It seemed like the Air Force knew it had a problem with religious intolerance.
A "Team Jesus Christ" banner was hung by the head football coach in the team locker room. Cadets of various faiths reported conversion attempts and harassment by superiors as well as evangelical prayer at official academy events. And a Lutheran minister confirmed a systemic evangelical bias by administrators, faculty, and upperclassmen.
So a draft of new guidelines on religious expression discouraged sectarian prayer at public gatherings, and warned superiors against proselytizing to subordinates. But Focus on the Family and other evangelical groups would have none of it.
According to the Washington Post, "They launched a nationwide petition drive, sounded alarms on Christian radio stations, and deluged the White House and Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne's office with e-mails calling the guidelines an infringement of the Constitution's guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion."
The result? The Pentagon released a new draft of guidelines emphasizing the freedom of superiors to exercise their faith when it is "reasonably clear discussions are personal, not official."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State put it well: The revisions "focus on protecting the rights of chaplains, while ignoring the rights of nonbelievers and minority faiths."
The bottom line: the military caved to evangelical pressure and reaffirmed, rather than reformed, the continual eroding of the separation of church and state. One more victory for the right wing, one more slap at the Constitution.
Katrina vanden Heuvel has been The Nation's editor since 1995. She is the co-editor of "Taking Back America — And Taking Down The Radical Right" (NationBooks, 2004).
By Katrina Vanden Heuvel
Reprinted with permission from The Nation