"Fires of hell" rage on at Academy

I have let a few extra days pass on the Air Force Academy story, while I try to surf the waves of coverage.

I think it is fair to say that several basic facts have been clarified.

(1) This is, in large part, a fight between mainline Protestants on the left and evangelicals — in many traditions — on the theological right. The big issue is evangelism — by any Christian, anywhere, at any time, according to the Yale Divinity School observers involved. As such, this battle contains many common themes sounded during the ongoing doctrinal war between liturigal and mainline Protestant military chaplains and evangelical military chaplains. Several major articles have noted that the conflict is not between Christians and other groups, but between evangelical Christians and everyone else.

(2) While there continues to be evidence of abuses by individuals, the main event that everyone is yelling about involved Chaplain Maj. Warren “Chappy” Watties, an African-American evangelical, preaching in a nondenominational service for Protestants who voluntarily attended. I have — very late in the game — bumped into a very newsy story in the Colorado Springs Gazette that addresses some of this. Here is a crucial chunk of reporter Pam Zubeck’s informative report, which, of all things, does quote people on both sides of the story:

The Air Force said Watties, the service’s chaplain of the year in 2004, acted properly because Air Force regulations allow chaplains to evangelize in the performance of their duties to those unaffiliated with another religion.

“Chaplain Watties’ messages and sermons were deemed to be appropriate encouragement to his congregation to share their religious convictions, when invited and in an appropriate manner, consistent with rules governing the federal workplace,” the Air Force said in a statement in response to The Gazette‘s written questions.

The statement noted that Watties was conducting a multidenominational Protestant worship service, not an interfaith service, and “did so in a manner consistent with his ordination as a Christian minister and his training as a chaplain.” Cadets were not required to attend the service.

(3) There are disputes about the accuracy of some of the charges. The best example is the claim that Watties punched the hellfire and brimstone button during one of his sermons. Here is that language, as reported by T.R. Reid in The Washington Post.

One staff chaplain reportedly told newly arrived freshmen last summer that anyone not born again “will burn in the fires of hell.” Such slurs have been heard for decades on the campus, according to Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, a 1977 academy graduate who said he has repeatedly complained to the Air Force brass about the “religious pressure” on cadets. “This is not Christian versus Jew,” Weinstein said. “This is the evangelical Christians against everybody else.”

This takes us back to Zubeck’s story — which was way back at the start of this media storm, long before many other reporters wrote their stories offering only one side of the hellfire dispute. It seems that the vast majority of people present in the Protestant service do not remember the veteran chaplain saying what it is alleged that he said. There were 600 witnesses.

Academy spokesman Johnny Whitaker said … that all academy Protestant chaplains have said in recent days that they didn’t make the “fires of hell” comment or hear anyone else say it.

Watties could not be reached for comment. Whitaker said Watties told chief Chaplain Col. Michael Whittington that he invites congregants to “share the word” but didn’t use the phrase “fires of hell.”

“I can’t find anybody who said they said what was quoted in there,” Whitaker said of the Yale report.

It really doesn’t matter if Watties said “fires of hell.” There would be a controversy even if he said there was a hell and that any cadet might ever want to discuss that subject with anyone other than in a dark cave. In other words, at the heart of this controversy is the traditional Christian teaching that salvation is found through Jesus Christ alone and that believers are supposed to witness to other people about this belief.

This is, in other words, an offensive-speech case. It is highly likely that there are macho born-again types who are witnessing to other cadets and making them upset. If that gets out of hand, they need to be slapped down. But they are allowed — under faith-in-the-workplace rules — to talk about their faith. Others have an equal right to tell them to shut up.

The controversy about Watties and his sermon raises the big question that I have raised several times on this blog, especially here. Are we really talking about doctrinally defined speech codes for what chaplains can and cannot preach to their own flocks?

Will we silence Catholics from saying that Vatican is right about its claims to be the one, true, ancient faith? Will Jews and Muslims be told to chill out? Flip this viewpoint-discrimination issue over: What would happen if a government law required Episcopalians to preach evangelistic sermons? What if Unitarian chaplains were required to speak in tongues — I mean, against their will?

