Report: Evangelical Ministry Thrives at West Point

An interesting article at WORLD Magazine last month talked about “one of the most popular and thriving officially sanctioned clubs” at the US Military Academy at West Point — Officers’ Christian Fellowship:

At the United States Military Academy, one of the most popular and thriving officially sanctioned clubs is an openly evangelical Christian campus ministry. Officers’ Christian Fellowship, or OCF, has a database of more than 800 Cadets and an active participation of 400—nearly 10 percent of a student body of 4,400.

The OCF ministry at West Point is run by retired Army Colonel Tom Austin and his wife, Cheri, at a house just outside the gate: 

The OCF “Hospitality House” provides a venue for fellowship, but the heart of the Austins’ ministry is small group Bible studies, worship, and individual discipling. To do that, Austin gets unfettered access to most areas of the West Point campus.

WORLD author Michael Cochrane then points out this “thriving, officially sanctioned” group appears to run counter to the recent controversies over faith and the US military — at least, controversies at the US Air Force Academy:

Despite recent reports of a crackdown on expression of Christian faith in the U.S. military and hostility to Christianity at the U.S. Air Force Academy, West Point remains a place where Christians don’t have to hide.

“I go where I want to and I have the freedom to carry my Bible under my arm,” Austin said. “To sit in Grant Hall and work with a Cadet, or in the Library, or to pick one up at the Library corner and take him to Subway and disciple and work with him.”

That remark seems valid.  After all, critic of Christianity Rick Baker, of Michael “Mikey” Weinstein’s MRFF, has frequently attacked OCF at USAFA, including its access to cadets.  In considering why West Point seems to be “under the radar” while USAFA has been attacked, Austin said West Point

has not had such a high-profile evangelical to act as a lightning rod for anti-Christian organizations.

Of course, Mikey Weinstein is one of the vocal anti-Christian crusaders, and he has made his USAFA alma mater a continuous target of his attacks.  Further, Officers’ Christian Fellowship is probably the most-cited example Weinstein uses of an insurrectionist group of Christians trying to take over the US military (and the world, presumably).  Interesting that he has so often attacked OCF in general and at USAFA — but not at West Point.  To be clear, Weinstein has never actually given an example of wrongdoing by OCF; he has objected to the mere existence of Christian officers associated with OCF in the US military.

Perceptions can be self-fulfilling in an institutional culture, particularly within the US military. If a member of the military has the perception, for example, that mentioning their faith or carrying a Bible under their arm (or on their desk) is not permissible, then that servicemember likely won’t do that — even if they’re perfectly allowed to do so. Others who see that self-censorship may learn to do the same. Eventually, if the perception grows far enough or becomes public enough, many may come to believe the military actually has regulations preventing them from doing those things, despite the fact the opposite is true, and the military actually has rules protecting their right to do those things. Still, perception is reality in many military scenarios.

By contrast, a cadet who learns early on that they can mention or express their faith will have the boldness to do so as they mature. Others who see them act professionally in faith will learn to do the same. The “perception” (which actually is reality in this case) similarly grows, and an entire generation of military officers can enter the US military with the correct understanding of their ability to exercise their faith within their profession.

In other words, mere perception can change the culture within the military. It is a truism that has been proven time and again.

It is also a truism upon which critics of Christianity, like Mikey Weinstein, rely. Contrary to popular belief, Weinstein has actually “won” very few of the battles he has waged in his self-declared “war” against Christians. But he has, in some cases, successfully created the perception that certain acts or expressions of faith are either explicitly illegal or so stigmatized that they must be avoided.

Together with a few high-ranking advocates, Weinstein can attack military religious freedom without actually having to change policy. Instead, he tries to make Christianity so politically unpalatable that troops or even leaders may censor it merely to avoid the controversy — even if doing so is at the cost of religious liberty itself.

West Point’s OCF seems to provide a worthy model for preparing its cadets to be future Christian officers:

Knowing the Cadets he works with could face challenges, if not blatant persecution during their careers, he encourages them to focus on their faith, not their circumstances: “As believers [serving] in the military, we don’t have to fear any man or anybody. Our fear of God should be greater than that of any person.”

Amen to that.