Wednesday, November 17, 2010

At The Air Force Academy, It's Not Just Cadets Who Get Hazed...

Caption: The U.S. Air Force Academy's most recognizable building is the Cadet Chapel. Too bad it wasn't the physics lab...

Image credit: U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia

One of the more pernicious problems that non-believers and other religious minorities have faced in the military is the high level of harassment that has been going on at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). A year ago, the USAFA conducted a survey among its cadets:
USAFA has been the target of years of allegations of misconduct from cadets, faculty, graduates, and outside watchdog organizations. The 2009 biennial climate survey was kept from public release until October 2010, and Academy officials have attempted to minimize real problems especially in the area of religious respect. 41% of respondents indicated they had been targeted for discrimination and 33 cadets indicated they fear for their safety.

Nontheists to Contribute to Religious Respect Training Development at the Air Force Academy
As that article goes on to note, one of the groups that have brought this problem to the world's attention has been the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). This organization was also responsible for publicizing the faith based suicide-prevention program that the Air Force was trying to peddle in reaction to the high rate of suicides among active and reserve military since the start of the Iraq War. That particular bit of hokum could have cost many soldiers' lives, if it hadn't been exposed to the light of day.

Yet, now that the USAFA has decided to have a conference to try to change the attitudes of cadets toward religious diversity, they neglected to invite the MRFF. The Air Force Academy paper describes the objectives of the conference:
Caption: Rabbi Barry Baron and Jason Torpy talk during a break at the 2010 Religious Respect Conference at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Nov. 16, 2010.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force [from article]

Leaders from national Christian, Jewish, Freethinker, Earth-Centered and interfaith religious organizations met at the Air Force Academy Monday and Tuesday to discuss how the Academy can best train cadets to respect other faiths, and how to continue to foster an environment that encourages accommodation of religious practices.

Joining them were senior Air Force leaders and chaplains, including Lt. Gen. Richard Newton III, the Air Force director of manpower and personnel, Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, Chaplain (Col.) Jimmy Browning, deputy commandant of the Air Force Chaplain Corps College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., and four members of the Academy's Cadet Interfaith Council.

Academy holds religious respect conference
Unfortunately, MRFF is one of the more important potential attendees. They represent people of all religious convictions in matters of discrimination in the service. MRFF claims, for instance, that 96% of their "clients" are Christians. As Truthout notes:
Among the current MRFF clients is a USAFA faculty member who has also remained anonymous for his safety. The conference is a "travesty," he said. "I'm very disappointed that they would, at this time, not invite [the MRFF] ... Why is it that a big supporter of religious freedom in the military is not here?"

The faculty member said he has experienced religious oppression during his time at USAFA, being subject to "commander-directed prayers before mandatory dining functions or mandatory military functions" such as briefings. The conference is "promoting respect, but I don't think they'll be discussing removal of religious influences from the military," he said. The MRFF are "the ones who get feedback from us. These people who are scared to speak to their leadership, they're not going to be the ones going to this respect conference. That's who they don't trust in the first place."

Air Force Academy Excludes Group That Exposed Proselytizing of Military Personnel From "Religious Respect" Conference
It's a bit like Major League Baseball deciding to have a conference about changing the rules of the game without inviting the umpires. The people most familiar with how things are working now won't be there.

Sadly, at this point nothing much can be done about this conference. It's important to keep in mind, though, that the USAFA will bear watching. I don't think the refusal to invite the MRFF is necessarily a sign that the leadership don't want to fix things. What I suspect is that the MRFF has been an irritant, and high-ranking military officers don't deal well with irritants.

Even so, the Freethinkers, who were invited to the conference, are hopeful:
The conference is focused specifically on "religious respect training" that MAAF has already reviewed presented back to the Academy for feedback. The training had consistent and inclusive references to nontheists and addressed the requirement that leaders express no religious bias in their discussions. Fundamental changes needed include a need to recognize the establishment clause as well as the free exercise clause of the 1st Amendment. Leaders cannot pick and choose from the Constitution. Secondly, the training currently includes situations for the cadets to discuss but limited guidance on the acceptable and unacceptable responses.

Without explicit guidance from Academy leadership to cadets, cadets are likely to leave training with reinforced bad behavior. These changes, presented publicly in advance of the conference at the MAAF website, should help jump-start the discussion to ensure the Conference itself provides the opportunity for substantive and detailed discussion.

Nontheists to Contribute to Religious Respect Training Development at the Air Force Academy
The military needs to get better on this issue. That's particularly true when it's involved in wars in countries that predominately have different religious beliefs from most servicemembers. Not inviting the MRFF to a conference like this lessens the chances that they will get it right.


One Fly said...

El Paso county after a long and close count denied banning medical marijuana dispensaries.

Maybe there will eventally be a trickle down to mellow out some of these crazy's.

Naw-not a chance.

Cujo359 said...

I don't think cadets are even allowed to use alcohol. In any case, they aren't going to change until their leadership sees this as the problem it is. They're making some of the right noises, but whether it translates to action remains to be seen.

One Fly said...

As you probably well know the military has been incorporating religion into their environment but it's particularity bad at the AF Academy.

Paul Sunstone said...

The fundies set out years and years ago to infiltrate the Academy. By now, they are more deeply rooted there than most of us know. It will not be an easy job restoring sanity.

Cujo359 said...

I think a careful reading of the link on Army suicides will show that the relationship between religion and the military is a problematic one, One Fly. Whether it's on the rise generally or not, I can't say, but it's there. There are no real equivalents of chaplains for non-believers in the service.

Cujo359 said...

The problem's been brewing for some time, Paul. The previous Administration's emphasis on god-bothering probably made things much worse, at least for anyone who was trying to fix the problem within the military.

Paul Sunstone said...

Some years ago, the local alternative newspaper here in Colorado Springs carried a story linking the fundamentalist infiltration of the Academy to James Dobson's Focus on the Family. That is, they might not have been the only folks behind it, but they were among those behind it.

Anonymous said...

View updates and additional commentary at the MAAF website: