Did USAFA Cancel Operation Christmas Child?

A few news sites reported last week on the US Air Force Academy’s participation in — and then reconsideration of its participation in — Operation Christmas Child, in which shoeboxes with basic sundries and gifts are given to needy children around the world by Samaritan’s Purse.

The situation is fairly complex, as evidenced by the fact a few news organizations had to edit and reissue their news articles to correct misunderstandings about what really occurred.

Undisputed public statements indicate cadets at the US Air Force Academy came up with the idea to participate in Operation Christmas Child.  They made an announcement in Mitchell Hall (the wing dining facility, with all cadets present) and subsequently sent out a wing-wide email explaining who to contact to participate.

A cadet who “didn’t think much about it at first” later forwarded the email to Michael Weinstein calling it part of the ”religious problem” proving the US military “support[s] one religion, which is of course Christianity.”  (Weinstein published the email, complete with the names and personal information of the cadets involved, though he redacted his supporter’s information.)  Less than 24 hours later, Weinstein was in the local news

accus[ing] commanders of crossing the line by promoting “Operation Christmas Child” a program sponsored by an evangelical Christian group that sends toys and toiletries in shoe boxes to needy kids around the globe. The group includes a Christian message with the gifts.

Weinstein, the quoted article and several others cite the common misperception that OCC opens the boxes and places “Christian messages” inside, or that in order to receive a box a child must hear the gospel message.  Neither is true.  The OCC website explains when, if at all, such messages are given.  The boxes themselves are delivered “unconditionally.”

Weinstein had apparently solicited his Academy insiders for offended observers and reported that 132 of his nearly 300 USAFA cadet, faculty, and staff supporters agreed with him.

Weinstein’s accusation was off base, as commanders had no part in the cadet-organized effort.  The Air Force Academy initially backed the cadets, saying there was

nothing wrong with the school’s involvement. The cadets would provide toys and other items for the needy, and wouldn’t play a role in the religious message that is included with the gifts when they’re delivered, academy spokesman John Van Winkle said.

USAFA Commandant BrigGen Richard Clark ultimately called Weinstein when USAFA altered that support, saying

Under orders from Air Force headquarters, Clark said only the Chaplain Corps is responsible for advertising faith-based programs.

“The cadets had nothing but good intentions, but this was something that should have started with the Chaplains, not the Cadet Wing,” Clark said. “That doesn’t mean the cadets can’t volunteer for the Christmas toy drive, they can participate through the Cadet Chaplain Corps.”

The “change” in Academy position had some reporting that USAFA had “canceled” its participation in Operation Christmas Child. In fact, little has changed.

The Academy actually had to publish a release to explain that the program is still continuing, but cadets are coordinating through the cadet chaplain corps.  Since those activities are, by Air Force policy, granted the same access as other staff activities, there should be no noticeable difference beyond the “chaplaincy” stamp on future messages.

Some have taken the position that this change is consistent with Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz’s September memo saying

I expect chaplains, not commanders, to notify Airmen of Chaplain Corps programs.

That perspective is understandable, and it may demonstrate the potential ambiguity introduced by the Chief’s message.

Put simply, the Operation Christmas Child effort by cadets was never a chaplain’s program.  It seems everyone has simply assumed that it should have been because of the religious beliefs associated with the organization.

This is similar to an error the MRFF’s Chris Rodda has made in the past.

Pop quiz:  Name a military policy that says when a program interacts with organizations which hold religious beliefs, the program must hand itself over to the chaplaincy.

The obvious answer: there is no such policy.  The presence of religious belief does not require that military members abandon their normal operations and route an otherwise standard program through the chaplaincy.  They can certainly choose to do so, but, until now, there has been no requirement they do so.

Did the military hand aid delivery to Japan over to the Chaplains because Samaritan’s Purse — the same organization running Operation Christmas Child — was providing the blankets and bottled water?

It was understood from the beginning this was a cadet organized service project.  In fact, even the cadet who emailed Weinstein started his email describing it as a “wing community service project.”  The cadet wing has organized service projects as varied as Ironman security in Hawaii to flood cleanup in South Dakota, and they actively seek cadet ideas to support.

To assert that community service projects can be coordinated by cadets unless they are somehow connected to a religious organization introduces an unusual level of official religious scrutiny by ”government actors” — which Weinstein would argue is dangerous Constitutional ground, if he were intellectually consistent. 

In effect, cadets can officially lead and participate in any community service project they choose, unless the project has some connection to a religious organization.  At that point, they have to alter their normal procedures and accede to the chaplaincy, purely because of the beliefs of the organization with which they are dealing.  Thus, cadets can support a food bank run by the city council with an email/announcement for volunteers, but they cannot do the same thing for a food bank run by the local Catholic Church.