Meanwhile, the other hot story was the alleged firing of a female Lutheran chaplain who has been a strong critic of the evangelicals at the academy. This is yet more gasoline on the already raging controversy between the oldline Protestant chaplains and the evangelical chaplains. Patrick O’Driscoll of USA Today broke that story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Will Owens

    As a military officer and as a practicing Catholic, this is an interesting issue. The US Armed Forces have many faiths and none among their ranks. Catholics, for example, have long been over-represented in the US Armed Forces, especially the Navy/Marines, and so have usually been able to bond together, in spite of minority status outside. There were Catholic Admirals and Generals almost 200 years before there was a Catholic Commander-in-Chief (President Kennedy … probably the only one!).

    Evangelicals are an interesting question as the evangelicals I have served with have usually been exemplary officers and men.

    I do note that, however, from my experience, evangelical Bible studys and their prayer meetings etc, especially if patronized by a senior officer, do seem to have the atmosphere of cliques, featuring career-networking as much as personal devotion. Officers that were previously religiously indifferent suddenly pick up their Bible and head off to Christian meetings when they learn that an O-7+ is “born again”. Sorry if this seems cynical but there is no equivalent to this among Catholics or Jews or any other religions. It creates a bad perception, especially where senior officer’s reports affect promotion opportunities.

    I truly feel for Jewish and other cadets who are subject to in-your-face evangelism by evangelicals. An academy cadet is in a vulnerable position when a plebe and being beasted. He/she does not religious harassment.

    I was taught at school and in the Catholic college where I graduated ROTC, that a faithful Christian should “preach the gospel, use words if necessary”. A Christian’s actions should speak for themselves and should lead a non-believer to God by their example.

    Perhaps the USAF academy chaplains need to brush up on their knowledge of the letter of James’?

    Will Owens

    William D. Owens
    wd_owens@operamail.com

  • ken

    The thing that interests me the most is how any christian, I mean a real christian, can take an oath that commits him or her to obedience to go out and kill innocent people just because someone tells them to do so. At least in the infantry you know you are killing someone else who has a gun asnd if you don’t kill them they will try to kill you. But in the air force the vast majority of deaths are inflicted upon non-combatants. They know this. They do it anyway. And they have the gaul to call themselves christians?

  • David Neal

    Hmmm. Based on His own words, I wonder how Jesus would have fared at the Air Force Academy? (I know. I know. He probably wouldn’t have been in the military.) But at least some of His words would have been offensive to someone(after all, aren’t they to all of us at some point or another?). Lastly, even Jesus spoke of the “fires of hell” (of course, those words were most often spoken to us “religious types”).

  • tmatt

    WD:

    Is this because Judaism and modern Catholicism, in the American context especially, are Universalist religions with no imperative to evangelism?

    Also, how is this linked to the cases in which actual evangelical chaplains argue that they face discrimination from Catholics and other liturgical chaplains?

  • Will Owens

    In my 13yrs experience, evangelicals have received little or no discrimination. I have certainly never witnessed any (and I have served in both Army and Joint postings .. though the USAF may be a different). Please note that I am NOT saying that they don’t have some discrimination – just that I have never witnessed it. I don’t know anything about the debate over chaplains. I just thought they were aloted as per % of religion in the armed forces, to look after their faithful.

    Many senior officers in the Army (anyway) seem to either be hardcore Catholic (see We Were Soldiers … met lots of General Hal Moores) or serious evangelicals. So it’s not like evangelicals don’t/can’t get support from Generals etc. They do and some technically Protestant junior officers I have served with seem to become religious when they find out that the new O-6/O-7 who reports on them is religious. It is very false and infectious. To have a senior officer openly wear his faith on his fatigues (rather than live it) can have a demoralising effect on the vast majority of officers/enlisted who may feel that being outside the club = don’t matter/don’t care.

    One point you raise is the evangelism imperative. I don’t know enough about evangelical faiths to know whether everyone is required as a religious duty to spread religion in their work (ie preach to fellow troops/subordinates/cadets etc). Therefore, for the military to prevent them preaching may be discrimination against a key tenet of their faith.

