According to Americans United’s well-documented 14-page report [.pdf], the problem is not that evangelicals haven’t been able to speak about their religious beliefs; the problem is that cadets who aren’t evangelical Christians, and have no interest in converting, were dive-bombed by religious propaganda intended to convert them to the faith.
In 2004, when Mel Gibson’s controversial movie The Passion of the Christ was about to be released, Cadet First Class Casey Weinstein, a Jewish graduate of the Air Force Academy, discovered that Gibson-backers had placed promotional leaflets advertising the film on the breakfast plates of the school’s nearly 4,000 cadets.
“As the cadets ate, images from the film were flashed on cafeteria screens used for official academy messages,” the Charlotte Observer recently reported. In the next few days, more flyers would appear at breakfast and in addition, “mass e-mail messages” were sent recommending that cadets “attend special screenings of the film.”
Weinstein is the son of Mikey Weinstein, an attorney and academy graduate who over the years had expressed his consternation over the Academy’s religious practices.
In an opinion piece published by the Colorado Springs Gazette, John J. Michels Jr., an Academy graduate and former military attorney who now works in the corporate world, suggested that the incidents of bias could not have happened with the knowledge of Academy officials.
“Large crucifixes being erected in the cadet area outside of the chapel, fliers placed under doors on Easter morning celebrating the reincarnation of Jesus, and video projections of Bible verses on screens in the dining hall during mandatory meal formations do not occur without the blessing (figuratively, and perhaps literally) of the commander,” he wrote. ~Bill Berkowitz, Antiwar.com
As I read this, I wondered: what exactly is the problem? Even though the Academy is a government educational institution by definition, this is a perfect example of what the fantastic, chimerical beast “separation of church and state” does not include. There are probably institutional regulations on the books forbidding this sort of thing, no doubt adopted in the flurry of non-discrimination fever that has beset our country since the 1970s. But what we should ask is: what coercion has been taking place?
As I read the report, I could see that there was no institutional coercion. That is, no one suffered academically or received any official penalty for responding negatively to the efforts at proselytism. No cadets were unfairly disciplined by the Academy, nor were they expelled. It would be at such a point that a reasonable person could conclude that religious fervour had trumped the proper running of a military educational institution by undermining the integrity of enforcing a code of conduct through arbitrary or summary treatment on the basis of religion. That is not happening in Colorado Springs.
In almost every instance, as I see it, the secularists are whining that officers, administration, faculty and staff of the Academy actually express their religious beliefs and encourage their co-religionists to inculcate the same in others, almost as if they believed their religion to be true and salvific. Yes, the instructors apply social pressure, which is what the instructors do everyday regarding everything else in the life of the cadets. The Christian cadets are imposing peer pressure and social humiliation on those who do not conform–one might find the “Heathen Flight” more than a bit crude, but it is not fundamentally wrong nor is it illegal. Privileging the Christian cadets with passes their peers cannot receive strikes me as the sort of excessive privileging of some cadets that could create disciplinary problems, but that is something I would leave to the discretion of officers who are accustomed to instilling that discipline.
So, how has this become a serious issue? None of these things violates the prohibition against Congress acting to establish a state religion, which is the only case in which the Establishment Clause has any relevance, as if this needed to be pointed out. For constitutionally illiterate secularists, however, apparently it is necessary. What the AUSCS (Americans United for Separation of Church and State) wants is to apply the various unjust and unconstitutional rulings on religious activity and prayer at state institutions even more strictly than it already has been. When the report cites the Supreme Court cases defining the secularist reading of the Establishment Clause, its authors are on solid ground, at least in the eyes of other constitutional illiterates. What the group wants is nothing less than the abolition of any personal statements about religious faith coming from the officers, administration, faculty and staff of the Academy.
“Conservative” evangelicals have been a favourite target of a lot of antiwar commentary over the past few years. Some evangelicals in this country have a genuinely bizarre dispensationalist theology and a modern enthusiasm for defending the excesses of the most extreme Zionists in pursuit of the fulfillment of prophecy. This has made them the supporters and apologists of neocon fanaticism and militarism, and because of this antiwar commentators find them repugnant. But it would be an egregious exaggeration to apply this to all evangelical Christians. Because of these views of some evangelicals, and the rock-solid support the majority of evangelicals have unfortunately given to the present apostate administration, they have become the preferred targets of scorn for the antiwar commentator who needs to find right-wing Christians he can criticise to flesh out the perennial leftist fantasy of the Bush administration as a right-wing Christian bastion.
In this case, what could be better in further demonising the evangelicals than finding that they have fanatically (and supposedly illegally) seized control of the religious life of the Air Force Academy? Egads! The Christians are proselytising others! Whatever shall we do? The success of evangelicals in dominating the institution of the Air Force Academy in an age when all government or government-funded institutions have systematically purged all references to Christianity is a remarkable thing. It should serve as an example to Christians in every institution of what can be accomplished if we would not so meekly submit to the far more pervasive and oppressive imposition of secularism, multiculturalism and “tolerance.” The public square cannot be reclaimed for Christianity by discourse when that discourse concedes the basic point that public institutions should be religiously “neutral” (i.e., anti-religious). The public square can only be retaken by those with the conviction enough to defy the conventions of a hostile society.