On the Academy and offensive speech

This is a note from a reader, addressing my take on the one-sided Los Angeles Times series on religious tensions at the Air Force Academy. This is an important issue to this blog, so let’s dig into it a bit.

Is this really a story about First Amendment rights?

I don’t think so. This is a story about harassment and abuse of power. The cadets’ superiors are applying pressure to try to make them adopt the superiors’ religion. This is like a boss putting pressure on employees to do something that is not job related. That “something” could be anything from sex to buying his kids raffle tickets.

Posted by ceemac at 8:23 pm on May 7, 2005

As I have said before, it does appear that harassment has taken place. That is not the issue. However, we do not know if it is taking place in classrooms and official forums. So far, the emphasis seems to be on non-official activities. And, as I have said before, to what extent do all student groups have access to email lists, bulletin boards, student-life forums, etc.?

If all groups have access, this would seem to be a matter for equal-access laws and it would be wrong to discriminate against religious content. Please see the original post. “Viewpoint discrimination” is supposed to be out of bounds. At the very least, this is a question that reporters need to be asking.

It would also help to realize that the whole issue of what military chaplains can and cannot preach has become a hot-button issue. Evangelicals insist that military structures dominated by liturgical-church chaplains have been showing serious bias against evangelicals who simply want the right to preach their own doctrines to their own believers in their own services.

Yes, the key issue is who is going to heaven and who is not. Apparently, a Baptist who is willing to preach like a Unitarian, or an Episcopalian, can get promoted while a Baptist who preaches like a Baptist will struggle to move up the ladder.

Sure enough, some of the Air Force Academy bias claims are linked to the content of sermons in services held for evangelical students. So are we really talking about creating tax-dollar-enforced speech codes that limit what men and women can say in their own sermons? Does this apply to Muslim clergy? Jews? Catholics? Wiccans?

Meanwhile, veteran USA Today reporter Patrick O’Driscoll, who has spent some time in the past on the religion beat, has filed a report on all of this that includes some new information. Here is a clip:

The investigation grew out of a survey of cadets and staff last year after another academy controversy: a 2003 scandal in which nearly 150 female cadets alleged that they had been sexually assaulted by fellow cadets in the previous decade.

Write-in remarks on religion prompted officials to conduct focus groups during the summer. The academy’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, told the school’s civilian oversight board last month that those yielded complaints of 55 instances of religious bias in the past five years, including proselytizing by Christians, use of Bible quotes in official e-mail and an ad promoting Jesus in the base newspaper, signed by 200 academy leaders.

OK, quotes in official email? That’s serious. That is, it could be very serious. We need to know the meaning of the words “official email.” Is that anything sent over the campus servers? Anything on letterhead? Anything that students are required to read? What are we talking about and to what degree do other student groups — secular and religious — get to use the same email systems?

Meanwhile, the word proselytizing gets thrown around a lot. The key is where this speech takes place. People have a right to debate all kinds of issues, including issues that make other people mad. If this speech took place in an official forum, with academy leaders doing the p-word stuff, then that is really serious. If it is a student being offended by one remark made by another student, the whole issue hinges on whether the offending student backed off when displeasure was expressed.

Again — free speech causes tension. The goal is not to discriminate against religion in open forums, such as walking down a campus sidewalk or hanging out in the coffee shop.

And the ad in the newspaper? Again, is this a forum to which other religious groups have access? Could those offended by the ad purchase space and sign their names on an ad protesting the Jesus ad? If so — just do it.

Official promotion of a faith with tax dollars is out of bounds. So is using tax dollars to crush free speech by religious people. We need reporting that lets us know about both sides of this equation. And one more question: Has anyone asked if religious conservatives are more likely, these days, to seek military careers than religious liberals or secularists? Just asking.

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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.

  • ceemac

    I want to know who the 200 student leaders were who signed the article. Were they leaders of student run groups or were they Cadet Officers.

