By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications
Washington, DC — Yale Divinity School Professor Kristen Leslie said the United States Air Force Academy must do a better job of distinguishing between good pastoral care and evangelism in testimony she gave June 28 at a Congressional hearing on the religious climate at the United States Air Force Academy. Now, two months later, the Air Force has issued guidelines to all of its commanders—at the Academy and elsewhere—cautioning against actions that could be interpreted as Air Force support for one religion over another.
In response to the Air Force's action, Leslie said the new guidelines “point in the right direction” but are so general as to make them difficult to implement.
Since April, Leslie has been at the center of a nationwide controversy over religious practice at the Academy after she and a group of her students reported observing “stridently evangelical themes” during a weeklong stay at the Academy during summer 2004. Her involvement led to an invitation to testify (click here for transcript of complete testimony) at the end of June before the Subcommittee on Military Personnel of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Armed Services.
“These interim guidelines point in the right direction as they recognize that incidents of religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy have worked against their mission of good order and discipline and unit cohesion,” said Leslie, a United Methodist minister. “But they are so general that implementation is left up to individual interpretation and good intention. If practicing one's faith in the public arena were a simple or clear matter—accountable to altruism and good judgment—the Air Force would not be in this current debate about First Amendment rights and religious respect.”
Among other things, the guidelines, issued on August 29, call on chaplains to respect and minister equally to those of all faiths, or of no faith; to avoid the perception that any official communication implies that the Air Force supports one religion over another; and normally not include public prayers in official settings.
“I will continue to give support to Academy cadets and chaplains across the Armed Services who have contacted me, as well as work with members of Congress as they sort out the religious intolerance matter,” said Leslie. “I suspect that my work at the Air Force Academy has come to a close, but I'm open to their invitations to help.”
The Congressional hearing, entitled “Religious Climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy,” was scheduled in the wake of an Air Force headquarters report on religion at the Academy that cited a number of instances of inappropriate behavior by cadets and staff but concluded that the Academy is acting “aggressively” to correct shortcomings.
In her testimony, Leslie said she and her six students saw some good things at the Academy during their stay but added, “At the same time, we saw some things that concerned us.”
Besides Leslie, the panel heard testimony from two others: Air Force Lt. Gen. Roger Brady, who led the panel that wrote the headquarters report, and retired military chaplain Jack Williamson, executive director of another group that visited the Academy and issued a report, the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces.
Citing what she termed “very sectarian” prayers and offerings of pastoral care in a pluralistic context, Leslie said her students were baffled because they did not see how “good order and discipline and unit cohesion” could be maintained by “exhorting basics (cadets in basic training) to return to their tents to tell other basics that in fact if they didn't profess the same kind of religious tradition then in fact they would go to hell.” That was a reference to a Protestant worship service Leslie's students had observed during which a chaplain told cadets that persons not “born again will burn in the fires of hell,” followed by an exhortation to proselytize other cadets.
“We saw the cadets themselves with the ‘heathen flight' that many of you have read about where those cadets, the basics choosing not to go to worship services, were put together in a ‘heathen flight' and marched back to their tents,” said Leslie. “On the basic cadet training courses we saw some well-intentioned cadets trying to give courage to other cadets but in very uni-dimensional ways: ‘Jesus will be with you, Jesus will save you.'”
The trip made by Leslie and six of her students in summer 2004 developed out of the relationship Leslie had built during her counseling work with the Academy in the wake of widespread sexual assaults at the campus in Colorado Springs, CO. Based on their previous experience with her, Academy chaplains invited Leslie and her students to attend Basic Cadet Training in summer 2004, where they were to assess the work of the chaplains and help enhance chaplains' skills in cadet-centered pastoral care.
Other critics —among them currents students, Academy alumni, and the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State—have cited additional examples of what they say is religious intolerance, some of which are also noted in the official Air Force report issued on June 22:
“It was clear in my mind,” Leslie told committee members, “that in that environment there was not a clarity with some of the leadership, both chaplains and other leaders, [about] the difference between good pastoral or spiritual care and evangelism.”
“We were left with the impression that in that environment these 18-22 year olds were left trying to negotiate how to be in the environment with different religious traditions sitting side-by-side because we were seeing examples where the leadership was not giving good guidance.
“That's a hard topic, and it's an emotionally filled topic, one that the cadets should not be left to try to negotiate by themselves.”
Brady acknowledged that there are problems at the Academy but contended most cases amount to behavior that is “wrong” although not “malicious.”
Nevertheless, he cited a need for clear “operational guidelines” relating to religious diversity that would inform not only the Academy but the entire Air Force as well. “We are committed to getting this right,” said Brady, “and we won't fail you.”
For his part, Williamson, representing the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, observed that the problems at the Academy are not unique to the Academy but represent an ongoing discussion about religious diversity in the culture at large. “This debate is very present in our culture,” he said. “This is a robust debate.” Members of the Conference are the point of contact between the armed forces and over 250 religious denominations— recruiting, endorsing and providing oversight for clergypersons who desire to serve as chaplains in any one of the branches of the armed forces.
Williamson reported that he and his team observed “some overreaching” at the Academy that he suggested stemmed from “long years of practice that have gone unchallenged.” What is needed, he suggested, is “a sense of balance” that will foster respect in a religiously pluralistic environment. But Williamson warned against allowing “the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction” and, in effect, establish “a new religion of non-religion.”
Many of the questions and comments from members of Congress were directed at Brady, asking what the Air Force plans to do to overcome the problems at the Academy. But two of the Representatives, John Hostettler of Indiana and Mike Conaway of Texas, took the position that critics are trying to stifle the voice of Christian Evangelicals.
“I'm a Christian, and Jesus Christ is my personal savior,” said Conaway. “Through this whole discussion, I felt attacked.”
Congressman Steve Israel, New York, and Congresswoman Lois Capps '64 M.A.R., California, however, pressed the Academy to take seriously the reports of intolerance at the Academy. Israel called for creation of a special bi-partisan commission that would oversee the work of the Air Force on the issue. And Capps said cadets “need to feel and know they are part of one team.” She warned, “Intolerance can threaten that unity.”
Capps and Israel had released a joint statement a week earlier criticizing the Brady panel's report on the Academy, contending that it did not go far enough.
Air Force Capt. MeLinda Morton, the Air Force Academy chaplain whose outspoken criticism fueled much of the current controversy, shares those sentiments. Morton was not invited to speak before the Congressional panel, but she held a press conference in Washington several hours before the panel met and asserted that the authors of the report “failed to connect the dots” by focusing on cadet behavior instead of the command structure at the academy.
“The problem facing the academy,” she told reporters, “is a problem of leadership, not cadets.” Morton, ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, resigned her position in the military the day before the release of the Brady panel's report.
Links related to the Air Force Academy religious tolerance story:
Air Force Addresses Challenges to Pluralism (overview of sequence of events)
The Pluralism Project at Harvard University
Air Force Bans Leaders' Promotion of Religion
New York Times , August 30, 2005
For a Stronger Military, Respect Religious Diversity
Forward, September 2, 2005
Air Force: Thou shalt respect diversity
Rocky Mountain News , August 30, 2005
Religious intolerance on campus
St. Petersburg Times , July 17, 2005
Onward ‘Christian' soldiers?
Knight/Ridder , July 11, 2005
Air Force Academy inquiry leaves campus ministries prayerful
Baptist Press , July 7, 2005
Who's your co-pilot?
Associated Press, July 6, 2005
Skepticism over AFA report
Rocky Mountain News, June 24, 2005