Retired General Patrick Gamble, working through the Council of Logistics Research on behalf of the Secretary of the Air Force, is conducting a review of the religious climate at the US Air Force Academy. Recently, the Academy completed and published a religious climate survey that showed lingering issues with the climate. Wing Chaplain Lt. Col. Dan Brantingham sees this review as an extension of ongoing efforts to sustain a climate much improved since the events of 2004-2005. The Academy has already begun preparing training for the cadets to improve religious respect, including the Military Association of Atheists Freethinkers in the training effort. MAAF has been invited to comment on the current religious climate review as well.
Looked at with a skeptical eye, one can find questions with the approach. First and foremost, the study seems rushed, with invitations for commentary from MAAF coming on Thursday, 24 March, and interviews at the Academy scheduled to start on the 28th. It would be hoped that an investigation would provide more time for external organization comments to help understand where internally to focus their investigation. However, the Air Force has said that this is not an investigation or inspection. If that’s so, one wonders what the intended outcome is. The last thing the Academy or its cadets need is an administrative walkabout with no results.
Putting aside a skeptical eye, MAAF does recognize that this is an external investigation with a retired General, who, at least on the surface, does not seem to have an obvious bias. In addition, the review team is making efforts to collect anonymous input separate from the chain of command at the Academy. This will hopefully allow for more candid feedback. In addition, it is reassuring that they at least invited external feedback from MAAF and other organizations. Reports indicate that Gamble is studying not only free exercise restrictions, but the real problem of 1st Amendment establishment clause violations and improper proselytism. Also, the team has gotten directly into the work of the interviews without much ceremony or delay. MAAF hopes that this newest review will provide additional impetus for reform.
MAAF has provided the following suggestions:
- Freshman (4-degree training) has been completed and with the inclusion of MAAF and other agencies, the training program is inclusive and should help to improve the religious climate once it is implemented this summer. While the Academy’s freshmen need training as much as anyone, they will still first and foremost follow the example set by their leadership. While already started, the review team should reinforce the need to continue the inclusive approach to religious respect training as well as the programmatic themes in the freshmen training to create and implement upperclass cadet, staff and faculty training.
- The Academy’s Special Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE) allows for external religious organizations to support cadets in a formal environment. This program currently includes an injunction against ‘denigration’ that can sometimes be carried out too stringently. The term is currently undefined and can be exclusive to many nontheistic ideas and practices. Without room for fair and candid questions, asked with respect for the individual, even if the answers disagree with one’s faith convictions, there arises an oppressive censorship of free inquiry.
- SPIRE currently includes no injunction against proselytism. Adding some reference to the establishment clause and prohibitions against government promotion of religious ideas or theism over nontheism would add important balance to SPIRE. This would echo the free exercise / anti-establishment balance that makes the 1st Amendment work. It is also fair to say that proselytism needs to be better defined. “Sharing of faith” may be a simple discussion that touches on religion, which may not be problematic. However, MAAF has suggested that components of coercion (command or peer influence), harassment (when known to be unwanted), or conspiracy (planning in advance) would cross the line from free exercise to an establishment clause violation in the Academy context.
- The SPIRE proselytism/denigration definitions and procedures can be utilized within the cadet corps and religious respect training to improve interaction among cadets. A better understanding of the freedoms and responsibilities of religious activities will greatly improve the religious climate.
- MAAF also sees a need for additional oversight over SPIRE operations of multi-million-dollar evangelistic organizations such as Navigators, OCF, FCA, and Crusade. The stated purpose of each of these organizations is to spread Christianity. Such an organizational mission at least threatens the boundaries of unfair proselytizing. The Academy should recognize this conflict with Academy policy along with frequent spot-checks on materials and leadership understanding. Cadets also anonymously report of the power and influence these organizations currently hold within the Academy. MAAF encourages the review team to consider when the boundary between free exercise of individuals gives way to an oppressive and powerful religious culture.
- The review team should seek to empower chaplains to guard against establishment clause responsibilities just as they foster free exercise rights — one without the other undermines liberty. Chaplains are at the line level and offer the first opportunity to ensure things are being done right, before legal, equal opportunity, or command elements must be involved. By that time, there is already a problem. Chaplains should not be forced to wait for legal intervention when an establishment clause violation seems clear.
- It is simple truth that some will reject an inclusive, pluralistic religious climate. Some flaunt their mission to proselytize and seek freedoms only to allow for spreading their personal beliefs. Allowing violations to continue without impediment or punishment is as good as approval.
Gen. Gamble’s review team has already begun their survey. MAAF has heard from cadets that discussions are starting well, with what seem to be credible assertions of objectivity and confidentiality from the review team. The Academy chaplains have maintained close contact with MAAF since the November Religious Respect Conference. In reviewing training and several issues of religious respect over that time (regarding actions of atheists as well as others), we have maintained good relations and made positive steps to better understand each other. It is uncertain how the review team will conduct their investigation and report on their findings, and it is unclear how the Air Force will react. But MAAF appreciates the invitation to comment and hopes that this initial response and future interactions will pave the way for tangible changes, including continued positive training development and implementation and reforms to the SPIRE program.