 13, 2005

CNN interview, Paula Zahn NOW, May 13, 2005

Inquiry Into Dismissal of an Air Force Chaplain, New York Times, May 24, 2004

Separation of Church and Air Force, New York Times editorial, May 14, 2005

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