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The Sorry State Of Religious Freedom At The Air Force Academy


Last Tuesday, Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) contacted the leadership of the United States Air Force Academy to complain about an “egregious violation” of the United States Constitution. The offense? A junior at the Academy had handwritten a New Testament Bible verse on a personal whiteboard hanging on the exterior wall of his or her dorm room, adjacent to the door. Academy leadership was apparently swift in its response: only “2 hours and 9 minutes” after the complaint was filed, bragged the MRFF website, the writing was erased from the whiteboard.

This is the latest in a long string of incidents involving Mr. Weinstein and the Air Force Academy. Just last year, Mr. Weinstein and his organization made headlines for instigating the Academy’s removal of “so help me God” from the Honor Oath for incoming cadets. Last December, Mr. Weinstein led the charge to remove a nativity scene from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. The list of incidents goes on and on. A few of Mr. Weinstein’s complaints are based on legitimate claims, many are blown way out of proportion, and the rest endanger the free exercise of religion that Mr. Weinstein so zealously claims to defend.

In full disclosure, I need to mention that I have some personal experience with Mr. Weinstein’s organization. In 2011, when I was a senior at the Academy, I was an approval authority for emails disseminated to the student body. One of these emails—written by a fellow senior of mine—was collecting support for a charity campaign called Operation Christmas Child (OCC). OCC participants donate shoeboxes filled with small gifts for children in need: teddy bears, coloring books, toothbrushes, yo-yos, and the like. Mr. Weinstein and the MRFF were particularly incensed about the incident because the email that I approved mentioned “Christmas” and because OCC is run by Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian organization.

MRFF filed an immediate complaint, and the next day I received an email from one of my superiors instructing me and my classmate to retract the email, which we did. Mr. Weinstein touted the incident as a huge victory for the rights of conscience, and proudly posted the original “offending” email on his website, choosing not to redact the names of me and my classmate. One Air Force official in my chain of command called Mr. Weinstein and asked him to remove our names for the sake of our safety and privacy, but Mr. Weinstein refused to do so, although he did agree to remove the names of three others who were points of contact for the program. The offending email—which Mr. Weinstein thought was such a flagrant Constitutional violation—is still online, if you’d like to read it.

The mission statement of MRFF claims that “religious faith is a Constitutionally [sic] guaranteed freedom that must never be compromised.” Paradoxically, atop the homepage of MRFF sits an absurdly jingoistic quote, credited to Mr. Weinstein: “When one proudly dons a U.S. Military [sic] uniform, there is only one religious symbol: the American flag. There is only one religious scripture: the American Constitution. Finally, there is only one religious faith: American patriotism.” So which is it? Do servicemen and servicewomen have a freedom to their religious faith? Or do they check that faith at the door when they put on a uniform?

I think that the incoherence of the MRFF is clearly reflective of a greater incoherence in our military and, unfortunately, in our culture. This is evident in the recent debates surrounding the legality of the HHS mandate and what types of institutions can qualify for an exemption; it is also evident in the recent controversy over the Arizona bill that sought to place certain types of commerce under the litigative umbrella of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. At what point does tolerance become intolerance? Ironically, the pursuit of perfect tolerance has uncovered the uncomfortable truth that tolerance cannot exist without intolerance, as the political philosophers John Rawls and Slavoj Žižek have both recognized. So where do we draw the line? How can we protect the free exercise of religion for everyone?

In the military, that line is not easy to find, but it also is not where Mr. Weinstein thinks it is. His assertion that a Bible verse on a personal whiteboard violates Air Force Instruction 1-1 is incredulous. The relevant prohibition in AFI 1-1 reads: “[Leaders] must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion.” In the present scenario, there is clearly no actual or apparent use of a position to promote any beliefs. Two sentences on a personal whiteboard located in a residential area could not possibly be construed as an abuse of authority or an official communiqué. I would like to think that Mr. Weinstein is motivated by a genuine desire to strengthen the United States military, but the fact that he would so publicly accuse this servicemember of violating his/her oath of office gives me good reason to question that assumption.

Mr. Weinstein is right to assert that political zealots have no place in a military uniform. We cannot be putting nuclear weapons into the hands of those who want to usher in the Apocalypse, nor should we give any lethal means to men and women who view their sober calling as crusade or jihad. Mr. Weinstein is certainly correct in thinking that political zealotry can descend from religious faith. But he is very wrong in assuming that faith is the source of all such radicalness, and even more wrong in assuming that all faith is the source of all such radicalness.

If Mr. Weinstein were a better student of the law, he would recognize that a cadet’s whiteboard does nothing to establish a state religion. If Mr. Weinstein were a better student of American history, he would recognize the positive role that religious faith has played in the character formation of the men and women in our military. If Mr. Weinstein were a better student of world history, he would understand the danger of building a military out of the “one religious faith” of patriotism.

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” as the saying goes. It isn’t true, of course. There are plenty of atheists in foxholes. But the cliché—like all clichés—contains a bit of truth: There are an awful lot of theists in foxholes. And for these people, their religious faith provides them with a ray of hope that we would be remiss to extinguish.

Zac Crippen is a 2012 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. He is currently studying International Relations at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. Follow him on Twitter. The views he expresses are his own, and not necessarily those of the United States Government or any constituent element thereof, including the United States Air Force Academy and the United States Air Force.