Hoping to avoid a repeat of a scandal two years ago over sexual assault, the U.S. Air Force Academy is requiring religious-sensitivity training amid complaints that dominance by evangelical Christians at the school fosters anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment.
The academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in March launched a program called Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People, or RSVP, after a campus climate survey last year found that more than half of cadets had heard religious slurs or demeaning jokes. The survey also revealed concern about unwanted proselytizing and a perception that Christian cadets are favored over non-Christians.
About 90 percent of the academy’s 4,100 cadets identify themselves as Christians: 60 percent Protestant and 30 percent Catholic. That number includes 120 Mormons. There are 44 Jews and a few Hindus and Buddhists at the academy, according to officials quoted in the Los Angeles Times.
School officials said they have received 55 complaints during the last two-to-four years about bullying and berating of Jews and other religious minorities.
The Associated Press quoted a father who said his son has been called “a filthy Jew” a number of times.
The Colorado Springs Gazette said a chaplain urged cadets in basic training to warn fellow students that those not “born again will burn in the fires of hell” and told cadets Jesus had “called” them to the academy as part of God’s plan for their lives. The paper also cited a report concerned about the “overwhelmingly evangelical tone” of a Protestant worship service during basic training, which “encouraged religious divisions rather than fostering spiritual understanding.”
Another report in the Denver Post quoted Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, commandant of cadets, who when he arrived in June 2003, in the midst of a sexual-assault scandal, wrote stressing the importance of personal responsibility: “Remember, you are accountable first to your God, this great nation, our great Air Force, our Air Force Academy and lastly to your teammates.”
The academy’s Association of Graduates board acknowledged in February that the academy recognized potential problems prior to media attention.
Indicators included improper distribution by cadets of movie posters promoting “The Passion of the Christ” and use of the campus e-mail network to encourage attendance at the film. Other complaints included hanging of a Christian-based spirit banner in the football locker room and correspondence from senior leadership encouraging participation in National Prayer Day activities.
The AP cited other incidents, including complaints by an atheist cadet alleging the school is “systematically biased against any cadet that does not overtly espouse Christianity,” and a Christmas ad that runs every year in the academy newspaper praising Jesus and declaring him as the only savior. The ad was reportedly not published last December.
The AOG board said there is no “systemic problem,” “crisis” or “scandal,” but officials had taken “appropriate steps” to address a “lack of education about and insensitivity to religious respect issues” at the academy.
About 2,800 people, including 1,500 cadets, have been through the two-hour RSVP training program so far, according to the Gazette in Colorado Springs.
Academy officials said addressing the issue won’t be easy, because the nation as a whole is struggling with similar questions, such as the debate over displaying the Ten Commandments on public property.
The AOG board said the academy would not tolerate acts of religious intolerance, but would seek to accommodate religious expression when possible. “Just because we don the uniform of the United States Air Force doesn’t mean that we leave our faith at the door,” their statement said.
That hasn’t stopped some evangelicals, however, from claiming religious discrimination.
The conservative Web site WorldNetDaily characterized the directive as “warning Christian cadets to curb their faith.”
Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy at Focus on the Family, one of more than 100 Christian evangelical organizations based in Colorado Springs, told the LA Times: “If 90 percent of cadets identify themselves as Christians, it is common sense that Christianity will be in evidence on the campus. Christianity is deeply felt and very important to people…and to suggest that it should be bottled up is nonsense. I think a witch hunt is underway to root out Christian beliefs. To root out what is pervasive in 90 percent of the group is ridiculous.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.