Faith and Tolerance at the Air Force Academy
As a longtime professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I know I can't keep politics out of my job. No matter how hard I try, political winds breach the ivory tower and chill my classroom.
But with the national spotlight upon us, the winds threaten to become a hurricane. If that happens, all possibility of a rational approach to ensuring religious tolerance on the campus will disappear.
Recent allegations that the academy does not respect religious differences and encourages Christian cadets to proselytize classmates have stirred controversy around the country. Civil-liberties groups have demanded action. An Air Force report has found that the academy needs to do more to promote religious tolerance (although it has found no overt discrimination against religious minority groups). The debate has even reached Congress, where members have clashed over whether to condemn a climate of intolerance on the campus, or to dismiss the problem as mere "political correctness."
The battle lines are being drawn, and I know what team I'm supposed to play for. I am a Jew. I received the National Civil Liberties Award from the American Civil Liberties Union for taking on cultural conservatives, fighting Internet censorship, and helping persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the Communications Decency Act. I'm expected to fight the evil Religious Right, whose members want to take over the government and turn America into a Christian nation. Don't I know that they've infiltrated the military? Can't I see the sinister cover-up they're conducting?
People on the other side are eager to do battle for God and country, to fight for the right to be who they are, and to oppose godless liberals who demand an end to religious expression in America. Can't I see that they're engaged in a life-and-death struggle for everything that is good and right?
Thus one side attacks the academy for promoting faith, the other for banning it. One wants no establishment of religion, the other free exercise thereof. Caught in the middle are those of us charged with the well-being of the students in our care.
Yes, we have problems with religious intolerance at the academy. We have problems with religious intolerance in America. Decisions to place religious symbols in prominent public places provoke bitter confrontations. The religious beliefs of our commander in chief are a source of inspiration to some, an object of scorn to others. If religion sets American adults at each other's throats, is it any wonder our youth have trouble with it?
We who teach at the Air Force Academy face extraordinary challenges. Our student body possesses a geographical diversity most universities would envy. But many of our cadets come from small towns with homogeneous populations, and they have never been exposed to a faith tradition outside their own. When Christianity is all you know, and when you have been taught to bear witness to the Truth ever since you could walk into church, some overzealous evangelizing is inevitable. Not excusable, but inevitable.
Once those young people arrive at our door, we must prepare them for a life of service to their country. In a mere four years, we must transform 18-year-olds fresh from their senior proms into young officers of character, capable of leading enlisted men and women many years their senior, and capable of making life-and-death decisions.
That means that, while they are here, we must place them in relationships of unequal power. The younger ones must learn to follow, the older ones to lead. But with power comes the potential for abuse. We know that from problems we have had with sexual assault of cadets, and we know it is at the heart of most of our incidents of inappropriate religious interaction. Religious discussions that might be innocuous or even encouraged in the spirit of shared intellectual discourse in the best academic tradition must be strictly curbed in the routine power relationships of a military academy. That is as it should be, but it makes our job harder.
We must also subject our students to enormous stress, far more than most college students face. The job of a nation's military is to win its wars. That in turn requires officers of strong moral fiber who can make hard decisions in difficult situations. Religious faith is a source of comfort and moral strength that many of our cadets rely on to get them through tough times, particularly while their friends at State U. are partying at night and skipping class by day. Religion matters a great deal here.
Such challenges are aggravated by regulations that mandate rapid turnover in our senior leadership. Academy superintendents serve no longer than three years. Since 1978 the average tenure of a dean of the faculty has been less than five years, and a commandant of cadets normally serves only two. Congress recently agreed to extend the superintendent's term to four years, the commandant's to three. That is a step in the right direction, but it's not enough, especially since all generals serve at the pleasure of their superiors and can have their tours of duty cut short at any time. The academy is fortunate to have a strong contingent of long-term civilian and military faculty members who are vested in its health, but the turnover of senior leadership makes institutional reform difficult.
While dealing with all these issues, faculty members must also stretch the minds of students in ways that only great educators can. That means creating an environment where fundamental precepts are questioned, where cadets are forced to think about what they believe and why. We have to do that with students whose lives are so hard to explain to their peers at other colleges that most don't even try.
Our attempts to civilize religious discourse must be seen in light of the extraordinary environment of a national-service academy, an institution that is both a military base and a world-class university.
Yes, we have a long history of constitutional law and Supreme Court decisions for guidance on how best to proceed; threatened lawsuits may give us still more. But ultimately we cannot ask the court for help every time someone wants to talk about God. Instead we need thoughtful engagement among representatives of a wide variety of faith traditions, including those with no religion at all, to develop principles for religious interaction that people of good will everywhere can subscribe to. They could be a model not just for the academy, but for all the military. Perhaps even for America.
We are starting to move toward that goal. We have completed the first phase of a training program, Respecting the Spiritual Values of People, and are now learning from it and working on the second phase. We expect to emphasize the astonishing diversity of religious thought in both the Air Force and the country it defends. We will discuss constitutional issues like the deliberate tension between the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment. We will create opportunities for frank and open discussion, when cadets and faculty and staff members can say what they believe and why in a climate of equality, mutual respect, and empathy. Faculty members are involved in this effort, and I hope that, as a group closely invested in the long-term well-being of the academy, our involvement will increase.
Ultimately, we work for you, the American people. We are accountable to you through your elected representatives in Congress. What they tell us to do, we will do. But before you pick a side in this battle and write an angry letter to your elected officials, consider this:
Resident faculty members of the academy, civilian and military, have the experience, ability, and will to solve this problem. But to do so, we need both sides to step away from Defcon 4 alert. Sheath the bayonets, put the legal briefs back in the drawer. Give us a climate where those of us responsible for shaping young minds are as free as possible.
Academy faculty members dedicate themselves to helping students answer difficult but vital questions: How do we know what we know? What is the right way to affirm the truth of what we believe in? And, the one most essential to our mission: How can we best defend the freedoms embodied in the Constitution?
Some of our students will die trying. For that, we owe them answers.
Barry S. Fagin is a professor of computer science and president of the United States Air Force Academy Faculty Forum. The views expressed are his own, and not necessarily those of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Defense Department, or government.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 47, Page B16