Fall Newsletter 2010

Fostering Religious Respect at the U.S. Air Force Academy

Rev. Gaddy and Chaplain Dan Brantingham
Photo Credit: Chaplain Zeb Beck

In mid-November, Rev. Gaddy and I had the privilege of attending a conference on religious respect at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Rev. Gaddy as a participant and I as an observer. We were part of a diverse group of invitees from a variety of perspectives on religion and religious freedom, most of whom represent chaplain-endorsing organizations. One of the truly notable things about the group assembled by the Academy was that, for the first time, a military atheist and an Earth-Centered spirituality group were included. The task at hand was to provide the Academy with feedback on its soon-to-be implemented program for cadets on religious respect. We also received an inside look at the oft-discussed (and in the past deeply troubled) religious climate at the Academy and were able to provide insight into maintaining a climate of respect there more broadly. The conversations were candid and productive and both Rev. Gaddy and I came away from the conference encouraged by what we saw and eager to track the Academy’s follow-up on helpful recommendations.

 

 

At the end of the conference, the attendees participated in a press conference to share with the public what was discussed and their findings from their two days at the Academy. Check out the clip above to hear what Rev. Gaddy had to say!

The Air Force Academy Chapel
What would a trip to the U.S. Air Force Academy be without a tour of its historical landmark? The breathtaking Cadet Chapel serves as a powerful metaphor for inclusion and understanding – every faith group at the Academy, from the large variety of Protestant denominations to the small group of Buddhist cadets, has a space within the soaring building and the outdoor worship space for the Earth-Centered spiritual groups is just up the hill.

We began the two-day conference with a comprehensive overview of the existing religious respect training for cadets at the Academy, official Department of Defense and Air Force policy and guidance and the results of the recently-released Climate Survey. This portion of the conference invited the attendees to ask questions and get on the same page, before providing recommendations. During this process, we were also able to meet with members of the Cadet Interfaith Council, a group of cadets who represent all of the faith groups at the Academy and serve as a sort of advisory board to both help educate other cadets and help the chaplain corps tackle religious respect issues that arise. 

 

After receiving our background briefing, we served as guinea pigs for the new training program that will contain different components for each class of cadets with each level of education building upon the one before it. By the time they graduate, the cadets will have received a comprehensive education of what the religion clauses of the First Amendment allow and restrict and what their rights and responsibilities are as cadets and as future officers. They will also have benefited from opportunities to explore scenarios based on actual incidents, learn from one another’s beliefs and model and participate in civil dialogue. In Rev. Gaddy’s assessment, the program laid out for us was stunning in its potential, though he reminded the officers in charge that the program will only be as good and helpful as its thorough and effective implementation.

 

So why is it so important that the cadets learn about religious freedom and religious respect? The reasons are twofold. First, the Academy is itself a university and four-year home to the cadets. It is important that they have the opportunity to practice their faiths, to feel free from proselytizing or pressure to practice a particular religion and to explore other religions should they so choose; similar to any college campus, though a federally-funded one such as a service academy does have restrictions.

 

Second, upon graduation, the cadets become officers of the U.S. Air Force, who will be leading their own diverse units. It is crucial that, as officers, they have the tools necessary to resolve situations that may arise, from demonstrations of religious intolerance in their units, to working with the chaplain corps, to accommodating the needs of religiously observant servicemen and women. They are the future leaders of the Air Force and have the power to set a tone of civility, understanding and inclusion.

 

One thing that was clear throughout the conference is that the leadership of the Academy is committed to fostering a climate of religious respect and training future Air Force commanders to carry that climate of respect with them throughout their careers. The widespread issues of religious intolerance and proselytizing at the Academy that made headlines in 2005 are not indicative of the current climate. This fact was noted by several experts at the conference who were part of a team brought into the Academy to deal with the situation at that time. While a history such as the Academy’s on this issue cannot be ignored, the conference attendees seemed in agreement that it is time for the Academy to emerge from the shadow cast by the incidents of 2005, and for the public to be given the opportunity to recognize that the situation has changed for the better. 

 

The process of fostering and maintaining a climate of mutual religious respect and understanding is just that, a process, as new cadets enter the Academy each year and new challenges will certainly arise. And as the recent Climate Survey shows, there are still instances of intolerance to be addressed. But it seems that those at the Academy who are responsible for tackling these challenges have the best of intentions and have the right tools to do so; and they are not afraid to develop new programs and ask for assistance when necessary. Interfaith Alliance looks forward to this being the beginning of a productive relationship with the Academy and its leadership and to doing our part to help foster religious respect there, as well as in the military more broadly.