A report conducted by students and faculty from the Yale Divinity School found that military chaplains at the U.S. Air Force Academy have created an environment strongly influenced by Protestant evangelism during basic training.
The report, based on one week of basic training observed by Divinity School professor Kristen Leslie and six divinity students in 2004 and obtained by the Associated Press, describes incidents of evangelical themes in training, as well as one chaplain who instructed cadets during a religious service to proselytize to their non-Christian peers. Leslie and the students visited basic training at the request of the Chaplain Corps because of complaints about religious intolerance at the academy.
Academy spokesman Johnny Whitaker said the report added to the Academy’s knowledge about religious sensitivity within the school. The Divinity School consultants were contacted after several incidents raised concern within the Academy about religious intolerance, Whitaker said.
“We reach out to nationally noted experts and say, ‘Tell us how we’re doing, tell us what you think,'” Whitaker said. “That keeps us from being tainted with that military myopic viewpoint.”
Whitaker said the Academy is addressing allegations of intolerance, including those raised by the Yale team, and last month implemented a new program of religious education called Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People.
Leslie said the team of consultants saw three significant problems at basic training: gender bias, “evangelical themes” in training and a chaplain’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric at a worship service. The pluralistic environment of the Academy was disrupted by a chaplain who told worshipers at a Protestant service that non-Christians would “burn in the fires of hell” if they were not converted, Leslie said.
“The chaplain, who was preaching to about 600 of these cadets, commissioned the cadets to go back to their bunks and proselytize to non-Christian members,” she said.
Whitaker said the chaplain was speaking at a religious service to a group of cadets who chose to be there and may have shared the chaplain’s religious beliefs.
“It was a worship service,” he said. “It was not a random group of cadets.”
Leslie said the Academy provides strong counseling programs for new cadets dealing with the military environment and life away from home for the first time, but there is a “very strong Christian evangelical pressure” on students outside of religious services.
“Part of the problem with it is that it wasn’t questioned by everybody,” she said. “That it wasn’t questioned suggests that there’s a tacit agreement that it’s OK.”
Cadets, faculty and staff at the Academy are afraid to come forward with accusations of intolerance, Leslie said, but parents of students and alumni have approached her asking for help. She said Mikey Weinstein and his son Curtis, who described anti-Semitism at the Academy to ABC News in February, are an exception for their willingness to speak out about religious pressure Curtis has experienced.
“The cadets are afraid that their careers will end,” she said. “They’re the ones with the least amount of power in the situation.”
Leslie said military officers, including military chaplains, could also jeopardize their careers or risk deployment by coming forward. But Whitaker said after the Academy faced a series of accusations of sexual assault in 2003, it is trying to create an environment that encourages people to come forward with complaints. Deployment cannot be used as a threat, he said.
“We encourage you to come forward if you think you’ve been wronged,” Whitaker said. “The person who takes action against somebody who’s going to come forward is probably going to be in more trouble … We’re seeing more and more that cadets and staff and faculty are willing to step forward.”