General Welsh: No Religious Persecution in US Air Force
Update: Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council released the following statement in response to General Welsh’s testimony [italics original]:
“The perception is that Mikey Weinstein is setting the policy for religious expression in the U.S. Air Force, as evidenced by the growing number of incidents of religious hostility toward Christians. Instead of denying reality, General Welsh should have taken the opportunity in Friday’s hearing to discuss how he would bring the Air Force into compliance with the new DOD instructions protecting religious expression…
“Family Research Council and the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition will not stand by while the Air Force Chief tries to evade the reality of these attacks on religious expression. We will continue to do all we can to protect the rights of the men and women serving in the Air Force and in all the uniformed services.”
A visibly frustrated General Mark Welsh, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, fielded questions about religious liberty during what was supposed to be a congressional committee meeting on the Fiscal Year 2015 Air Force budget:
The single biggest frustration I’ve had in this job is the perception that somehow there is religious persecution inside the United States Air Force. It is not true.
Interestingly, the words “religious persecution” were General Welsh’s characterization, not the Congressman’s.
To be fair, that statement may be technically accurate in some cases. For example, SMSgt Monk and his commander never discussed religion, so the Air Force felt comfortable saying religion was not an issue. Of course, observers have understood the “issue” between SMSgt Monk and his commander regarding homosexuality was clearly religiously-based, even if unspoken, so the perception remains. Similarly, the USAFA cadet took his Bible verse down “voluntarily,” so there was no official Air Force involvement (that is, an order) regarding religion. As Congressman Forbes pointed out, however, having one’s active duty chain of command come personally visit you and tell you what you’re doing is “inappropriate” undermines the “voluntary” description of the cadet’s decision. [Update: The Air Force Academy’s top lawyer now says USAFA would have forcibly removed the verse if the cadet had not “voluntarily” done so.]
By maintaining such issues at “arms length,” the Air Force retains deniability when it comes to criticisms about religious freedom. Technically. However, the perception — however incorrect — frustrating General Welsh remains.
General Welsh attempted to make another fascinating point that was stepped on by Congressman Fleming and almost missed:
I’m telling you, sir, there’s a perception here that we’re in the middle of a battle between two sets of advocacy groups.
Oddly, that statement seems to indicate General Welsh lacks some knowledge on the sequential history that has led to the committee’s questions:
For a few years, there was only one “advocacy group” — Michael “Mikey” Weinstein’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation. When the Air Force (appeared to) repeatedly respond favorably to Weinstein’s complaints, then the perception grew that there was “religious persecution in the Air Force,” to use General Welsh’s words. In response to that perception, an opposing voice arose in another advocacy group, now conglomerated as the Restore Military Religious Freedom coalition.
So the Air Force wasn’t a disinterested third party drug into the middle of a war of ideologies between two groups. One of the groups didn’t even exist until the one-sided ‘battle’ was already underway. (If you recall, it was Mikey Weinstein who declared the “war” long ago.)
The clearest example of how this “battle” has benefited religious liberty in the Air Force is the incident involving Chaplain (LtCol) Kenneth Reyes. In response to a Weinstein complaint, the Air Force pulled down the chaplain’s article, apologized, and promised it wouldn’t happen again. A few years ago, that would have been the end of it — and the perception would have grown that the US military was more concerned about Weinstein’s complaints than its troops’ religious liberty. In this case, however, after members of the RMRF coalition began their own campaign in opposition to Weinstein’s, the Air Force relented and re-posted the article.
Unfortunately, because of the perception of how the Air Force handled that incident, the “victor” in that controversy was the RMRF, not the Air Force. The perception remained that the Air Force acted poorly in regard to religious liberty, and but for the RMRF, the “religious persecution” would have gone on uncontested.
The source of the problem, then, is not the “battle” between two advocacy groups, with the Air Force simply an innocent victim in the middle of their tug of war. Rather, the Air Force’s public responses to the first group may have caused the (mis)perception Gen Welsh laments.
General Welsh noted the Air Force has “incidents,” just “like everybody has incidents.” The Air Force, like any other mammoth organization, will certainly have incidents that may create public perceptions — some good, some bad, some right, some wrong. When those other organizations — pick any major retailer or institution as an example — have a perception problem, what do they do? Simple: They act to change that perception.
If, as General Welsh says, there is only the perception of “persecution” — perception potentially based on the Air Force’s public responses to Weinstein — then the Air Force simply needs to change its public messaging.
Granted, it would take a dedicated public relations effort, and such a campaign would be challenging. For one thing, Weinstein himself is the loudest voice claiming the perception of his single-handed coercion of the US military is true. For another, Weinstein’s PR firm, Haley and Associates — which represents both Weinstein and Mr. Pickle — has given him a fairly effective fundraising campaign attacking Christians in the US military, while the military to this point has conducted no similar PR effort designed specifically to defend its troops’ religious liberty.
Still, if an organization has a perception problem, the common sense response is to do something about it.
What will the Air Force do?