The Air Force Academy's force-fed evangelism

Published May 29, 2005

In my book, true heroism is defined by those who talk truth to power even to their own detriment. It includes people like Sherron Watkins, the former Enron vice president who blew the whistle on the financial manipulations that hid the company's crushing debt. (Go see the movie Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room for all the gory details.)

Watkins has become famous for her rectitude, but rarely do such acts lead to public accolades. Bad endings for the truth sayer are far more likely.

Capt. MeLinda Morton is a prime example. A chaplain at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Morton has been trying her mightiest to end the force-fed evangelism that is rampant on campus. Rather than thanks, her outspoken defense of the Constitution has gotten her booted from her job and a one-way ticket to exile in Japan - known as "reassignment" in military speak.

Her fight against proselytizing is taking place in Colorado Springs - control central for the most radical elements of the Christian Right. James "tolerance is a homosexual plot" Dobson's Focus on the Family is based there - a concern so large that there is no need to use a street address on a letter. Also nearby is the Officers' Christian Fellowship, an organization whose express purpose is to create "ambassadors for Christ in uniform." Its slogan is: "Christian Officers Exercising Biblical Leadership to Raise up a Godly Military." (That's funny, the Taliban say something very similar.)

There is significant cross-pollination between the local evangelical groups and the Academy, to a point where cadets are reportedly cajoled, harangued and even bullied into being "saved."

Mikey Weinstein, an attorney in Albuquerque, N.M., has been collecting complaints of this nature for more than a year and says he has about 150 of them. Weinstein is a graduate of the Academy, as is his elder son. But when his youngest son, who is a member of the class of 2007, was called a "f--- Jew" and taunted as a Christ killer, Weinstein got involved.

"The Air Force Academy is suffering from a constitutional disease," Weinstein said. "They are trying to tell people whose God is best." He said his complaints have received little more than lip-service.

"I love and cherish the Academy," he said, "but it's been overtaken by the evangelical right."

Morton, a 48-year-old Lutheran minister, has seen this up close over the past 2 1/2 years. She says the academy is sending cadets the message that adopting Christian conservative evangelical values is key to their success at the school.

"There's nothing wrong with people reaching out to cadets," Morton said. "But when the purpose is to proselytize and make the military into a godly force, then that's inappropriate."

Fisher DeBerry, the Academy's head football coach, exemplifies the explicit sectarianism on campus. Two weeks after the academy had ostensibly begun religious sensitivity training, DeBerry posted a banner in the football locker room that read: "I am a Christian first and last *** I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."

Challenging authority is difficult in any institution, but it's career suicide within a military structure that maintains a strict hierarchy in which the way to advance is to parrot what those above you say. Morton, who was executive officer of the 16 chaplains, knew what she was risking when she started criticizing the religiously freighted climate and repudiating the Academy's official stance that remedial steps were being taken.

Since coming forward, Morton has been removed from her administrative position and has orders to transfer to Okinawa by the end of July. The Academy has said in news reports that the posting is a routine reassignment. (It will no longer discuss her case with the media.) Morton says the move is to get rid of her.

"I spent 2 1/2 years putting in 16-hour days," Morton said. "Now I have no specific duties."

The recent publicity over the religious atmosphere has put pressure on the Pentagon. Forty-five members of Congress joined a letter this month telling the Air Force, in effect, "we're watching." A Pentagon task force was dispatched to investigate the allegations. But the group didn't even bother to contact Weinstein (who calls it a "mask force.") As to Morton, she said the group spoke with her just hours before briefing the Air Force's acting secretary - giving it no time to investigate her claims.

It looks like a classic whitewash in the making.

The Academy has just recently emerged from a scandal over the insensitive way the rapes of female cadets were handled. Now it's accused of conversion by intimidation. The leadership either has the sense of a flea or is seeking to dissuade women and non-evangelicals from attending the Academy. I wonder which?