USAFA Cadets Discuss Faith, Freedom, Proselytizing

One of the results of the religious “scandals” that have plagued the US Air Force Academy over the past few years was the creation of the Cadet Interfaith Council.  The CIC was the subject of the latest USAFA news article on religious expression and diversity at the Academy.

The 20-member cadet group serves as a focal point for religious issues in the cadet wing.  Current president Cadet 2nd Class Philicia Fahrenbruch notes the Council helped ‘protect’ the time set aside for SPIRE on Monday evenings last year, and has helped deal with other issues since then.

Some of the topics noted in the article highlight the continued sensitivity of religion at the Air Force Academy: 

In August, the council addressed the use of e-mails to advertise religious activities. Such e-mails may only be sent to individuals who are interested, with exceptions requiring approval from the Cadet Wing chaplain. Chaplain (Capt.) Steven Cuneio said the chaplain’s office is drafting a policy that will balance cadets’ ability to advertise events while preserving other groups’ rights not to receive the e-mails.

That discussion is admirable in its effort but falls short in its result (or at least its explanation).  With regard to official functions, chapel activities are guaranteed the same access to email as any other staff function.  With regard to personal activities, the rules governing email are the same regardless of content.  The Air Force has explicitly said there are no special rules for emails with religious content, as was previously discussed here and available in the Air Force Religious Guidelines included here.

Finally, there is no such thing as a “right” not to receive email of religious content (or any other content).  This inappropriate hypersensitivity may actually be negatively training cadets for their active duty careers, where such creative tap dancing around religion doesn’t (generally) take place.  That said, the Air Force Academy is both an educational institution and a leadership training laboratory; hopefully, the cadets involved will get the opportunity to learn and experience the correct responses.

The council also had an interesting discussion on what “proselytizing” is — a very interesting subject, given the recent controversial survey that failed to define proselytizing when asking if anyone had experienced it.

Cadet Fahrenbruch defined [proselytizing] as pressuring someone to attend a religious service after they’ve already declined.

“If someone comes up and says, ‘Can you please tell me about your religion,’ that’s just a conversation and doesn’t really cross the line into proselytizing,” she said, reflecting the council’s philosophy that the Academy is a “marketplace of free ideas.”

“Proselytizing is when people have undue influence, like a senior telling a freshman, ‘You should go to church with me,'” she added. “On a peer-to-peer level, it’s okay, but not from an upperclassman to a freshman.”

Again, while the openness of the discussion is admirable, it falls short in its accuracy.  Fahrenbruch probably needs to know she defined harassment, not proselytizing. In addition, “proselytizing” is not related to “undue influence;” she should have said improper proselytizing.  Fahrenbruch seems to understand that, even if she doesn’t say it, as she seems to say peer-to-peer “proselytizing” is “okay,” which would be consistent with Air Force policy.

It is likely the snippet of conversation captured in the short article left out much of the supporting discussion on both the email and proselytizing subjects.  Even so, the quotations demonstrate how easily less-than-accurate ideas can be communicated about fairly simple, if sensitive, subjects.

As has been the case before, cadets at the Academy fail to see the institutional scandals those outside of it claim are happening:

Cadets at the meeting agreed that the religious climate is good overall, and while a handful of cadets may break the rules, they are the exception. Their comments included observations that most people are curious, open-minded and respectful and that the Academy as an institution has supported them.

The article is quite interesting in the efforts of the Academy to foster an appropriate spiritual atmosphere at USAFA, as well as the cadets’ contribution to that effort.

3 comments

  • The conversation about e-mail involves what constitutes authorized use, since the cadets all have @usafa.edu e-mail accounts and use government SMTP servers to send out e-mails advertising religious events. Without some rules of engagement, that could get ugly quickly.

    AFI 33-119, Para. 3.9.1, covers authorized e-mail use. You’ll notice that advertising religious functions is nowhere in that list. While Chapel activity would be covered under “authorized,” cadets’ activity wouldn’t necessarily be held to the same level, because they’re not chaplains. The best match for this particular use of e-mail would probably be Para. 3.9.3.4, which allows “sending messages on behalf of a chartered organization.”

    At the same time, though, you *do* need to have a check in place to make sure people aren’t getting e-mails they don’t want. Sending people e-mails after they’ve expressed a desire not to receive them would run amiss of the prohibition against “Sending harassing, intimidating, abusive, or offensive material to, or about others” (Para. 3.9.1.1.4).

  • The cadet situation is unique, which is one reason they transitioned from “usafa.af.mil” to “usafa.edu” for their email addresses.

    You slightly misapply AFI 33-119 when you say “advertising religious functions” does not appear. There are two purposes addressed in that AFI: official and personal. As noted above, official religious functions are explicitly permitted the same access as any other official activity. With respect to personal — again, noted above — the Air Force said:

    General rules regarding the use of government computers apply to personal religious matters as they do for other personal matters.

    Thus, it doesn’t matter if its a religious email or not. It could be about barbecues, a football game, or a trip to WalMart. The rules regarding personal email use are the same regardless of content.

    Your last paragraph is interesting, though your statements may be more broad than you intend. The question wasn’t about harassing someone over email. It was about the right not to receive email with a certain content. No such right exists under natural law, the Constitution, or military policy.

    Sending an individual an email after he has asked to be left alone is inappropriate. Sending an authorized email to a mass distribution list — which may include those who don’t want to receive it — is not inappropriate.

    For example, if a commander tells his cadet squadron they are permitted to announce personal weekend activities via mass email, then the announcement of a camping trip and a Bible study would be equally permissible. A cadet would not be able to claim a “right” not to receive the latter email; the policy supported the mass distribution of both messages.

    When these cadets graduate, they may end up at a base where a military Chaplain sends out weekly service times and MWR sends out weekly updates on local NFL football games. They will quickly highlight themselves in a negative way if they try to claim they have a “right” not to receive the Chaplain’s email — when both are clearly permitted by Air Force policies.

    As noted above, USAFA is a training environment; there’s no expectation cadets (or even officers) should know everything. Hopefully, the cadets are being educated and provided the guidance to “correct” the apparent misperceptions of military policies and guidelines.

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