Update on USAFA Training
In November 2010, the US Air Force Academy invited the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers along with other representatives of religious organizations and interfaith advocacy groups to their 2010 Religious Respect Conference. The focus of this conference was dialogue about the religious climate at the Academy and the development of religious respect training for freshmen cadets. This was intended to lay the foundation for more comprehensive training for upperclassmen and eventually for faculty and staff. The November conference was a great step forward, but it was only two days. In the past few months, the Academy has continued to meet the expectations set at the conference, but there is more work to be done.
Also see more updates at MAAF site
Following the November conference, MAAF left with an expectation of piloting the draft freshman training in January and completion in February. That was to be followed with sophomore, junior, and senior training to be developed in the rest of the spring prior to May graduation activities. The Academy is currently also planning that schedule with the expectation being that all classes will have had some religious respect training prior to December of this year, with freshmen and sophomore classes in during summer training and almost all juniors and seniors in fall cadre training. Staff and faculty training should be added, but the pace of implementation for cadet training combined with positive cooperation on other issues shows the Academy is still committed to reform.
Training Overview (planned):
• Freshmen, two 1-hour sessions during summer training, overview of religious respect and scenarios about respecting others regardless of their beliefs
• Sophomores, one 1-hour session during summer training, accommodation of religious practices
• Cadre training (rising juniors and seniors), one 1-hour session during spring academics (May 16), separating personal and professional religion (as a leader), avoiding undue influence, accommodating religious practices
• Seniors, two 1-hour sessions spring and fall (Apr 21), law/leadership/chaplain perspectives and advanced scenarios, regulations, and effect of religion on unit morale and local-national relations
The training has been developed internally and with volunteer support from the Anti-Defamation League. The freshmen training is approved internally and being piloted with the cadets. There have been significant improvements in balancing the responsibilities of free exercise and establishment clause protections. Without carefully guarding against establishment of religion at the academy, freedom of religion can quickly grow into religious privilege and cronyism. Air Force leadership, at the Academy and higher, has also continued to be involved in the effort, although LTG Newton, the senior leader at the conference, has moved to another position. “Spirituality” wording is in the training, but it is carefully handled, and MAAF has opened dialogue at the AF level to challenge spirituality training at a higher level. The scenarios are greatly improved although clear right and wrong answers should be highlighted in certain instances. In addition, more clarity on the responsibilities of other actors, such as the speaker, perceived victim, bystanders, and leaders, would add an important dynamic to the scenario solutions. Some gaps could still be closed, but the training even as it stands will improve the culture.
The training has served as an introduction to open and positive dialogue on cadet complaints, treatment of nontheists, and the overall religious climate. Just following the conference, a sign promoting leadership based on religion was removed based on MAAF intervention and the understanding of Academy officials. Resolution was simple because of open dialogue. The invitation to Clebe McClary, a speaker whose website promotes a Christian military, to keynote the Academy’s official prayer breakfast Feb 10th caused concern among a number of organizations. MAAF reached out to the Academy and Clebe McClary directly. The Academy opened positive dialogue, but unfortunately the issue was serious and urgent enough to generate court action before a collaborative solution could be reached.
The two areas that are still unaddressed in the training are a clear definition of “respect” and clear boundaries on “proselytism.” The training builds on the concept of “religious respect,” but the term is undefined. What is being respected? It is important to respect people, especially fellow airmen who have volunteered for service to the nation. It is also important to respect the fundamental and heartfelt disagreements we have in philosophy and beliefs. We should also achieve the middle-ground of respecting that people honestly and strongly hold to their beliefs and philosophies, whether we agree or not. Allowing room for questioning and disagreements while still respecting each other as people is something that should be explicitly supported. Problems may be created if there is either an unachievable training requirement to respect beliefs that one disagrees with or to entirely mute honest disagreements.
Another gap in training is vagueness about the boundaries of proselytism. One should be able to have a discussion involving faith and to share responses, but doing so when it is clearly unwelcome or to the point of harassment must be explicitly restricted. The unresolved question here is where the boundary is. Strongly and openly evangelical organizations are part of the Academy’s religious education program, SPIRE, and the Freethinkers still feel more comfortable outside the program. Updating the SPIRE agreement with clarified boundaries for sharing and questioning faith is an important step to including everyone. A stronger and more reliably enforced definition will build a stronger military team by allowing for sharing faith, within reason, as well as questioning faith, within reason.
MAAF is encouraged by the continuing efforts and improvements at the Academy. The training is on pace and the relationship with the Academy has grown. Freshmen training should be officially published soon along with the primary topics for the sophomore, junior, and senior training. Freshmen training should include additional clarity on respect and proselytism prior to being conducted. Training should be conducted on schedule during the summer and fall. The Academy should continue to oversee and survey culture. Training is one component to the end goal – an Academy culture with no privileged groups and with equal support to all including theists and nontheists.