This basically removes organizations with religious association from the cadet community service project group, or the Cadet Service Learning Program, which is an official part of USAFA’s Center for Character Development.  The CSLP has previously been responsible for getting the Academy named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for USAFA’s community service efforts.  Community service projects are the purview of this program, as noted by the USAFA admissions handbook:

Community service activities are accomplished through our Cadet Service Learning Program (CSL).

“Religious” groups may still be supported through the chaplaincy, but the relationship with the service group may be complicated or simply severed to avoid further criticism, earned or not.  While the chaplaincy does some community service projects of its own, separating charities from the group designed for such cadet projects will likely reduce their support – unless, of course, cadets come up with an innovative way to re-integrate the newly separated religious and non-religious service projects.  Cadets are an innovative bunch, so its entirely possible.  It’s a shame they’re forced to jump such logistical and administrative hurdles purely to assuage a Weinstein affront.

The USAFA website even has a place such charitable organizations can request cadet volunteers.  The site says

Requests for cadet volunteers must be from non-profit groups, churches, schools, or government agencies…A member of the Center for Character Development will contact the requesting POC before advertising the request to the cadets.

To be consistent with the latest interpretations of policy, the process must now be altered to remove religious organizations from that system or transfer them to the Chaplaincy.  There isn’t currently a block for “Are you associated with a religion?”, but this “religious test” may be necessary to walk the fine line some seem to want.

While some may claim that’s not a big deal, think about how many projects which USAFA cadets — or other active duty officers — traditionally support with community service are in some way associated with religious charities.  It’s standard fare to go support the local soup kitchen — but now the community service group can only support soup kitchens that aren’t associated with religious groups.  Same goes for shelters, retirement homes, and missions cadets or any other member of the military may seek to support.

A quick web search of military supported groups in Colorado Springs yields frequent mentions of Marian House Soup Kitchen and the Springs Rescue Mission, both religious charities, as well as several other charities founded by or associated with the Catholic Church.  Naturally, every service project’s organization must now be examined for any hint of religious association prior to gaining access to cadet or military support — many of whom “rely on” the “key role” of such support.

The Academy can organize its support for local charities in whatever manner it chooses, and it is walking an understandably gray line as it tries to treat religion “neutrally” while simultaneously treating it “differently.”   To the point: Did the cadets in question make a mistake?  Only insofar as taking action without getting it cleared through Michael Weinstein first.  Until then, their conduct was consistent with what they (and many others) thought was Air Force and USAFA policy.

It does not seem that community service projects are “religious studies, faith sharing, and prayer meetings” inherently covered by the chaplain’s program, making it somewhat unusual to apply the Chief’s policy to these events at all.  Contrary to Weinstein’s contortions, cadets asking other cadets to support a charitable cause that has a religious overtone is not prohibited.  Within the military it does not establish a religion, and outside of the military it would have been transparent to the rest of the world.

Michael Weinstein did a victory dance over the Academy’s response, and most of the world seemed not to notice that besides having a chaplain involved, the Academy involvement with Operation Christmas Child hasn’t really changed.  Notably, the cadet who originally wrote Weinstein had other complaints, including:

No one will think it is wrong we have wing wide Point Of Contacts to support a Christian mission.

The cadet needs to learn this “concern” is unfounded.  Yes, you can have “wing wide POCs” for drives that support charities or other groups with religious missions.  Weinstein should consider educating his supporters; but that might dull their hypersensitivity to Christianity.  The cadet also needs to learn how to interact within the military system.

Who knows?  Maybe this whole event will raise the awareness of Operation Christmas Child within the cadet wing to a level never before seen, and thanks to Weinstein, cadet participation will actually be greater than it may have been.

21 replies to “Did USAFA Cancel Operation Christmas Child?

  1. Lt. Frank

    Latest on the street…USAFA has seen a huge increase in donations to OCC.

    Thanks for the press Mikey, nicely done! Feel free to give yourself a nice Christmas bonus…bravo!

  2. Nate

    So, the vice wing commander can “approve” encouraging all cadets to participate in a Christian charity?

  3. JD

    @Nate
    Its worth noting that no public information indicates the cadets or USAFA leadership either encouraged or required others to participate in a Christian act, though the organization they encouraged support for is Christian.

    This is no different than an email query for soup kitchen volunteers — when the soup kitchen happens to be run by a Catholic charity.

    As noted above, no public law or policy dictates discriminatory conduct based on the religious association of a charity. Thus, speaking in generalities, military leadership can, at their discretion, approve email solicitations for charities or other community service events, regardless of the religious association of the organizations involved. The approval of such a distribution does not equate to approval or endorsement of the content of the message.

    In this case, leaders appear to have chosen to dictate that such solicitations go through the chaplains, which they are entitled to do, though no public information indicates they are required to do so.

