Maj Steve Lewis

Your organization needs to realize that having any religious book, no matter the denomination, is the right of the individual. What ill effect does it have? Why can’t Maj Lewis read the bible at his desk? According to our religious freedom training, a CBT required annually, it is not a broach of “regulations” as you put it. It’s the right of all service members to have access to spiritual scripture whenever they need.

In a horrible time for the Air Force, where there are more and more suicides everyday, asking anyone not to have their choice of scripture at the ready is ridiculous. Pushing for punishment on an individual based on their religion is preposterous.

Tell your “clients” to grow up and respect others differences and use the chain of command next time.

(name withheld)

Response from Sr. Active Duty Military Officer and MRFF Supporter

Dear (name withheld), thanks for the note to the MRFF.  I appreciate your concern and (just as important) your civil tone.  I occasionally answer e-mails for the MRFF and was asked to take on yours.  So, here goes…  Let’s start with some bonafides.  I’m a USAFA grad who’s served on active duty more than 30 years.  If you know anything about the military, you can make a pretty close guess as to my rank.  I am currently on active duty..  I have two other immediate family members that are service academy grads and EVERY adult male in my family AND my wife’s family have served in the military since World War I (at least).  I have at least two distant relatives that were at Valley Forge.  Oh, and I’m also atheist and many of those referred to above are, too.  I can’t speak for those at Valley Forge, though.
I agree with you that the Air Force is facing hard times and suicide is a very real problem among our veterans.  I also think that, for some, religious faith can be helpful in facing this challenge.  I’ve seen suicide first hand, too, losing close friends to it.  Some have been religious, others not.  I’ve seen zero correlation between faith and suicide myself.
Let me explain why an officer, command, or organization should not have a Bible prominently displayed in a work area–as the lone available religious text, moreover one that is open to a specific page with highlighted passages.  This will take a few steps I’m afraid, so please be patient.
1.  Every member of the military has the right to have religious and atheist texts in their office–I firmly believe that.  They also have the right to consult those texts during their free-time.  Likewise, I’m not opposed to a base library or even a large organization having a library that includes a BROAD range of texts that can be accessed (without accountability when borrowing) by members of the organization–say in the lobby of the chaplains’ offices.
2.  However, because the hierarchical nature of the military, in which EVERYONE is immersed in power relationships amongst commanders, supervisors, subordinates, etc.  Careers are made and lost in this environment often based upon subtle judgments of merit, skill, relationships, and (as in the civilian world) occasional bias.
3.  We’d like to think–and try to promote–an Air Force where all are judged based upon their performance–not their skin color, gender, sexual preference, or how or if they choose to worship.  I think this is a good thing and should be our ideal.
Now, let’s look at a hypothetical case study and suppose that I was an “evangelical atheist” (I’m not–I’m actually in a fairly shallow closet)  It’s certainly okay to have some books by Sam Harris on my shelf, but what if you were a devout Christian, working for me, and you came in for counseling or to receive direction and my desk was covered with Sam Harris’s books, many open to passages explaining why religion is a dangerous myth, highlighted in optic yellow, and I had a framed print on my wall citing Karl Marx “Religion is the Opiate of the Masses.”  How would you feel?  Might you think that it’s at least a POSSIBILITY that, if I knew your beliefs (Christian) that I might be biased against you and choose to take other subordinate atheists under my wing?  What if I asked you about your beliefs?  Would you honestly answer me?  
Now, if you knew that I’d known others in the organization for a long time and made a point of mentioning at the water cooler that we’d ALL had a GREAT time at last night’s Freethinkers’ Meeting, how would you feel?  Would you take the chance of using the chain-of-command to report me if you thought there was a decent possibility that they, too, might be atheists?
This isn’t just a hypothetical for many in our military–but the roles are almost always reversed completely.  It’s what atheist and non-Christians (or even ‘not the right type of Christians’) live with every day when their commanders ask them what they did on Sunday.  “How was church?  Would your wife like to join mine for a Wednesday Bible study?” Or they leave a Bible open to face EVERYONE that comes in to see them and sits across the desk from them, highlighted passages included.  
Can’t you see how that might create an environment where bias or the perception of bias, is a real threat to good order, discipline, accomplishing the mission, and objective evaluation of performance?  I KNOW that’s a problem because I’ve lived it.  My sons’ experienced it in their military lives, too–and it’s a primary reason they’ve separated from the military.
So, the good major at Schriever has every right to have a Bible in his office and to read it during his free time.  He has the right to go to the church of his choice off-duty whenever he wants.  BUT, the moment someone walks in his office, the book closes and goes back on the shelf.  And, his religious beliefs remain inside him, his own beliefs, not expressed or imposed.
I have no religious or anti-religious books of ANY kind in my office.  I do not discuss religion, politics, or sex in my office and I do not allow my subordinates to do so either.  I have MANY Christians working for me (I think) and, since several have been working for me for over a decade, I think they like it.  I respect them and allow them to have their private life as they do me.
So, no, the MRFF will NOT tell their clients (of which I was one of the very first) to shut up and color, to tolerate the majority at the expense of their minority rights.  Some will use the chain, but many simply cannot–even at my senior rank, I can’t always depend on my chain in this regard.  If I can’t, then what chance does a lieutenant or staff sergeant have?  Not much.
Again, thanks for your note.  Sleep soundly tonight knowing that there are thousands of us atheists (some in foxholes!) defending your right to worship and have your own choice of mythology on your bookshelf.  You’re very welcome.

