USAFA Football Prayers: A Lack of Moral Courage is Not Coercion

usafafootprayAmericans United for the Separation of Church and State recently joined in on the debate over US Air Force Academy football prayers by calling it an “incident” and a “problem.”

It seems even the AU’s Rob Boston didn’t think this was the issue Michael “Mikey” Weinstein was making it out to be:

I’ll admit that when I first read about this, I didn’t think it was a big deal. These are college students, I reasoned, not high schoolers. They could decline to take part if they don’t want to pray, right?

Boston then reconsiders, saying that because the games have mandatory attendance (in a long-running thorn in every cadet’s side, the cost of each ticket is deducted from their pay) and there is a military chain of command, it must be a “problem.” He cites Weinstein’s single email from a self-described USAFA football player:

He writes that there’s great pressure to participate in the joint prayer.

“If you don’t go along with it you are not going to be viewed as a good follower or teammate,” the anonymous player writes… “There are enough of us who feel pressured to conform and this is wrong…I mean virtually the whole team kneeling down and praying on the field in front of the crowds.”

There’s an important omission, however: The cadet never says he prayed against his wishes, despite the “pressure.”  Further, he revealed a bias when he focused on what the team is doing “in front of the crowds.” That seems to be the real issue: He doesn’t like seeing people pray in public. Noted, but not actionable — and he seems to have been coached to understand that and to create another angle.

Thus, the cadet seems to be claiming “pressure to pray” as a means to an end: banning the public prayer he doesn’t like.

In fact, he revealed as much in his own complaint [emphasis added]:

The coaches and others are not officially or directly making us do it together…

My…solution for this is to just have the players kneel in prayer or do other religious stuff out of the public view. And in the locker room and such. There’s tons of non-public praying options for us all.

His “solution” is focused entirely on the fact people can see the cadets kneeling.  Banning public prayers would do nothing to address the “pressure” he claims exists.  He’s apparently not truly concerned about “pressure.”  He just doesn’t think cadets should be allowed to pray in public.

(The MRFF has essentially said the same thing.  Former MASH star Mike Farrell has reportedly been answering some of the MRFF’s hate mail, and he has similarly said the MRFF would have no problem with the football players praying, even in a group, if they just did so “privately.”)

If we ascribe to the cadet more noble motives, however, the cadet seems to be confusing fear and timidity for coercion. This USAFA cadet will, if he sticks with it, one day be a US Air Force officer. Does this future military leader lack the intestinal fortitude to not “follow the crowd” in whatever it happens to be doing?

He now feels indistinct “pressure” to pray — yet he explicitly admits no one is forcing him to do it.  How will he respond when fellow LTs want to go bar hopping one weekend?  What will he do when he feels “pressured” to get behind the wheel drunk, or to let others do the same?  How will he react in, say, the military’s fight against sexual assault — which requires that Airmen speak up, not just be a passive “bystander?”

As an officer, this cadet must have the personal strength to stand on his own, not simply accede to the mob. He must also have the moral courage to actually oppose that which is wrong — if he truly feels it is actually wrong.  (And, no, anonymously complaining to an outside activist about something he doesn’t like is not “moral courage.”) For now, this cadet is displaying neither that strength nor that courage.

Hopefully, the character development and leadership laboratory of the US Air Force Academy (and even its football program) can mold this future officer and encourage him to develop the strength of character and moral courage he seems to lack.

If he’s more concerned with stopping public displays of religion than with doing the right thing, however, he may already be resistant to developing the character necessary for a military officer in the US military’s tolerant and diverse environment of military religious freedom.