'Team Jesus Christ'

Saturday, June 4, 2005

THE REPORTS OF the religious climate at the Air Force Academy are unsettling: A chaplain instructs cadets to try to convert classmates by warning that they "will burn in the fires of hell" if they do not accept Christ. During basic training, freshman cadets who decline to attend after-dinner chapel are marched back to their dormitories in "heathen flights" organized by upperclassmen. A Jewish student is taunted as a Christ killer and told that the Holocaust was the just punishment for that offense. The academy's head football coach posts a banner in the locker room that proclaims, "I am a Christian first and last. . . . I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."

Though there are disputes over the specifics of some of these cases, academy officials don't disagree that there has been a problem on campus with religious tolerance. They argue that they recognized and responded to it promptly, instituting training programs for students and faculty alike. But critics say the response was belated and grudging, treating the problem as one of a few instances of insensitivity by out-of-line cadets rather than, as they see it, a broader culture of intolerance fostered from the top down.

A task force appointed by the Pentagon to examine the religious climate on campus reported last week to acting Air Force Secretary Michael L. Dominguez about its findings, and a public report is due soon. Although the task force's work should not be judged in advance, it is of concern that the group doesn't seem to have spent much time with those who have been most outspoken about the issue. Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 academy graduate who says his cadet son has been harassed for being Jewish, said his only contact with the task force was a phone call asking him to stop criticizing it. Capt. MeLinda Morton, a chaplain who spoke out against what she considers strident evangelizing on campus, said she was interviewed for a scant 15 minutes on the task force's last day of investigation. A Yale Divinity School professor who helped flag the religious problems at the academy was never contacted.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department's inspector general has been asked to look into the transfer of Capt. Morton, who says she is being punished for her views. The academy says a transfer was already in the works, but her removal does seem, at the least, to have been speeded up after she went public with her concerns. The inspector general will need to sort through these conflicting assertions.

More important, it's imperative that the Air Force ensure that the academy welcomes and accommodates cadets of all faiths, or none at all. Cadet training is, by its nature, an experience in which young men and women are under enormous pressure to conform. It is especially important, in that atmosphere, that cadets not feel that professing a certain religion is part of the norm to which they must adhere. Cadets need to know that they can serve the Air Force, and their country, even if they haven't signed up for Team Jesus Christ.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company