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May 31, 2005

Pressure to Be “Born Again”
at the Air Force Academy

by Jon M. Sweeney

It appears that proselytizing pressure is brought to bear on cadets at the Air Force Academy to become “born again” Christians. Non-evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews have felt undue pressure to convert, participate in evangelical services, and join in prayer meetings on numerous occasions, according to reports now coming from the campus in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The firing of MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran chaplain—who was also the executive officer for all sixteen chaplains at the school—brought increased scrutiny to the situation.

In its May 13 story, The Washington Post interviewed former cadet Mickey Weinstein, a 1977 graduate. “[Weinstein] said he has repeatedly complained to the Air Force brass about the ‘religious pressure’ on cadets,” according to the article by T. R. Reid. “‘This is not Christian versus Jew,’ Weinstein said. ‘This is the evangelical Christians against everybody else.’” The New York Times reported on May 24 that Weinstein “has been collecting complaints about religious intimidation at the academy for over a year.”

Ironically, the “born again” controversy at the academy was brought on, in part, by a previous crisis. Due to earlier accusations of sexual harassment on campus, a committee at the Air Force Academy invited a group from Yale Divinity School, led by Prof. Kristen Leslie of Yale, to evaluate the training of incoming freshmen cadets this past summer. It was in the course of their review that the Yale Divinity School group submitted a report detailing what they found.

Their findings included the conclusion that evangelical Christians dominated the campus in ways that were felt to be threatening to others. The report, co-authored by Chaplain Morton with Prof. Leslie, claims that pressure is routinely brought to bear on cadets to accept evangelical Christian tenets of faith and that this particular brand of faith is taught by many chaplains, faculty members, and senior officers of the Academy as one of the hallmarks of a unit’s cohesiveness. It was Chaplain Morton’s agreement with those findings that prompted her dismissal. She was fired via an email sent by her immediate supervisor, Col. Michael Whittington, on May 2.

Other religious groups are lining up behind Chaplain Morton and wanting more information about the situation. In February, Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. (www.jwv.org) issued a press release condemning the alleged practices as well as others, including one reported instance when the coach of the Academy’s football team, Fisher DeBerry, posted a banner in the team’s locker room: “I am a Christian first and last. I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued its own fourteen page report on the Academy last month, on April 28.

It included the following summary, written by Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of AUSCS, and Ayesha N. Khan, its legal director: “We have been informed that General Weida [of the Academy] has cultivated and reinforced an attitude—shared by many in the Academy Chaplains’ Office and, increasingly, by other members of the Academy’s permanent [staff]—that the Academy, and the Air Force in general, would be better off if populated solely by Christians. A stronger message of official preference for one particular faith is hard to imagine.”

The situation at the Air Force Academy is also now becoming political. On May 23, according to The New York Times report published on May 24, Chaplain Morton sent letters to 46 members of Congress who had earlier demanded an investigation into the matter of the report and Chaplain Morton’s dismissal. She has asked Congress to look deeper into the matter, and quickly.

There is probably no issue like religion where a policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is more appropriate than for those in positions of authority in the military.

Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont. His latest book is

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