Sr. Active Duty Military Officer

As my wife points out of often, my powers of deduction tend to get overpowered by my Irish genetics when I get emotional (she has a masters in psychology but found out first-hand that Freud was right). I’m glad I went in with a civil tone and appreciate the depth of your response.
I too have seen extreme Christian reactions and better favor for those of the same religion while in the military. A little about me, since I got 3 generations of explanation from you. I’m a retired SNCO and a DAF civilian with a combined 26 years of service. While on AD, I’ve resided in more than one Muslim state for an extended period of time and know all too well how much a deployment bag weighs.
I have worked for nearly every religious denomination (including Christian, Muslim, Wiccan, Atheist). I am, at best, an agnostic. I have read the bible many times, the Koran once (not an easy read), and the Satanic Bible (thanks to my roommate in Germany and the pay of a 1-striper I had some extra time). The point is, I’m not offended by the specifics.
I’m sure there is more to this than a book. I hope so at least. This is why I chose to contact your organization. Mainstream media uses “news” as hooks and what I read off of Fox News eluded to the open bible on the desk being the reason for potential punishment. If it were more, like forcing views or punishing for religious reasons (like my ex-wife getting a 4 EPR for getting pregnant out of wedlock and her Captain reasoning it as “blasphemous”). That would be understandable.
However, the baseline religious training for AF members needs to be bolstered. It’s a touchy subject that we as AF professionals need to reassess as a whole. Unfortunately, based on the article, it has been spun as an attack by your organization against an allowed practice; and one that is critical to the mental wellbeing of the majority of military members.
Although you may not have been able to quantify suicide in a religious tone, religion can and does effect mental well being. I’m not saying an atheist is more apt to commuting suicide, but merely stating for those of faith, mental strength can be found via that faith. Taking away the right to read scripture in ones downtime (at work, in this case) would negate not only this Majors ability, but every Airman’s ability, to do so in the future. My fear is that AF policy change is usually a forced push that effects everyone. And, although I don’t choose to read the bible at my desk, I would never want to infringe on my fellow Airmen’s right to do so.
As to your direct questions, I have never been threatened by knowledge. Not by a bible, nor by a Koran. I have had supervisors who have referenced both in front of me. I have always been a “mind speaker”, so I would not have issue with questions no matter what literature you have out. This shows how shallow the military mindset has become. If you are threatened by passages, I would hate to see how you act in a foxhole in the Middle East. The chain-of-command is there for a reason, and it has worked for hundreds of years. It is my responsibility to inform my supervisor that I’m going up the chain with my concerns and voice my thoughts/feelings to the next person. This is thoroughly tonight throughout basic training.
I’m glad I didn’t use “shut up and color” in my message, but I wasn’t eluding to that. My message would be of acceptance and realization that only if that book is thrown at me, it can’t hurt me. If there is an issue, go to the next layer of leadership and explain why you’re uncomfortable about it. We are constantly taught tolerance, because we are a profession of arms. Intolerance forces us to resent our differences, instead of finding out how best to use our differences to better serve our country.
Thank you so very much for the response, I’m sure you’re entirely too busy to deal with the backlash you’ve received.
(name withheld)

 Response from Sr. Active Duty Military Officer and  MRFF Supporter(name withheld), thank you for your note and concern about our Air Force men and women. Our current mental health problem is severe and I trust that all the services are working hard to alleviate this problem.

Please allow me a somewhat lengthy take, on your question of, “… what ill effect does it have?”

When I was stationed at (base and country withheld), at HQs (command withheld), as a Senior Officer and (position withheld), we had a boss, a 1-Star General, who kept a Bible prominently displayed on his desk, in direct violation of the United States Constitution and the oath he himself took.

I’m a Militant Atheist, which means I defend, with vigor and passion, all those who have others forcing their religion upon them, so it was disturbing to see this, every time I went into the Boss’s office.  As a result, I would become distracted, by this overt display of religious exceptionalism, and my attention would quickly shift to questioning the true motivation of his guidance and orders, and the influence of religion on his military decision-making process. That was quickly followed with thoughts about what actions I might need to take, to protect my troops, from what appeared to be a leader, true or not, that puts his brand of religion first, and may then discriminate against those who don’t share the same beliefs as him.  Believe it or not, what some would say is a “harmless display,” can result in some dangerous intended or unintended consequences.

