Off We Go, Into the Christian Yonder

Air Force Academy situation shows the real agenda of evangelicals.

Jonathan Chait

Los Angeles Times

May 20, 2005

Conservatives have been arguing for years that the religious right is simply misunderstood. These vilified godly folks don't want to impose their beliefs on anybody else, we're told. They simply want to defend their traditional beliefs and practices against the aggressive impositions of a secular culture. Therefore any suggestion to the contrary is liberal hysteria or, worse, discrimination against "people of faith."

So how do conservatives explain what's been going on at the Air Force Academy?

As a number of newspapers have documented, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., has essentially established evangelical Christianity as its official religion.

The examples are legion. Last season, the football coach hung a banner in the locker room laying out a "Competitor's Creed," including the lines "I am a Christian first and last" and "I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."

And here are other examples among those noted in an April report by the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State: Campus chaplains have encouraged proselytizing among the students, and younger cadets who skipped out on prayer services have been forced by their seniors to march back to their dorms in a ritual called "heathen flight." On one occasion, every seat in the dining hall was covered with a flier advertising a showing of "The Passion of the Christ," including the tagline, "This is an officially sponsored USAFA event."

These are just a few examples among many. Non-evangelicals have described an atmosphere of pervasive religious pressure. A top academy chaplain was discharged for speaking out against this state of affairs.

So, again, what do the conservatives have to say about this? Not very much. I searched three major conservative publications — the Washington Times, National Review and the Weekly Standard. I found only one article referring to the Air Force scandal: a Web-only column by conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt in the Standard decrying the Air Force's promised internal investigation as an unnecessary inquisition and devoting one sentence to summarizing the charges.

And no wonder the conservative press, normally obsessed with the role of religion in public life, would have so little to say about this scandal. It undercuts its long-standing effort to portray the religious right as merely defending itself. A notable subset of this effort consists of pleas by politically conservative Jews to their moderate and liberal brethren to stop worrying about the religious right. "All right, enough, already. The Christians aren't coming to get you," writes National Review's Jonah Goldberg in a typical salvo.

Now, it's easy to get carried away by one extreme example, just as conservatives do when some school principal somewhere doesn't let a kid wear a Santa Claus hat or some such nonsense. But the situation at the Air Force Academy, though atypical of the United States, does not represent random excess by the religious right. It's an embodiment of the religious right's vision of America. When asked about the allegations, a spokesman for Focus on the Family replied, "If 90% of cadets identify themselves as Christian, it is common sense that Christianity will be in evidence on the campus…. I think a witch hunt is underway to root out Christian beliefs."

This comment is telling, because it basically jibes with what religious conservatives have been saying for a long time. Most Americans are Christian, therefore the United States is a Christian country. Therefore, the institutions of the state ought to promote the religious views of the majority, and everybody else ought to shut up and take it.

To be sure, I do think liberals can get carried away exaggerating the threat of the religious right. The truth is that the religious right does not have a great deal of influence at the national level — certainly not proportional to its share of the Republican base.

President Bush hasn't even made the slightest effort to push a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, for instance — even though he says he supports it. The influence of the religious right mostly remains confined to isolated strongholds, such as Colorado Springs and Kansas.

But although the religious right doesn't have the capacity to impose its views on the rest of the country, it certainly has the intent to do so. Conservatives may dismiss fears of a Christian theocracy as liberal hysteria. Theocracy, though, is not an inaccurate description of life at the Air Force Academy.