New Air Force Standards Protect Nonreligious Personal Beliefs

Airmen everywhere just received a new foundational regulation for their use – Air Force Instruction 1-1 Air Force Standards. The regulation covers values, conduct, ethics, equal opportunity, and appearance.

This regulation also serves to codify the interim guidance on religious accommodation released in 2000, 2006, and 2011. In particular, this guidance recognizes nonreligious/nontheistic beliefs:

“Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion.”

The regulation still only implies chaplain responsibility for those with nontheistic beliefs and promotes the idea of “spirituality” without caveat.

“The Chaplain Corps provides spiritual care and the opportunity for Air Force members and their families to exercise their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.”

This wording is not clear enough to encourage chaplains to reach out to atheists and humanists with the same support they provide Christians, Jews, and even Wiccans.

A technical distinction in the regulation is listed in section 2.12.1: “You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.” This section advises respect for people, not beliefs, a distinction MAAF has strongly advised in training development at the Air Force Academy. We show respect for each other when we are honest about our disagreements.

Freedom of conscience is set aside later in the instruction. The most concerning portion of the regulation involves vague and extreme restrictions that prohibit any internet comments or blog posts “which reasonably can be anticipated, or are intended, to degrade morale, good order, and discipline of any members or units in the U.S. Armed Forces, are Service-discrediting, or would degrade the trust and confidence of the public in the United States Air Force.” This essentially means that any Air Force leader can initiate UCMJ action against anyone who posts nearly anything on the internet.

NBC news and other major outlets headlined restrictions on tattoos. This “capstone act” of recently-retired Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Norton Schwartz deserves more focus than tattoos. The regulation builds on prior guidance enforcing government neutrality toward religion. However, NBC also rightfully pointed out the long evangelical history that makes increased controls important:

The conflicts have arisen over military leadership promoting Christian religious meetings through official channels, military courses incorporating Biblical material in coursework, officers trying to convert non-Christians and allegedly favoring “born again” Christians and using Christian doctrine and imagery in logos and official military materials and Christian prayer in official events.

The new AFI 1-1 from the Chief of Staff’s office follows from guidance from the Secretary of the Air Force Policy Directive 1 – Air Force Culture, which is a short publication that roots Air Force culture in the Constitution and the Airman’s Creed and Air Force Values. The Creed and values promote integrity, service, excellence, and valor. These secular values are and must be shared throughout the Air Force to strengthen the military team. Air Force Values should neither replace one’s personal beliefs nor be pushed aside in favor of one’s personal beliefs. Rather, one’s personal beliefs should provide a strong foundation for professional Air Force values. The protections in the new AFI 1-1 are a step in the direction of religious neutrality in government and equal support for all.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. – Lao Tzu

4 Responses to New Air Force Standards Protect Nonreligious Personal Beliefs

  1. Graduated from the AFA last May, 2013.

    I can tell you why the USAFA Chaplains are making such strides in dealing with non-theists. The first time you visit them, you get the hint very strongly. You don’t belong in here. Went once and never went back, no matter how much I needed help, because I got the message. Most of my non-theist friends got the same treatment, and we even learned to joke about it when people asked if we needed to see one.

    “You come in here you better be ready to talk bout yer Jeebus, boy.” insert southern drawl here.

    Its easy to make strides if you have a 0 count of visiting non-theists.

    P.S. if you’re wondering why I’m posted as guest, I’m still afraid of future commanders finding out I’m not a christian.

    • Sorry to burst your bubble, but since this positive story, the chaplains have disavowed all support of nontheists. The Freethinkers there at the Academy are getting decent support, but the chaplains will not help.

  2. Were any training changes made as a part of this standards change?

    • AFI 1-1 didn’t really put the chaplains on the hook. They request funding and authority to support everyone but they have no materials or training to support nontheists. The USAFA chaplains, reportedly under order from AF Chief of Chaplains, have kicked cadet freethinkers out of chaplain programs. So no support but no AF-wide policy either.

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