December 23, 2005


While we’re at it (Fr Richard Neuhaus, First Things, November, 2005) (Scroll Down)

Don’t we know how pushy those evangelical Christians can be? That is among the questions raised in protest against what I thought was a rather light-hearted comment in the October issue about the problem of “pervasive religion” at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. Well yes, some people—not only evangelicals and not only Christians—can be pretty obnoxious in pressing their convictions on others. And not only their religious convictions. Their causes would be better served by the learning of elementary good manners. An almost certain way of exacerbating bad manners in the public square is to try to impose good manners by regulations of law. Civilization, as has often been observed, depends upon obedience to the unenforceable, which is another way of saying that civilization depends upon civility. In my commentary I suggested—in a spirit of what now appears to have been unwarranted hopefulness—that that lesson had been learned at the Air Force Academy. But here is a Laurie Goodstein story in the New York Times with the headline “Air Force Bans Leaders’ Promotion of Religion.” It seems new Air Force guidelines will proscribe anything that might be perceived as favoring a particular religion or even, according to the proposed text, “the idea of religion over nonreligion.” The guidelines were largely drafted by Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, a former navy chaplain and former director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who was hired as special assistant to the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force. The need for such guidelines had been pressed by Representative Steve Israel of New York, an influential member of the House Armed Services Committee, and Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate who has agitated against the Christian tenor of activities at the school. A professor of law at Yeshiva University is quoted on the new rules: “What I liked about them is they went so far out of their way to say the government should not be endorsing religion, because that’s not always been true in the military.” That, one might observe, is a breathtaking understatement. From George Washington’s Farewell Address and throughout American history, government leaders have strongly and explicitly endorsed religion, and nowhere has that been so emphatically the case as in the military. The attempt to extirpate religion from the official life of the military is a rewriting of history in the name of pluralism and sensitivity. Despite the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes, there have always been those in the military who dissent from the dominant religious affirmation. They were and are a small minority. The new thing, following a half century of Supreme Court rulings in hostility to religion, is the idea that a minority has the right to be protected from reminders that it is a minority. This gives even the smallest minority effective veto power over the public voice under government auspices, and nothing is more comprehensively under government auspices than the military. Anything the minority deems offensive or not to its liking must be excluded. Also in the military, the protocols of civility are subject to negotiation, but the new Air Force regulations are riddled with confusions that are likely to increase the putative problems they are designed to resolve. For instance, says the Times, “they allow for ‘a brief nonsectarian prayer’ at special ceremonies like those honoring promotions, or in ‘extraordinary circumstances’ like ‘mass casualties, preparation for imminent combat and natural disasters.’” Is a mention of Jesus or Sinai sectarian? How brief is “brief,” and how many casualties are required to warrant an extra minute of prayer time? Perhaps most important, why should the government endorse or any observant Jew, Christian, or Muslim go along with the idea that public prayer should be limited to “extraordinary circumstances”? The limitation of prayer to moments of great mourning or danger encourages the most debased notion of “the God of the gaps”—of religion in the form of last-resort superstition reserved for times of crisis. Although one notes that prayer will be permitted also for “honoring promotions,” which perhaps reflects the belief of the Air Force in the dubious notion that God has a hand in its personnel decisions. The proposed regulations are a prime instance of attempting to turn faith into a tame and inoffensive civil religion that should offend everyone who understands that the nation and its military are “under God”—meaning the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Who cannot be recruited to anyone’s service. All that having been said, I am reliably informed that some evangelical officers at the Air Force Academy were seriously out of line in using their rank to promote their faith on military time. If true, that needed to be corrected, but is better corrected by obedience to the unenforceable than by regulations that invite evasion.

To the secular mind set, secular jerks are just marginal aberrations, to be dismissed summarily as a dysfunctional minority, but religious jerks are a mainstream menace, formed intrinsically by their faith.

Posted by Peter Burnet at December 23, 2005 9:17 PM

In this sentence, he misses something:

From George Washingtons Farewell Address and throughout American history, government leaders have strongly and explicitly endorsed religion ...

All completely true.

But the issue at the Air Force academy was not about religion, but imposing a specific instance thereof.

All officers, they swore to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States, then decided to ignore Article 6.

These rules are silly, but no sillier than the actions that prompted them.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 23, 2005 10:14 PM

The rules don't matter. The social pressure to conform in the armed forces trump them.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2005 10:39 PM

It's never been clear what exactly has actually happened at USAFA, and I'm not sure how to figure it out, given the inability of the MSM to competently report on religious matters (if they reported well but with a bias, that would be preferable to their current ineptitude).

What I really hope is not in any way suggested in the new guidelines is that military chaplains (who are officers, in general) are proscribed in their speech in any way during religious ceremonies. In other words, an evangelical chaplain should be able to say during a church service on base or anywhere else that all those in attendance should try and get their Papist friends to convert or else they'll burn in hell. Granted, those in the military give up lots of their rights, in particular where political speech is concerned, but the right to worship as one sees fit should be even more inviolate than the right to political speech since there is no compelling national interest counterweight.

Now, what chaplains say outside of their relationship as spiritual leader is another matter. For example, if a chaplain also serves as a school administrator of some sort, he would have to be cautious not to confuse his two roles. If he is asked to speak at a more general Academy function, the situation becomes even trickier.

