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February 20, 2009

USAF Officer: "Fundamentalist Christian Influence Ever Present"

Mr. Weinstein,

I first off wanted to thank you and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation for all of your hard work fighting for the rights of every day military members. I know it's not an easy job, as I've seen your courageous cause tarred and feathered in a number of conservative media outlets. I wanted to express to you my disappointment in the actions (or inaction) of a new administration that I actively supported. Before I do that I should introduce myself.

I am a [rank withheld] in the United States Air Force, graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, and son of an Air Force officer. I was raised in a Catholic household, and while I retain some of those fundamental values I consider myself to be somewhat non-practicing, and I certainly do not let my religious beliefs ever come into play in the workplace. And it's not just for the sake of "political correctness". Any good officer knows that trying to inject religious teachings into our diverse military is detrimental to morale and good order and discipline. Demanding responsibility and an adherence to the Air Force Core Values is more than enough. Yet I'm astonished to see that many in our profession do not feel the same way. Let me assure you that a fundamentalist Christian influence is ever present in our Air Force, whether I witness it personally or I hear stories from other Air Force members. Whenever I bear witness to these instances it's always disappointing, and sometimes downright uncomfortable. In fact, often it can be terrifying.

I couldn't hope to remember every incident and record it here, but I'll try and give a few examples that will paint the picture of the kind of atmosphere that is being created in our air force.

When I came into basic training at the US Air Force Academy we went through a processing line. Now most of basic training is a blur, but I remember standing at strict attention, staring straight ahead, and feeling the cool air on my newly shorn head. Basic training being what it is, we were surrounded by steely-eyed upperclassmen, all screaming so loud we could barely hear ourselves think. We filed through the chaplain station to get our dog tags made. A cadet who would later become my friend was standing right in front of me, and I heard the exchange between him and the chaplain as the chaplain asked what religion he wanted stamped on his dog tags.

"None, sir, I'm not religious"

The chaplain could have simply complied, or nicely asked the cadet to explain himself further . Instead he asked, "Well son, what religion were you raised with?"

"Catholic, sir."

"Well then that's what we'll put" replied the chaplain.

With every fiber of my being I wanted to protest for him but I knew that basic training was about survival, and the last thing anyone wants is to be singled out. The cadet in front of me stepped aside and silently marched to the next station of the in-processing line.

That was my first day in the Air Force.

Then there was the first day of relaxation in basic training. After what seemed an interminable length of time (weeks?) spent bracing our backs, reciting memorized Air Force knowledge, low-crawling through dirt, doing rifle runs, and being scrutinized by our cadre we were finally given a few hours to relax, and act like normal human beings. This was Chaplain's Day, and we had to sit on logs in Jack's Valley and listen to some sort of Christian presentation I barely remember. I wouldn't ever attend something like this under normal circumstances, but I wasn't going to miss my one opportunity to sit normally, and speak freely with my classmates.

From that time I've witnessed many incidents that amounted to what seemed to be a subtle endorsement of Christianity: Flyers for Passion of the Christ in the Academy cafeteria hall on every table, an Academy hosted lecture from an intelligent design proponent (with no counter-presentation from a classical evolutionist to give balance), stories of commanders trying to push strict Christian beliefs on my fellow officers' units, Christian rock concerts hosted on Air Force bases, posters with prayers on the walls, and constant mandatory events with group prayers-and the prayers are almost always Christian. There are too many to list.

To the untrained eye, each of these incidents, examined in a vacuum, may seem innocuous. Yet, when you add everything up, and weave it into the fabric of everyday life, what you have is an atmosphere where Christians are made to feel very welcome, and every non-Christian, and particularly mainline Christians (non-evangelical fundamentalist), has to just put up and shut up. And this is where the real tragedy lies. I've met more than one young, bright college student who was considering joining the military but decided the culture didn't seem very open to a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a Humanist. Thousands of the smartest young people in America avoid military service as a result of the exclusionary atmosphere created by all the little Christian endorsements. Many more young officers, and some troops who've come to me, are leaving the military. There's always a variety of reasons a person decides to make such a change in their life, but I've often heard the phrase "too conservative", and "too Christian" enter into the equation. Young, thoughtful, intelligent non-Christians simply don't feel as if they belong. And the Air Force will suffer the consequences in the form of a sort of "brain drain."

Furthermore, this coupling of Christian and military is well-known outside of military circles, and I can imagine knowledge of this only emboldens enemies who wish to cast the U.S. presence in the Middle East as a modern Crusade, in order to recruit more violent Muslim extremists.

As someone raised in a Christian household where we were taught never to impose our religion on others this is distressing. And as someone who has lived with the Air Force my entire life, it's disappointing. Adding to that disappointment is the lack of action I've seen from the new administration. I actively supported (off-duty of course)President Obama's candidacy, and I hoped that as part of the change he was bringing to so many areas of our government he would give some attention to the religious coercion and abuse of power in our military. I'm holding out hope that he simply has a lot on his plate and will get to us eventually, but after his choice of pastor for the inauguration, among other things, I must say I'm worried. Still, I believe the best chance we've had in decades is during this administration, and I thank you for fighting for all of us who simply want an atmosphere of openness, equality, and respect in our military.

[name, rank, and military unit withheld]


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