Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Guest post from Chris Rodda

In its latest attempt to give the appearance of concern about complaints of religious intolerance, the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) recently conducted a five-day “investigation” that (big surprise) found that there were no problems at all, save for the occasional minor incident that could always be resolved at the lowest level.

Heading the investigation was retired Air Force General Patrick Gamble, a former Commandant of Cadets at USAFA, and the investigative team included a former USAFA dean and two former USAFA department heads — certainly no chance that this team would want the Academy to come out smelling like roses, is there?

These were some of the findings in Gamble’s report, released on April 15:

“Cadets’ acceptance of those with different beliefs is exceptional. USAFA should be recognized for its institutional leadership in this area.”

“We found widespread agreement that everyone throughout the chain of command has been given and is giving appropriate guidance with respect to official neutrality, not only among religions, but also between religious and non-religious beliefs.”

“Cadets and permanent party expressed a near-uniform belief that they can (and do) make their own choices to participate – or not – in religious activities, without repercussion. Reports of actual pressure to participate were rare and easily resolved by simply expressing that the invitation or speech was unwelcome.”

“Cadets are not unduly stressed about possible pressure to join or conform to a religion, and the majority clearly feels empowered to deal with unwanted approaches. Across the board, cadets disavow that any favoritism or retribution would accrue based upon religious or non-religious affiliation.”

“Cadets clearly feel that they have the ability to resolve a conflict over religious tolerance and freedom, usually by addressing the issue head-on, by themselves. Alternatively, they have great confidence that their chain-of-command will be able to help them if called upon. The Superintendent was specifically lauded for his leadership in this area several times by faculty, staff, and cadets.”

“The cadets with whom we talked trusted the various mechanisms internal to USAFA (including the cadet chain of command, the Interfaith Council, PEERS, AOCs/AMTs, and chaplains). These reporting mechanisms were deemed responsive and effective. In view of certain media reports of claims to the contrary we looked hard, but found no direct or supportable widespread evidence of cadets resorting to the use of outside agencies or organizations.”

“We found no evidence in our interviews at any level that anyone fears for their physical safety based upon their religious beliefs or non-belief.”

How could Gen. Gamble’s findings, described as an “assessment of the current religious climate at the US Air Force Academy,” be so drastically different than what was just reported by cadets and faculty last fall in the Academy’s biannual “Climate Survey,” in which 353 cadets (almost 1 out of every 5 survey participants) reported having been subjected to unwanted religious proselytizing, and 23 cadets (13 of them Christians) reported living “in fear of their physical safety” because of their religious beliefs?

The answer is simple: 40 percent of the Academy’s cadets and 53 percent of the faculty staff members participated in the Climate Survey, confident that this anonymous survey really was anonymous, while only a few dozen faculty and staff members and only about a hundred cadets (barely more than 2 percent) were willing to participate in Gamble’s investigation, due primarily to fears that the interviews with Gamble’s team would not be kept confidential. In other words, the cadets who have actually experienced problems did not participate, allowing Gamble to base his findings on a sampling consisting of cadets who at best just haven’t personally experienced the problems reported in the Climate Survey, and at worst included those who are among the perpetrators of these problems.

As one Academy faculty member wrote to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) after reading Gamble’s report, which includes a section on the investigation’s methodology: “You don’t do proper research with a self-selected sample — unless, of course, you are fishing for the answers you already want. … Frankly, General Gamble, I expected better. This Gamble Report would be laughed out of committee as even as a master’s degree proposal. It doesn’t even make a good term paper.”

Another faculty member, referring to a faculty meeting at which the Gamble report was addressed, wrote: “What struck me as odd was that the Dean told everyone that the study used a random sample of cadets and faculty. A random sample? I think not. The cadets and faculty self-selected to provide interviews.” This faculty member went on to tell MRFF that, at this same meeting, the dean proceeded to quote the Bible while addressing another item on the agenda, writing: “Are we to trust our leadership with improving the religious atmosphere if they are the ones quoting scripture? She made no attempt to apologize for the remark. I’m not even sure if it registered that she just quoted the Bible during a staff meeting.”

MRFF also heard from numerous cadets after the Gamble report was released. Not surprisingly, with the report pointing out that Gamble’s team had “read media releases from both inside and outside USAFA concerning charges made by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation,” there was some talk about MRFF upon the report’s release. As one cadet reported in the following email excerpt, the Gamble report was touted as “a defeat for Mikey Weinstein [the founder and president of MRFF] and his Forces of Satan.”