    If I undertand military academy structure, Cadet officers have power over other cadets. If they signed the add in their role as an officer then that may very well be harassment. The officers are using their postion to pressure lower ranks to do something not job related.

  • tmatt

    Oh, read carefully.

    It may be worse than that. It might be academy LEADERS — professors, etc.

    The problem is this: Has the paper run adds on OTHER TOPICS with leaders signing? Of course it has, I would imagine.

    So on what basis do you discriminate against free speech with RELIGIOUS content, as opposed to content about football, the environment, politics, media, etc.? Do you ban adds by other religions as well?

    This is why we have things like equal access laws.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will Linden

    Yes, the word “proseleytizing” gets thrown around a lot, like the word “cult”.

    Unfortunately, in both cases it seems to be largely self-refential. We are a church, you are a sect, they are a cult. We share, you preach, They proseleytize.

  • ceemac

    tmatt asks

    So on what basis do you discriminate against free speech with RELIGIOUS content, as opposed to content about football, the environment, politics, media, etc.? Do you ban adds by other religions as well?

    I respond:

    I would feel the same way about any ad signed by academy leaders that uses their rank and power to pressure students to do something that is not related to their job as cadets.

  • http://watchpost.blogspot.com tyler simons

    I don’t want to muzzle debate, and I make people mad rather often during said debate, but religious harassment doesn’t need to come only from authority on down. In an atmosphere where a large number of cadets come from church backgrounds that are quite hostile to atheist, jews, episcopalians, etc, things can get real shitty, real easy for those few brave atheists, jews, etc. who do go to the academy. I think it’d probably do the biblical literalists in the Armed Services some good to hear some old-fashioned mainline protestant preaching for a while. When they’re home, they can go to their home church.

    The (non-evangelical, granted) veterans I’ve met stress the need for Chaplains who are willing to listen non-judgementally to the soldiers/airmen, and they complain that the first response of evangelical chaplains is always, “How are you with Jesus.” That’s a childish Christianity that doesn’t address the real needs of men in uniform, at war, and the experienced officers in the Armed Forces realize this and are hesitiant to promote religious extremists

  • http://jeffthebaptist.blogspot.com Jeff the Baptist

    “OK, quotes in official email? That’s serious. That is, it could be very serious. We need to know the meaning of the words ‘official email.’”

    It should also be noted where in the emails this occurred as well. The bible verses in them were not quoted in the body of the email, they were used in the personal signature block of the author.

  • tmatt

    Tyler:

    So you do want codes for what chaplains can say in their own sermons to members of their own flock?

    This sounds close to that:

    “The (non-evangelical, granted) veterans I’ve met stress the need for Chaplains who are willing to listen non-judgementally to the soldiers/airmen, and they complain that the first response of evangelical chaplains is always, “How are you with Jesus.” That’s a childish Christianity that doesn’t address the real needs of men in uniform, at war, and the experienced officers in the Armed Forces realize this and are hesitiant to promote religious extremists.”

    Your problem is that the “religious extremists” represent about 40 percent of the public and, I would assume, the same percentage in the military.

    I agree that chaplains in a mixed-faith environment must watch what they say and it is never right for tax dollars to be used to force a faith perspective on anyone.

    Which is precisely why I think reporters — this is a media blog, remember — need to ask if that is what we are going to get out of the clean up at the Air Force Academy. There have clearly been abuses there. But this does not mean that we need a state-mandated Mainline or Universalist gospel in our military.

    I would LOVE to see you enforce that on the Muslim chaplains. Do your new speech laws apply to them as well?

  • NateB

    Something that no one has really brought up is whether this is a good or bad thing, militarily speaking. Personally, I’d hate to be surrounded by a bunch of evangelical bores droning on about papistry and death cookies, but I suspect it’s just the kind of thing military needs to be an efficient, cohesive force.

  • pdb

    One of the “evangelical bores” you are referring to is the Chief of Naval Operations. I suspect you would find many more, highly regarded, at the academies and in the service, up and down the chain of command.


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