Military Religious Freedom A-Ok for Druids, "Meh" for Catholics

Plundering the Deacon’s Bench, again…

The Colorado Springs Gazette reports that the Air Force Academy is now accommodating its Wiccan and Druid cadets with their own chapel:

Add Wiccans and Druids to the list of faiths that have their own chapel at the Air Force Academy.

A circle of stones around an altar was dedicated on a hilltop above the campus Tuesday with earth-centered prayer and speeches about religious liberty at the academy, a school that has long faced criticism as a bastion for evangelical Christianity.

“This outdoor worship space is something we have created to help people of all religions,” Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, the academy’s superintendent, said before a ribbon cutting on the site.

The academy is home to about 10 cadets who regularly attend “earth centered” worship groups. Earth-centered is a catch-all phrase for groups including New Age religion, paganism, Wicca, Druids and ancient Norse beliefs.

This is a bigger deal than it seems. In 2006, an investigative panel found that “officers and faculty members periodically used their positions to promote their Christian beliefs and failed to accommodate the religious needs of non-Christian cadets.” As the New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein reports:

Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady of the Air Force, who led the 16-member group, said in a news conference at the Pentagon that the academy and the Air Force as a whole were struggling to define the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable religious expression in a government institution, a reflection, he said, of a debate under way across the country.

“We believe that people were doing things that I think were inappropriate,” General Brady said. “They had the best intentions toward the cadets. I think in some cases they were wrong.”

He said his panel had referred seven cases of questionable behavior to the Air Force for further investigation but declined to elaborate.

Among the incidents highlighted in the report were fliers that advertised a screening of “The Passion of the Christ” at every seat in the dining hall, more than 250 people at the academy signing an annual Christmas message in the base newspaper that said that “Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world” and an atheist student who was forbidden to organize a club for “Freethinkers.”

The academy has 19 clubs for religious groups. Many of the clubs and educational programs are led by outsiders, some affiliated with ministries in Colorado Springs, the headquarters for many evangelical Christian organizations. The report recommended that the academy supervise those programs more closely because of complaints that some guest speakers had violated Air Force standards of religious respect.

The group found that several incidents widely covered by news organizations were overblown. The report said a chaplain who reportedly exhorted cadets in a worship service to tell their classmates to accept Christ or “burn in hell” was merely using language “not uncommon” for his Pentecostal denomination.

Prosyletizing in military units remains a touchy issue. Perhaps the leading watchdog is Air Force Academy graduate Mikey Weinstein. An attorney, and as he assures skeptics, a “registered Republican,” Weinstein founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation in 2006. The MRRF’s goal: “ensuring that all members of the United States Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom to which they and all Americans are entitled by virtue of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” Toward that end, it’s reported an Air Force colonel for distributing a video housed on the Catholic site, which also included images of President Obama wearing a swastika armband.

In 2009, the MRRF was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Although this particular video came from a Catholic source, Weinstein seems concerned chiefly with the missionary activities of evangelical Protestants. He’s described their theology as “dominionist,” which means, broadly, that they are encouraging soldiers to conquer for Christ. I can’t speak to the accuracy of that statement, but Laurie Goodstein has found that — at least in the Air Force — numbers of evangelical chaplains are multiplying, even as numbers of Catholic and mainline Protestant chaplains are decreasing:

The churches that once supplied most of the chaplains say they are now having trouble recruiting for a variety of reasons. Many members of their clergy are now women, who are less likely to seek positions as military chaplains or who entered the ministry as a second career and are too old to qualify. The Catholic Church often does not have enough priests to serve its parishes, let alone send them to the military.

There are also political reasons. Anne C. Loveland, a retired professor of American history at Louisiana State University and the author of “American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993,” said the foundation for the change in the chaplaincy was laid during the Vietnam War.

“Evangelical denominations were very supportive of the war, and mainline liberal denominations were very much against it,” Ms. Loveland said. “That cemented this growing relationship between the military and the evangelicals.”

In other words, finding an atheist in a foxhole is much easier than finding an a Catholic or Episcopalian at headquarters.

So it’s very good to know the Air Force is now making an effort to ensure the spiritual welfare of non-Christians. But Catholics may be harder to help. According to Msgr.Timothy Broglio, who presides as archbishop over all Catholic service members, 275 priests are currently serving over 300,000 troops. That’s a ratio of one priest to 1,100 laymen — not bad, actually, compared to the ratios in many U.S. cities. But the troops who need pastoral care the most are hardest to reach. A friend of mine, a U.S. Navy vet with an impressive network of Catholics in arms, tells me that his friend, who was flying helicopters in Afghanistan, was lucky to make one Mass each month.

Too bad private contractors can’t fill the gap.

— Max Lindenman

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