By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005
DENVER, May 12 -- An Air Force chaplain who complained that evangelical Christians were trying to "subvert the system" by winning converts among cadets at the Air Force Academy was removed from administrative duties last week, just as the Pentagon began an in-depth study of alleged religious intolerance among cadets and commanders at the school.
"They fired me," said Capt. MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran minister who was removed as executive officer of the chaplain unit on May 4. "They said I should be angry about these outside groups who reported on the strident evangelicalism at the academy. The problem is, I agreed with those reports."
"The choice of a new executive officer was a standard transition," said Lt. Col. Laurent Fox, an academy spokesman. "The situation is, both the commanding officer [of the chaplain unit] and the executive officer are scheduled to leave this post in a couple of months. It was decided to replace the executive officer now for reasons of continuity."
Amid a rising chorus of complaints about preferential treatment for evangelical Christians -- and command pressure on non-evangelicals -- among the 4,000 cadets, a Pentagon task force is visiting the Colorado Springs campus this week to study the religious atmosphere and propose possible remedial steps.
Morton, whose removal as executive officer was first reported in USA Today, said she has not been asked to brief the task force.
Surveys of present and former cadets have shown that some students said they felt a heavy and sometimes offensive emphasis on evangelical Christianity, with praise for cadets who pronounce their "born-again" status and insults aimed at Jews, Roman Catholics and non-evangelical cadets.
One staff chaplain reportedly told newly arrived freshmen last summer that anyone not born again "will burn in the fires of hell."
Such slurs have been heard for decades on the campus, according to Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, a 1977 academy graduate who said he has repeatedly complained to the Air Force brass about the "religious pressure" on cadets. "This is not Christian versus Jew," Weinstein said. "This is the evangelical Christians against everybody else."
The Air Force's new attention to the issue stems from an earlier scandal at the school in which female cadets said commanding officers ignored or played down numerous cases of sexual assault by male students.
As part of its response to the sexual assault charges, the academy asked a team from Yale Divinity School to visit the campus during the summer training for incoming freshmen.
"We were asked to study the quality of cadet-centered pastoral care," said Yale Prof. Kristen Leslie. "What we found was this very strong evangelical Christian voice just dominating. We thought that just didn't make sense in light of their mission, which was to protect and train cadets, not to win religious converts."
Morton, who was executive officer of the squadron of 16 chaplains at the academy, said she shared the concerns expressed by the study group from Yale.
"The evangelicals want to subvert the system," Morton said. "They have a very clear social and political agenda. The evangelical tone is pervasive at the academy, and it's aimed at converting these young people who are under intense pressure anyway."
When a two-page summary of the "Yale Report" became public this spring, Morton said, the academy's chief chaplain, Col. Michael Whittington, responded angrily. But Morton said she agreed with the criticism in the report.
Morton said she has also criticized the academy's RSVP program, or Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People, a training unit designed to teach academy personnel to tolerate all religious views. "I just think RSVP is a weak program," she said.
Whittington was not available for a comment Thursday; academy officials said he was busy all day with the Pentagon task force.
After several "reasonably tense" days among the academy chaplains, Morton said, she received an e-mail on May 4 from Whittington. It said a new executive officer would be named, effective immediately.
Fox, the academy spokesman, said this change was made because Whittington is retiring from the Air Force in June and Morton is due for a transfer in July to Okinawa. But Morton said the normal procedure would be to keep her in the number two post until she departs, so that she could help the unit's new commanding officer settle in.
Morton said the cadet wing at the Air Force Academy is about 90 percent Christian. She said that group is roughly one-third Catholic, one-third mainstream Protestant and one-third evangelical. But the evangelicals have a much bigger voice among the chaplains, she said.
"The predominance of evangelical Christians reflects the chaplain corps of the Air Force overall," Morton said. "The major mainstream Protestant divinity schools are no longer sending many graduates into the armed forces. And so the concentration of evangelicals among chaplains is strong through the whole service."
Morton, 48, said that, having criticized the religious atmosphere at the academy, "I may be toast" in terms of an Air Force career. She said her next duty station is said to be a pleasant spot. "But serving in Okinawa as the most hated chaplain in the Air Force might not be so great."