The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation.  All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.  It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of once class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.  For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."...  ... George Washington, Letter to Tuoro Synagogue, 1790.

Commentary of the Day - April 22, 2005: Tolerance or Lack Thereof at the Air Force Academy.

According to recent news reports, the U.S. Air Force Academy, which is just now recovering from one series of scandals involving harassment (and worse) directed at female cadets and another involving underage drinking, now finds itself embroiled in yet another case of questionable behavior.  In the last few years there have been some 55 complaints of religious bias at the Academy.  Johnny Whitaker, an Academy spokesperson said that some of the complaints involved religious slurs, while others involved proselytizing in inappropriate places.  He went on to say that "there have been cases of maliciousness, mean-spiritedness and attacking or baiting someone over religion."

And, last year the Air Force Academy football coach, Fisher DeBerry, was called to task for promoting Christianity to his players with a locker room banner that included the lines "I am a Christian first and last.... I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."  DeBerry removed the banner, but is considering continuing team prayers after football games next season -- but this time without reference to a specific religion.

Over 90% of the cadet corps at the Air Force Academy identify themselves as "Christian"; but, the corps also includes many cadets who adhere to other religions and some who are not religious at all.  The Academy is located in Colorado Springs, CO, which also is home to a large number of Christian fundamentalist organizations such as Focus on the Family.  It appears that at least some of the religious insensitivity can be traced to the fundamentalist influences of some regular and reserve Air Force chaplains who serve the Academy.

In a remarkably complete set of stories, reporter Pam Zubeck of the Colorado Springs Gazette has documented both the complaints about religious intolerance at the Academy and the efforts that the Academy has made to remedy the situation.  Last July a team from Yale Divinity School was invited to assess the efforts that had been made to address the sexual harassment issue; and, in the process of their investigations on that issue the team also raised questions about "challenges to pluralism".  They found "consistent specific articulations of Evangelical Christian themes during general protestant services" for cadets."  Cadets engaged in basic training "were encouraged to return to tents, proselytize fellow BCT members (other cadets in basic training), and remind them of the consequences of apostasy."  "Protestant Basic Cadets  were regularly encouraged to 'witness' to fellow basic cadets."

The Yale team expressed the "concern that such stridently Evangelical themes challenged the necessarily pluralistic environment of BCT (basic cadet training)."  They further concluded that the "overwhelmingly Evangelical tone of general protestant worship encouraged religious divisions rather than fostering spiritual understanding."

In a response to the complaints and the report from the Yale Divinity School team, the Academy has instituted a program of sensitivity training for all cadets, as well as all other Academy personnel and staff called Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People (RSVP).  This is a 50-minute program that, to a large extent, is led by Academy chaplains.  However, the program has drawn criticism both from some faculty members, cadets and officers, who feel that the Academy is stifling their constitutional right to freely express their religion, and from others who feel that the RSVP program is not sufficient.  Michael L. Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the Academy and Albuquerque attorney has one son who recently graduated from the Academy and another who currently is a cadet there.  Both have experienced anti-Semitic slurs from other cadets.  Weinstein has called the RSVP program a "Band-Aid Solution" for a systemic failure of leadership.  Weinstein says that for 10 to 15 years the Academy has ignored the persecution not only of Jewish cadets, but also of mainline Christians, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists and Muslims.

The Irascible Professor tends to agree with Weinstein that the situation at the Academy needs to be addressed with more than just a few "sensitivity" training sessions.  It appears to the Irascible Professor that there have been serious failures both in leadership and in education at the Air Force Academy.  From a leadership perspective, unit cohesion is fundamental to the success of any military mission.  In combat, that cohesion can mean the difference between life and death.  And that cohesion will not exist unless all members of the unit respect each other.  From a practical point-of-view then it seems just foolish to tolerate behavior that undermines respect.  When you are flying a mission where your life might depend on the actions of the person sitting next to you, you certainly don't want to have that person unhappy with you because you bad-mouthed his or her religion.

But, more importantly, the Air Force Academy is in the business of producing the officers who will lead the service for decades to come.  The cadets should be receiving an education that includes a firm understanding both of our history and our Constitution.  They should leave the Academy with the clear knowledge that the United States is not a theocracy, but rather a strong democratic republic that has been built through the contributions of citizens whose religious affiliations are as diverse as their ethnicity.  They also should leave the Academy with an understanding that while the First Amendment guarantees to each American religious freedom it also prevents the government from establishing a state religion.  Thus, while they serve as Air Force cadets and later as officers, they must need to balance their personal religious views with their duty to uphold the Constitution.  That means that no matter how fervent the religious beliefs of a cadet or officer might be, he or she must be careful both to respect the right of others to hold differing views and to refrain from imposing his or her beliefs on others.

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© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.