“I am USAFA cadet about to finish my third year here (cadet second class) and have not been a MRFF client before today. I am of the Christian faith (Lutheran). I do not have very much time to express my views as we’re at the end of a very demanding semester (my major is xxxxx) and I still have final projects due shortly and then finals week. The report which came out yesterday by the retired general (Gamble) on the USAFA religious climate has been making its way around the Cadet Wing. I was in an informal but serious meeting in my cadet squadron yesterday when the topic of this report came up. There was an Air Force Officer and an Air Force NCO there talking with us as well. A very senior cadet leader (that’s how I will describe him or her) said, ‘This is a clear victory for the Gospel of our Lord and Savior and just as certain a defeat for Mikey Weinstein and his Forces of Satan.’ I was really surprised twice with that mean statement. First, that it was even said like that at all in response to the Gen. Gamble report findings. Second, that nobody, not even the USAF Officer or USAF NCO, said or did anything to oppose that terrible statement. I didn’t either. I didn’t want to get onto the wrong radar screen here at USAFA with regards to religion. I’ve seen what happens if you do.”

MRFF currently has over 260 clients at the Air Force Academy, including both cadets and faculty and staff members. Many of these clients belong to a group of over a hundred Academy cadets who, in order to maintain good standing among their peers and superiors, are actually pretending to be fundamentalist Christians. They leave Bibles, Christian literature, and Christian music CDs lying around their rooms; they attend fundamentalist Christian Bible studies; they feign devoutness at the Academy’s weekly “Special Programs in Religious Education” (SPIRE) programs. They do whatever they have to do to play the role of the “right kind” of Christian cadets, in constant fear of being “outed.” As the leader of this “underground” group of cadets wrote: “If any of us gave even the slightest indication that we weren’t one of their number, our lives would be even more miserable than they already are due to the fact that we are all living lies here. Despite the Cadet Honor Code we all lie about our lives. We have to.”

In the same email, the cadet quoted above explained how the reaction to the Gamble report led them to join this “‘pretend to be an evangelical Christian’ group,” as they called it.

“Just one example of many I could talk about is Gen. Gamble says in his report that a polite ‘no thank you’ to Christian religious proselytizing is just fine and dandy. It is not for at least two reasons, Mr. Weinstein. First, if you try to be polite and say ‘no thanks’ to them they NEVER stop asking you repeatedly to reconsider. Second, you KNOW that eventually you are going to get ‘them’ mad at you by always ‘politely declining.’ I and many other cadets have seen and experienced this over and over again. This is why there is a large group of USAFA cadets (larger at least than the size of the group that Gen. Gamble says he interviewed) who pretend to be evangelical Christians in order to just be left alone. I was only vaguely familiar with that group and its ties to MRFF until what happened yesterday with that ‘celebration’ statement regarding the Gen. Gamble report being made about you and your ‘Forces of Satan’ in front of all the other cadets and that USAF Officer and NCO with absolutely noone saying a word of protest or discontent. I guess my reaction of shock was picked up by another cadet who is in that ‘pretend to be an evangelical Christian’ group. He or she spoke to me right afterwards and now I, too, am with them. And now I, too, am with MRFF.”

Now, why would over a hundred cadets (many of whom are actually Christians, but the “wrong kind” of Christians, i.e. Catholic or mainline Protestant) feel that they have to pretend to be something they’re not when Gen. Gamble’s team found that: “Cadets and permanent party expressed a near-uniform belief that they can (and do) make their own choices to participate – or not – in religious activities, without repercussion.”

Needless to say, none of the cadets who are pretending to be fundamentalist Christians participated in Gamble’s investigation. They were afraid to. One of MRFF’s faculty member clients, however, did participate. This faculty member was David Mullin, a Presbyterian who had recently stepped up to be the plaintiff in MRFF’s effort to block former Marine Lt. Clebe McClary, a fundamentalist Christian speaker to whom “USMC will always mean U.S. Marine for Christ,” from speaking at the Academy. Mullin, having already outed himself as a religious “dissenter,” didn’t think he had anything more to lose by speaking to the Gamble team, but shortly thereafter, his dog Caleb (a service dog trained to assist Mullin, who has a medical condition that causes dizzy spells) was poisoned while waiting in Mullin’s office while he was teaching a class. Caleb, who nearly died, required three blood transfusions after being rushed to an emergency veterinary facility.

