Air Force Academy's Orwellian "Religious Respect Conference" Indicates Clear Bias Against the Non-Religious
The United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado Springs, Colorado is an institution of inestimable worth to the United States military. In addition to being a service academy graduate and son of a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, I'm also the father of two sons, a son-in-law, and a daughter-in-law, each of whom are proud alumni of USAFA. Even my brother-in-law is a proud alum of USAFA. As such, I know well the top-notch standards of stellar professionalism to which most faculty and staff adhere. Unfortunately, I'm also intimately aware of the nightmarish side of USAFA - one that entails ongoing ordeals of blatantly unconstitutional marginalization, humiliation, degradation and abject brutality for large segments of the military personnel on the academy's installation. The stomach-turning knowledge of this grim reality is backed up by the testimony of literally hundreds of cadets and staff at USAFA spanning a period of at least a dozen years now. My own family's torment at the hands of the sickening fundamentalist Christian presence at the academy was pivotal in compelling me to establish the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF: www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org). Thus, it was with great skepticism and no small amount of disgust that we greeted the latest "Religious Respect Conference" at USAFA. Clearly this event was to be a proverbial "dog-and-pony show" foolishly meant to assuage those of us who have been blowing the whistle on the ongoing religious civil rights abuses at USAFA for many years now. Sadly, our expectations of the dubious nature of the "Conference" were fully realized even before it began. One would need to hire a seasoned private investigator to decipher the Byzantine complexity and bureaucratic camouflage of the USAFA e-mails and related "public" announcements of this stealth "Religious Respect Conference." George Orwell's dystopian society of Oceania, and its lexicon of duplicitous "doublespeak," could not possibly be more accurately portrayed than in the reprehensible manner in which USAFA designed, announced, and conducted this specious spectacle.
The idea of USAFA blaring its triumphant horns at having "reformed" itself in the field of "Religious Respect" is an odd and uber-ignominious one – folly, indeed. The overtly theistic flavor of the "conference" was belied by the fact that the ever-expanding demographic of agnostic, atheist, humanist, and secular cadets on campus (collectively self-identified as "Freethinkers") was initially and comprehensively written out of the proceedings of this "respect" conference. It was only through a combination of chance and MRFF's loud advocacy in the local press that a literal 11th-hour invitation was callously extended to a cadet representative of the academy's Freethinkers. This "invitation" was classic ass-covering by USAFA and nothing more. According to trusted MRFF sources, in addition to being low-key to the point of achieving a "Where's Elmo?" level of total obscurity for most academy cadets and staff, the conference was all sizzle and no steak. Its treatment of religious liberties issues internal to USAFA was enormously superficial and utterly meaningless. It accomplished nothing in terms of challenging the prevailing tsunami of ambient fundamentalist Christian religiosity on campus.
The hideous spectacle of USAFA's head chaplain, Col. Robert Bruno, Dean of Faculty Dana Born (who we just learned will be retiring!), and Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould taking any cognizable part in a "religious respect conference" is absolutely akin to a trio of intransigent felons celebrating time served in a penitentiary, effusively clapping one another on the back for "reforming" themselves despite all salient evidence to the contrary. Such a display is insultingly absurd on the face of it and indicates a crude and willful attempt at pedestrian deception.
Please permit me to provide merely one of a plethora of illustrative examples of this malicious malfeasance. I, along with many of MRFF's clients at USAFA, were literally thunderstruck when we read that Retired Col. Frank Clawson, representing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called the Mormon Church), actually noted his concern that USAFA would "become a secular university with no opportunities for religious respect, and those who wanted to exercise their faith would be so looked down on that there would be no religious discussion at all." Huh? Come again, Colonel? Secular is now synonymous with "bad?" Exactly which Constitution and its construing case law have you been reading lately?
Anti-secular simpleton Clawson would do well to remember that the recently released Air Force Instruction 1-1 (AFI 1-1) firmly establishes complete religious neutrality throughout the U.S. Air Force (USAF). Violation of AFI 1-1 runs the grave risk of invoking the panoply of punitive measures available under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), including criminal trial by courts martial. USAFA is supposed to be an elite federal military academy devoted to training, among many armed forces specialties, America's airborne war fighters, pilots, and commanders. USAFA is most certainly not an exception to the ironclad rules set forth in these brand new USAF instructions. USAFA isn't a sectarian monastery and it's not a divinity college. However, judging by Clawson's partisan, religious fanatical fantasies, USAFA would be more akin to the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University or the Southern Baptist fundamentalist Liberty University than an institution that operates under the colorable authority of the Headquarters of the United States Air Force, the Secretary of Defense, and the United States Constitution.
USAFA has a long history of pathetic and predictable recidivism in the field of anti-constitutional religious disrespect and oppression. It has shamefully served for decades as the key link in a chain of fundamentalist Christian supremacy and subversion extant throughout the United States military in general and the Air Force in particular. This subversive undercurrent has dealt severe damage to the morale, good order, and discipline of a significant and growing number of academy cadets and staff, sacrificing their foundational civil rights in the interests of an unconstitutional, theocratic Fifth Column. Whenever possible, this wretched cabal has abused its sworn Constitutional Oath for the pernicious purpose of proselytizing servicemembers and, in the process, has mercilessly trampled the civil and human rights assured to all Americans by the United States Constitution. It's only due to the perpetual pressure piled on by constitutionalist advocates such as MRFF (and our freethinking clients and related allies at the academy and elsewhere) that these interlocking Christian fundamentalist cliques have been forced to make tactical retreats and temporarily go "underground" on ever more-frequent occasions.
The very fact that these "conferences" occur in the first place serves as the very best confirming testimony to the importance of groups such as MRFF. Indeed, "Religious Respect Conferences" that render nonbelievers nonexistent can never decisively carve out the festering fundamentalist Christian rot gnawing away at cadet discipline, order, and morale. On the extreme contrary, these conferences are a lingering hangover of Cold War phobias regarding the so-called "Godless atheists," and they can only serve such "witch-hunting" neo-McCarthyite purposes. Unless everyone wins, no one wins. Until USAFA makes bold steps in conjunction with ALL groups at the academy, granting equal respect to faith and non-faith cadets and staff alike, aggressive pressure by First Amendment proponents will remain the order of the day and business as usual in confronting these unconstitutional fundamentalist Christian abuses.
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Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein is president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and an honor graduate of the Air Force Academy. He previously served as White House Counsel in the Reagan administration and general counsel to H. Ross Perot and Perot Systems Corp. He is the author of the recently released book, "No Snowflake in an Avalanche: The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Its Battle to Defend the Constitution and One Family's Courageous War Against Religious Extremism in High Places" (2012, Vireo).