    My answer to that is don’t join the military if you can’t properly live your religion and not hassle others. Do something else or become a missionary! Perhaps the Army does urgently need a dedicated corps of evangelical chaplains precisely to prevent evangelical officers from taking on the chaplaincy role themselves.

    The military has never had an official religion and no American should feel that their religion qualifies or disqualifies them from their duty. President Bush seems to have struck the very good/proper balance as a committed Christian and I would urge soldiers of all faith to follow the commander-in-chief in balancing his personal commitment to the office he holds.

    BTW I’m not saying that Catholics or Catholic chaplains are the model. There are many good Protestant chaplains I’ve served with and who do an excellent job. Catholic chaplains minister to their own and do not seem to seek converts. I have seen, however, Catholic chaplains win new converts because of the strength of their example and their willingness to mix with all ranks (officer and enlisted), especially on deployments. It has made me proud to be a Catholic to see Catholic priests always go forward in harm’s way with the troops to see that soldiers have communion, can confess or otherwise receive a blessing, and just be there with us at a time when soldiers feel very real fear. The number of non-Catholics that are impressed by their selflessness, bravery and care for those in their green flock has always touched me. That is a chaplain’s true vocation.

    WDO

    William D. Owens
    wd_owens@operamail.com

  • Will Owens

    In my 13yrs experience, evangelicals have received little or no discrimination. I have certainly never witnessed any (and I have served in both Army and Joint postings .. though the USAF may be a different). Please note that I am NOT saying that they don’t have some discrimination – just that I have never witnessed it. I don’t know anything about the debate over chaplains. I just thought they were aloted as per % of religion in the armed forces, to look after their faithful.

    Many senior officers in the Army (anyway) seem to either be hardcore Catholic (see We Were Soldiers … met lots of General Hal Moores) or serious evangelicals. So it’s not like evangelicals don’t/can’t get support from Generals etc. They do and some technically Protestant junior officers I have served with seem to become religious when they find out that the new O-6/O-7 who reports on them is religious. It is very false and infectious. To have a senior officer openly wear his faith on his fatigues (rather than live it) can have a demoralising effect on the vast majority of officers/enlisted who may feel that being outside the club = don’t matter/don’t care.

    One point you raise is the evangelism imperative. I don’t know enough about evangelical faiths to know whether everyone is required as a religious duty to spread religion in their work (ie preach to fellow troops/subordinates/cadets etc). Therefore, for the military to prevent them preaching may be discrimination against a key tenet of their faith.

    My answer to that is don’t join the military if you can’t properly live your religion and not hassle others. Do something else or become a missionary! Perhaps the Army does urgently need a dedicated corps of evangelical chaplains precisely to prevent evangelical officers from taking on the chaplaincy role themselves.

    The military has never had an official religion and no American should feel that their religion qualifies or disqualifies them from their duty. President Bush seems to have struck the very good/proper balance as a committed Christian and I would urge soldiers of all faith to follow the commander-in-chief in balancing his personal commitment to the office he holds.

    BTW I’m not saying that Catholics or Catholic chaplains are the model. There are many good Protestant chaplains I’ve served with and who do an excellent job. Catholic chaplains minister to their own and do not seem to seek converts. I have seen, however, Catholic chaplains win new converts because of the strength of their example and their willingness to mix with all ranks (officer and enlisted), especially on deployments. It has made me proud to be a Catholic to see Catholic priests always go forward in harm’s way with the troops to see that soldiers have communion, can confess or otherwise receive a blessing, and just be there with us at a time when soldiers feel very real fear. The number of non-Catholics that are impressed by their selflessness, bravery and care for those in their green flock has always touched me. That is a chaplain’s true vocation.

    WDO

    William D. Owens
    wd_owens@operamail.com

  • pdb

    Terry, You are dead on with your analysis. It is pretty clear now that doctrinal differances at the root of this, both from the Gazette story and the latest stories about the Lutheran chaplain. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how many reporters understand this, or are taking the time to try to understand it.


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