There is some religious bias at The United States Air Force Academy according to Lieutenant General Roger A. Brady of the United States Air Force, who testified in a U. S. House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on June 28. Although other witnesses agreed, they could not point to any cases of coercion to worship nor suggest an approach that would leave freedom of religion at the academy intact.
Brady found that some cadets feel academy practices do not address their religious needs, some expressed disrespect for the beliefs of others, and that there is a lack of awareness on parts of some faculty and staff members about “appropriate” religious respect. He also noted that religious disrespect was not a great problem among the chaplains at the academy, but was a problem among the cadets and even some of the commanding officers.
While Lt. General Brady did not say specifically that prayer before meals is allowed, he also did not say it isn’t. One of the allegations was that sectarian prayers were being said and Brady considered this “wrong” but apparently there is no current rule against it. He did point out that the chaplains generally prayed “acceptably” (i.e. in a pluralistic, generic way) but that cadets themselves and sometimes commanding officers “inappropriately” gave sectarian prayers (i.e. “in Jesus’ name”) Dr. Kristen Leslie of the Yale Divinity School (pictured) disagreed and said one of the things that did concern her was a tendency of the chaplains to pray sectarian prayers.
Chaplain Jack D. Williamson, Colonel, USAF specifically said his investigation was separate from Brady’s but he reported many similar findings. Williamson said the challenge is not only to address respect for religious differences in the Air Force Academy, but to address this problem in our culture. In regards to specific problems at the academy, Williamson said most of the problems he saw did not stem from malice but still did not lend themselves to religious respect. Agreeing with Brady, Williamson said it was important to respect the right of others to believe what they choose. Williamson says this goes beyond tolerance and is a wholehearted acceptance of others’ right to believe what they choose to believe.
Dr. Leslie was concerned with sectarian prayers, proselytizing, a lack of generic pastoral prayers, and placing cadets who did not attend one of the several denominational chapels in a “heathen flight” march. A professor at Yale Divinity School, she participated in an investigation at the academy with several of her students in order to assist academy chaplains in pluralistic pastoral care. She was concerned with chaplains who did not appear to know the difference between “good spiritual care” and “evangelism,” as she distinguished the two.
Neither Dr. Leslie nor Brady said sectarian prayers are currently against the rules but both considered them inappropriate. The majority of the representatives at the hearing called for more specific guidelines for what is and is not appropriate in prayer at the academy, but Brady was reluctant to create a rule against sectarian prayers at all times, and wanted to leave it up to the discretion of the commanding officer.
Dr. Leslie was concerned about this and said there is a need for guidelines. Rep. Michael Conoway (R-Texas) said that such guidelines may end up being rather anti-Christian, and that it is a tenet of his religion (for example) to pray “in the name of Jesus Christ.” Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-California) also said that even in the House of Representatives, often sectarian prayers are given. Generally persons of different religions gave prayers, allowing for diversity, she noted.
Most House members called upon academy leaders to further define appropriate religious behaviors tolerant of all denominations. Rep. Conaway raised the concern that for some faiths it is a tenet of belief to evangelize. “I’m a Christian and Jesus Christ is my personal savior,” Rep. Conaway said. Thus, he explained, when he prays it is a tenet of his faith to pray specifically in the name of Jesus Christ.
It is important to distinguish between evangelizing and coercing into conversion. There is no negative consequence if one resists evangelism. Freedom of religious expression means not fearing being punished for holding a dissenting belief. At the Air Force Academy there is no report of “coercing” others to convert.
A history/political science major at LeTourneau University in Texas, Amy Davis was an intern at Accuracy in Media this summer.