But it doesn’t take something as dramatic as a dog being poisoned to send the message to the USAFA cadets that God comes first at the Academy. This message is drummed into their heads at every opportunity. In February, for example, at the Academy’s annual National Character and Leadership Symposium (NCLS), the message was made clear by Paula Gould, wife of Academy Superintendent Lt. General Mike Gould.

Mrs. Gould, herself a former officer in the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve Command, began her presentation by talking about an entirely appropriate and relevant subject — the discrimination she had to overcome as one of the first female Air National Guard pilots. But she quickly turned to other not so appropriate subjects, like how cute her husband is, and how she knew she had found the right guy when he took her to church on one of their first dates. (I don’t think anything more needs to be said about the complete impropriety and downright bizarreness of Mrs. Gould talking to an audience of Academy cadets about how cute their Lt. Gen. Superintendent is like they were a bunch of her girlfriends.) The rest of Mrs. Gould’s presentation consisted of showing a slide show of family photos, and repeatedly stating that the priorities of both herself and her incredibly cute husband are: “God first, family second, and job third.” According to Mrs. Gould, if you follow these priorities, “you’re gonna make it easier on yourself” and “live with joy in your life” because “you’re doing the good, the just, the right thing.”

Here are some video clip highlights from Mrs. Gould’s NCLS speech:

Among the many heartwarming family photos shown by Mrs. Gould during this speech was one of the Gould family with Chad Hennings, who happened to be one of the other speakers appearing at this year’s NCLS. Hennings, an Air Force Academy graduate who went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys, now runs a ministry called “Wingmen,” whose stated goal is “to bring men together in a neutral setting where we can develop relationships with other men of God and deepen our relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Much of Chad Hennings’s NCLS speech sounded like it was straight out of an episode of Glenn Beck — how our culture is declining and we’re going the same route that led Germany into becoming Nazi Germany, etc. He also talked about a bunch of books that could easily be Glenn Beck’s recommend reading list, including one by an author who’s been a guest on Beck’s show, and just happens to also be a speaker for Hennings’s Wingmen ministry. And, naturally, Hennings’s speech was also chock full of Bible quotes.

Hennings has been lauded as a “Christian Fighter Pilot” by someone who should know — Air Force Maj. Jonathan C. Dowty, who runs a blog called “Christian Fighter Pilot,” and published a book with the same name. Maj. Dowty, a 1999 graduate of the Air Force Academy, is also a member of the Officers’ Christian Fellowship (OCF), a military-wide organization of over 15,000 officers, which is very active at the Air Force Academy. The OCF has never been shy about its goals, frequently stating that its “vision” is: “A spiritually transformed military, with ambassadors for Christ in uniform, empowered by the Holy Spirit.”

Last September, a blog post by Maj. Dowty, whose obsession with Mikey Weinstein and MRFF has led him to write well over a hundred blog posts attacking Weinstein and/or MRFF, was included in the Air Force Academy’s “Falcon Clips” email. These daily emails, which go out to all Academy cadets, staff, and faculty, begin with the statement: “MESSAGE SENT ON BEHALF OF THE SUPERINTENDENT,” and the description: “The Falcon Clips attachment is a daily compilation of local and national news stories relevant to the Air Force Academy and military personnel.” The September 21, 2010 Falcon Clips included an item that was neither a local nor a national news story, but a diatribe against MRFF from Maj. Dowty’s “Christian Fighter Pilot” blog, titled “Bat Signal busted, Weinstein declares war back on.” This blog post was the second of the fourteen “news” items in the Academy-wide email, and was listed under the heading “SUPT COMMENTARY.” Scores of outraged cadets and faculty members contacted MRFF about the Academy’s distribution not only of a non-newsworthy rant by a blogger, but the endorsement of a blogger who is an active duty Air Force officer promoting Christian supremacy in the military.

As one Academy faculty member, an active duty USAF officer, wrote to MRFF upon seeing Maj. Dowty’s post in the Falcon Clips: “How can we look upon our senior staff as defenders of the Constitution when they clearly endorse this pro-Christian supremacy commentary? When they don’t take a hard stance against this type of behavior, what are we to think as their subordinates? This is why I am always reluctant to air my grievances — what will they do to me because I don’t support their beliefs?”

The situations might be different — the Gamble investigation, the Academy’s National Character and Leadership Symposium, the distribution by the Academy’s superintendent of an inappropriate blog post — but the reaction is always the same. Cadets, and even faculty members, who don’t fit into the Academy’s prescribed religious mold are afraid to speak out, always coming back to that question: “What will they do to me because I don’t support their beliefs?”