  4. Gregory Peterson

    While the cadets wouldn’t technically personally put religious literature in the Samaritan’s Purse gifts, that religious literature (“The Greatest Gift of All”) is offered with the gifts makes the cadets knowingly involved with Evangelical proselytizing of children nevertheless. Not to mention that using Christmas gifts as a come-on to manipulate poor children into Franklin Graham’s rather right-wing religion isn’t all that ethically sounding, or charitable, on the face of it. http://www.samaritanspurse.org/index.php/OCC/OCC_Impact/

  5. JJC

    How exactly does the “not playing a role in the religious message”work? (See below quote from John Van Winkle.) Does this mean that the recipients of the gift box with the Jesus Loves You message make mental reservations which separate the cadet provided gift from the non-cadet provided Jesus Loves You statement (which is placed within the cadet sponsored gift box)? Those are some really sophisticated poor children out there.

    The subject quotation:

    “The cadets would provide toys and other items for the needy, and wouldn’t play a role in the religious message that is included with the gifts when they’re delivered, academy spokesman John Van Winkle said.”

  6. JD

    @Gregory Peterson
    Your criticism is of the organization itself, which is irrelevant. Members of the military can participate with such religious organizations if they choose. What’s your opinion of the Samaritan’s Purse aid to Japan delivered by USAF C-17s mentioned above?

    @JJC
    You’re citing the misconception noted above. Nothing is placed in the box. Religious literature may be distributed with the boxes “where appropriate.” The boxes are given without condition. Unless the senders do something unique, the boxes are anonymous.

  7. Lt. Frank

    It’s really quite simple…the Chaplain Corps is now responsible for advertising the program. Other than that, nothing has changed, other than a huge increase in donations.

    It’s quite amazing how so many try to vector this into being a big issue. It’s a charity, organized locally by cadets who want to donate and ultimately sponsored by the Chaplain Corps. Many faith groups do this throughout the year, at every military installation.

  8. Naval Officer

    Hello people! Perhaps my “talking snakes” comment was too subtle. The real issue is not whether the USAF (or any other DoD component) can work with religious charities and the issue is not whether christianity is considered a “favorite son” when selecting such charities.

    The real issue at hand here is the indoctrination of children into a sketchy belief system. Religions know that in order to keep the faithful, you have to grab them young and indoctrinate their minds. This is an immoral practice. If faith and belief in god had any true merit, then we could leave children’s minds unmolested until they were of an age when they could think for themselves, feed them the stories (talking snakes), and let them decide for themselves. But religious institutions know that they will fail if they follow this format so they grab their next generation while they are young and before they can defend themselves mentally from all the bad dogma that gets shoved down their throats. Shame on us all – for children’s sake.

  9. Richard

    @Naval Officer
    N.O. Your points are well made. Honesty and observant criticism are not well received in today’s Dominion Christian movement.

    You are correct that the indoctrination of children into a long life of religious guilt and aggression is immoral.

    Lt. Frank seems to think it’s no big deal for a military unit to grossly violate a Constitutional provision. To the good lieutenant, his brand of Christianity trumps the constituion and civil law. Despite ad nauseum repetitions of the provisions which outlaws the behavior of joint military preference and proselytizing of a particular religion, the good Lt. encourages it.

    May I suggest that he resign his commission and join a monastery where I’m sure he will be a lot happier. And a lot less dangerous.

  10. Lt Frank

    @Richard…”grossly violate a Constitutional provision”? Are you serious? What a joke.

    Be specific and back up your charge.

    Another thing…you don’t even know who I am, what I do or my religious background. Suggest you withhold your personal attacks. Amazing how bold people can be behind a computer screen!

  11. Lt Frank

    Just as I thought…can’t back up his charge.

    And, Naval Officer comes in with a quote that a 10 year-old on a playground would say. Priceless!

    Ask for facts and you get name-calling and insults. Real tolerant Richard & Naval Officer.

  12. Scrib

    I appreciate your detailed report on the situation. The comments went from interesting to crazy.

    Everyone has a belief system. Many people with different beliefs will regard other’s beliefs as “a sketchy belief system”. At least the ones who are not intellectually honest or that don’t think things through. And people who say they don’t believe in anything are fooling themselves. They live their lives based on something.

    As for “violating a constitutional provision”; what are they teaching in history and civics classes these days?

  13. Wiley

    N.O./ LT Frank,
    Gentlemen, and I use the term loosely, I think each of you need to seriously review the Constitution and then take a good look at the role religion, you name the flavor, plays in society. As a Christian I find your positions offensive. Now if you were to be intellectually honest, you should refrain from this practice right? I mean, I’m sure your offended by Christianity for some reason or other and you want it us to stop right? Get over it!

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