Group Calls for Air Force Academy Congressional Investigation
A group recently called for Congress to “probe” the US Air Force Academy after allegations of religious “insensitivity”—but not likely the insensitivity of which most immediately think. After years of criticism that USAFA has favored Christianity, and in the wake of news that a cross had been found at the newly created pagan circle at the Academy, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is calling for a probe to investigate “insensitivity to Christians” at the US Air Force Academy.
Catholic League President Bill Donohue decried the military’s characterization of the cross incident at the pagan circle–in which two railroad ties were picked up and laid against a rock–which Academy Superintendent LtGen Michael Gould seemed to call “destructive behavior:”
“Destructive”? None of the stones were kicked about, and there was nothing else left to destroy… Gould believes there is no difference between neutering a religious symbol and defacing religious property. He also sees a cross at a pagan site as the equivalent of graffiti on a church. This is more than overkill—it is grossly insulting to Catholics and Protestants.
Donohue went on to conclude that in order to appear sincere in addressing the issue, the military leadership at the Academy had created an environment “chilling” to Christians.
“These remarks have added to the chilling atmosphere that Catholics and Protestants must endure. I wrote to the Congress in 2005 about this matter, and I am doing so again. We need to know why hypersensitivity to non-Christians has evolved into insensitivity to Christians.”
In some respects, Donohue’s remarks echo the results of the official Air Force investigation into the Air Force Academy in 2005, in which cadets said they feared that a backlash would result in hostility toward Christians:
Many cadets were worried about the “pendulum swing” that may restrict religion and SPIRE activities. “Reverse religious discrimination is rampant and evangelical Christians are under constant attack and scrutiny solely on account of their beliefs.”…
They expressed their belief that the media is blowing the issue out of proportion and USAFA is letting the media drive their decisions…Cadets are now very careful of what they say and are wary of open discussion.
As previously stated, leaving a contravening religious symbol at the site of another faith is not appropriate. However, there may be some validity to Donohue’s point that the military reaction has occasionally been a knee-jerk to the media flurry and Michael Weinstein’s vitriol. This could result in a “chilling effect” on not just Christians, but also on religious expression and freedom as a whole.
This is particularly noticeable in the absence of any official defense of the virtues of the Academy spiritual climate. Typically, when something happens that risks stigmatizing a group (as when Maj Hasan massacred 14 people at Fort Hood), officials will decry the actions but defend those who may share the culture. For example, in this case, something like this:
This act is in no way representative of the Christian groups or the spiritual climate at the US Air Force Academy. Our varied faith groups continue to work together in their interfaith council, and with the Chaplains, to ensure a proper spiritual environment at USAFA. We will continue to protect the free exercise of all of our military members. While we will work to find the person who did this and address their actions, we must emphasize that this is not a reflection either on Christians at USAFA or the greater atmosphere of faith here at the Academy.
In this incident, however, there has been no such defense. Michael Weinstein has called this an act of fundamentalist Christianity, and he has called the cross a “gang symbol” and “turd.” No one at the Air Force Academy has said a single word defending the virtues and character of Christians at the Academy, or even separating them from the hyperbolic accusations spewed by Weinstein. No one has stood up and said this use of a cross does not suddenly justify the vilification and degradation of either the Christian cross or Christians themselves.
The closest thing to such a defense was the almost hurt expression of Chaplain (LtCol) Ziegler, saying that the Academy would protect the pagans’ free exercise. More directly, there has been a single-minded drive to show the local community that USAFA “will not tolerate” this “hate.”
In his public statement on the issue, LtGen Gould made a point of saying the Academy did not know “whether or not it was a malicious act,” yet he still appeared to characterize the incident as “hateful” and “destructive.” Admittedly, the General is in a position in which he feels he must reassure the public (more accurately, Michael Weinstein) that the Academy is addressing the issue. The problem is, as the cadets feared, the Academy risks doing so in a way that makes it seem the media is driving USAFA’s decisions.
In responding to the critics, the US military risks legitimizing unfounded criticisms and prejudicing the military climate. What will happen now if the investigation ultimately determines the “hateful” act was not “malicious?”
Instead of diffusing an admittedly controversial issue, the Academy may have unintentionally fed it. Rather than adding to the emotional frenzy being instigated by activists, the military needs to take a calm and stoic approach that demonstrates a fair, objective, and thoughtful process. The military is known for its refusal to publicly comment on ongoing investigations, as well as refusing to answer every critique about military conduct; the Air Force Academy public affairs office has no reason to act any differently.
And USAFA can then focus on leading cadets rather than worrying so much about what self-described “agitator” Michael Weinstein thinks.