By William Fisher
"I realize this is the end of my Air Force career."
With these words, a chaplain at the Air Force Academy, for the first time, went public about a "systemic and pervasive" problem of religious proselytizing at the academy by evangelical Christians.
Capt. MeLinda Morton, 48, told The New York Times that a religious tolerance
program she helped create to deal with the problem was watered down after it was shown to officers, including the major general who is the Air Force's chief
Captain Morton said she had decided to step forward without the required authorization from the public affairs office because: "It's the Constitution, not just a nice rule we can follow or not follow. We all raised our hands and said we'd follow it, and that includes the First Amendment, that includes not using your power to advance your religious agenda."
Ironically, she told her story as an Air Force task force arrived at the academy in Colorado Springs to investigate accusations that officers, staff members and senior cadets inappropriately used their positions to push their evangelical Christian beliefs on Air Force cadets.
The academy began developing the tolerance program, called “Respecting the
Spiritual Values of all People”, or R.S.V.P., in response to a survey it took
last year. The survey found that more than half of the cadets said they had
heard derogatory religious comments or jokes at the academy.
Maj. Gen. Charles C. Baldwin, the chief of chaplains for the entire Air Force,
screened the R.S.V.P. program in October. Afterward he asked Chaplain Morton, "Why is it that the Christians never win?" in response to some of the
program's dramatizations of interactions between cadets of different religions.
She said: "It was obvious to us that he had missed the point of the entire
presentation here. It wasn't about winning or losing, some kind of cosmic
battle, it was about helping our folks at the Air Force Academy understand the
wonders of the whole range of religious experiences."
General Baldwin acknowledged making that comment and said he had objected because too many scenes in the original program had portrayed Christians at fault for excessive efforts at evangelizing.
"In every scenario, where cadet met cadet in the hall," he said, "every time it
was the Christian who had to apologize and say, 'I'm sorry, I wasn't sensitive
to your needs.' I said, that's not balanced, and the Christians will turn you
off if every time they were the ones who made the mistake."
General Baldwin said he asked that the Air Force cut out segments in the program on non-Christian religions like Buddhism, Judaism and Native American
spirituality, as well as a clip from "Schindler's List," the 1993 movie on the
However, Captain Morton it was "patently untrue" that all the segments portrayed Christians in error. She says that in most cases there was no religious identifier at all. "And I've got the film to prove it."
There are two important issues at play here. One is the proper constitutional boundary between church and state. The second is the fate of people who come forward to report wrongdoing – whistleblowers.
There are tens of millions of people in our country who demonstrably do not believe in any separation of church and state. These are same the people who corrupted their tsunami relief effort by handing out copies of the King James version of the Bible and religious tracts to victims, along with food, water and medicine. Who ranted in front of a Florida hospice as Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed. Who were cheerleaders as our Congress stepped in to interfere with that case, and as our President hurried back from Texas to sign a law that could have been a scene from ‘The Crucible’. Who are now so busy attacking our judges for ‘judicial activism’. Who would make ‘Trashing the Constitution’ the latest reality show.
And, as for whistleblowers, we shouldn’t be surprised that Chaplain Morton sees the end of her career in the Air Force. While we have laws that are supposed to protect whistleblowers from retaliation, they haven’t been doing all that well lately.
Hundreds of Federal employees have come forward to report waste, fraud, and abuse. Private sector employees have blown the whistle on the Halliburton Corporation and numerous other defense contractors. Public servants working for US security agencies have recently formed their own organization to protect whistleblowers in the FBI, the CIA, and the many other agencies dealing with intelligence and counter-terrorism. And it was members of the armed forces who revealed our treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan.
Many of these people have been subjected to retaliation: they have been fired, demoted, ostracized, transferred to other locations. The documents they need to prove their cases have been classified, thus transforming them into ‘state secrets’.
One of the best known of these whistleblowers is Sibel Edmonds, who reported wrongdoing by other employees at the FBI, and was fired for her trouble, despite a government report that confirmed the reason for her termination. When she tried to sue the agency, they classified the documents she needed, and her case was thrown out by the courts (now she’s going to ask the Supreme Court to hear it).
Chaplain Morton is but the latest in a long string of people who summon the courage to speak out – and are rewarded by losing their careers. And if the evangelical right wing of Christianity continues to blindly support the governmental power structure, she won’t be the last.
About the author:
William Fisher is a correspondent for InterPress News Service. He has managed economic development programs for the US State Department and USAID in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration.
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