I’m sure my boss was aware of my atheism, because I refused to attend ANY optional event where the Chaplain was present and was there to make some sort of prayer to the attendees.  As a result, I missed numerous events, such as monthly, quarterly, or annual awards ceremonies and banquets.  I did explain, to my award nominees, in advance, that I didn’t agree with the religious presence at the event. I told them, that while I lauded their accomplishments, by writing their award packages and supported them financially, by paying for the meal they would eat at the event, I could not, in good conscience, attend an event that violates the Constitution, by clearly favoring one religion over another and establishing that religion as the norm for our command and de facto, our Air Force.

My troops understood my rationale and decision, to not attend these events, because I was open and honest with them.  In fact, many of my division were either atheist or agnostic and not afraid to say so, because they were confident that I would fairly grade believers and non-believers alike, by their performance and production, and not by their religious or non-religious affiliation.

I always asked myself why I should have to feel excluded, in the name of religion, when I’m serving in a secular military, as an extension of a secular government, and in a country that was founded on secular principles.  This in itself shows how wrong and spineless our Air Force is, by not taking immediate action to fix this obvious Constitutional violation. The Chaplains and their praises of religion, which were almost exclusively to the, “Lord Jesus Christ,” have no requirement or purpose, at these events, and all they accomplish is to alienate believers and non-believers, alike.

Most disturbing, was what I witnessed during a unit Thanksgiving luncheon, with the families of our military members in attendance. We were treated to a lengthy prayer, more like a sermon, by this 1-Star General, about how God is “real, good and we’d best get in step.”  If I said that his passionate display was uncomfortable, it would be a severe understatement.  The silence, immediately afterwards, was deafening.  It was totally a display, of Christian arrogance, upon a captive audience, who had no recourse, but to sit there and take it as the price for their turkey lunch. I hadn’t learned about the MRFF yet, and they would have been my first call, after that event.

The detractors who say, “He was just professing his faith (or reading his Bible), what is the harm in that?” simply don’t understand the military environment.  First off, it is against military regulations (to do that at work) and that should be enough to prevent these occurrences from even happening. Next, this religious exceptionalism can quickly damage good order and discipline, the foundation of our military.  Perception is also reality and when the subordinates see that the Boss is openly professing a faith and allegiance to something that they don’t, these subordinates will begin to question the motivation of that leader’s guidance and orders and may then live in fear, justified or not, of negative performance reports, reprisal and out-right retaliation, if they don’t profess the same.  Again, perception is reality, in our world, and this can tear a unit apart and critically damage their performance and operational capability.

Now, for the Christian apologists out there. Military leaders, who are Christian Dominionists, Religious Extremists, Non-Religious, and anything in-between, can easily, disguise their disdain for their subordinate’s religious or non-religious affiliation, in carefully worded performance reports.  Words mean everything in the military and any fundamentalist, in a leadership position, can torch a career, in a heartbeat, with zero fear of reprisal.  This lack of accountability is why extremist leaders are so dangerous and why there needs to be an uncompromising separation between church and state, in not only our military, but in our schools and government, both which influence the military’s education, training and regulations.

Fortunately, I was a Senior Officer l and I knew there was nothing my boss could do about my non-belief, on my performance report or otherwise, that would affect my current rank or my impending retirement, at that same rank, so I could easily avoid the situations that disregarded all Constitutional-sense.

But what about those lower-ranking service members who didn’t have my security and couldn’t avoid the numerous situations, where they were openly proselytized to, against their will?  How is that fair?  Why should they be subjugated to this religious extremism and not be able to defend themselves, without fear of reprisal and damage to their careers?

The religious extremists, in our military, are bullies and they prey on those who can’t fight back and the basic tenants of the military, such as rank structure, chain of command and unquestioned obedience to orders, gives them plenty of opportunities and victims.

This is why the MRFF exists and why their mission is so critical.  The MRFF serves and protects our troops in uniform and our DoD Civilians.  The MRFF gives them a powerful voice, a voice of action, and a voice of reason and sanity, to fight the extremists,  when their own voice will  get them in trouble for standing up for the Constitution, which,  they swore/or affirmed, to defend, against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

All the best,

A Retired Senior Military Officer





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1 Comment

  1. Bill Thompson

    Interesting to see the promotions of Maj Lewis to Lt Col, the move of Col Johnson to AFSPC to be the lead Reserve Advisor, and Col Feltman for his nomination to General. Obviously the Air Force continues to move in a sole direction.

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