In the end, though, this is just a reflection of an aggressive evangelical strain that has risen in reaction to cultural trends of the past few decades. Given that the highly religious are even more represented among the military than in the population at large, it's only natural that these sorts of things would arise eventually. Trying to suppress it is only going to make their feelings of persecution that much stronger.

Posted by: b at December 24, 2005 1:54 AM

Why not just leave the defense of the U.S.A. to the Jew-Believers, Jew-Atheists, Muslims and non-Jew Atheists?

That would would nicely serve the double purpose of cutting the defense budget down to a miniscule portion of GDP and make the U.S.A. a non-threat worldwide, which would mean it would no longer be targeted by bad guys.

In other words, you could become Canada in one stroke.

Posted by: Randall Voth at December 24, 2005 3:34 AM

Conformity in the military is about fighting, not praying. When you join the armed forces, your loyalty is to your country, your flag, your service and the guy who is fighting beside you. You don't make distinctions between Christian or Jewish or Atheist sodlers, you are all soldiers.

The jerks at the Air Force academy forgot that fact, they thought that being Christian made them priviledged and special.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 24, 2005 11:28 AM

Conformity in the military is to the ideals of your nation and the shared values of your comrades, so they're forced to Judeo-Christian conformity in an institution that's heavily Evangelical.

Posted by: oj at December 24, 2005 11:43 AM

If it weren't for the Christian prescription to "love one another as I have loved you," by "giving your life for your friends," there would be few volunteers for the military, we would be as weak militarily as Germany, Italy, and Japan, and the communists would have won long ago.

Like it or not, Christian faith is the foundation of the US military.

Posted by: pj at December 24, 2005 11:47 AM

... so they're forced to Judeo-Christian conformity in an institution that's heavily Evangelical.

Having spent 20 years in the military, I can conclusively state that is entirely wrong.

NB: (IIRC) the original complaint at the AFA was brought by a chaplain.

PJ, you are scarcely any closer. The oath is to defend and protect the Constitution. Not Christianity, not the Bible, not Evangelism. And part of that Constitution explicitly rejects religious tests for office.

Throughout my entire career, religious faith was simply never a factor.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 24, 2005 12:53 PM


It's changed a lot in the past few years, but: Why'd you leave?

Posted by: oj at December 24, 2005 1:17 PM


I left for a couple reasons.

First, Colonels move a lot, and on short notice. My wife told me she had enough of that already.

Second, my next promotion would take me out of flying, which is a hard decision to make when the airlines beckoned.

Do I miss serving our country? Most definitely.

Do I regret retiring? That is a much harder question to answer, since 9/11, but my family is certainly happier.

The military changed quite a bit over the 20 years I was serving. The most significant reason was going from the draft to an all volunteer force.

Over that same period, overt Christianity, never particularly great outside the service academies, where church attendance had been required for all cadets, became very much a matter of personal choice, as it is today.

During Desert Storm, the wing chaplain provided a worship service before every mission. Most guys went, but nobody was making a list one way or the other.

Which was as it should be.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 25, 2005 1:10 PM

With the all volunteer force there's been an increasing self-selection for the types of guys most likely to be religious and it has made the atmosphere more oppressively Christian, not just at the academies but generally, to the point where guys fear negative ratings from commanding officers if they don't attend such services.

Posted by: oj at December 25, 2005 4:57 PM


That is just about as completely wrong a statement as I have ever heard, particularly the last half.

The military has always been more conservative and religious than the rest of society. But that aspect didn't change in any way during my service, and religious belief was simply never a factor.

There is simply no way for COs to assess their personnels' church going habits. On base chapels conduct numerous different services for the various sects. The COs don't go to them all, and no one is taking roll.

"Guys," absent in dysfunctional units like the AFA where officers forget about the Constitution they are sworn to defend and protect, do not fear negative performance ratings from commanding officers on religious grounds.

If you had spent even a minute in the military, you would know this.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 26, 2005 6:42 AM

Ah, the oldkayaker strategy: I served, you didn't, shut up.

Odd that you think yourself competent to discuss Darwinismn though not a practicing biologist, isn't it or religion though not as priest?

In fact, all you have to do is read and listen:

Posted by: oj at December 26, 2005 8:26 AM

General Richardson, the deputy chief of chaplains, said that although his faith required him to evangelize, he would help accommodate the faiths of others. "I am an Assemblies of God, pound-the-pulpit preacher, but I'll go to the ropes for the Wiccan," he said, if that group wanted permission to celebrate a religious ritual

This guy doesn't seem to have a problem with religious diversity in the military.

OJ, you really are quite clueless about the world beyond your ivory basement. The general's attitude is the norm. Those in the military value, above all else, the freedoms that their Constitution guarantees, including the freedom of conscience and religion. The conformity that the military builds around honor, tradition, and duty to flag and country (and servicce), and duty to your fellow soldier/sailor/airman/marine pushes those areas of private life, like religion, beyond the consideration of commanders and peers.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 26, 2005 4:17 PM

You guys are so cute when you go all Starship Trooper. The military is all about conformity and in the past few years that conformity has become increasingly Evangelical. Good, bad, or inifferent about Christianity, that's just a fact.

Posted by: oj at December 26, 2005 8:21 PM