Whose God Is Their Co-Pilot?

The U.S. Air Force Academy faces charges that it has allowed rampant evangelization on campus

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Taken together, the complaints suggest evangelical saturation. They claim that mandatory gatherings often opened with prayers and that some professors actively recruited cadets to join evangelical churches. At Christmastime some senior faculty members would sign religious ads in the base paper, including this 2003 message: "We believe that Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world. If you would like to discuss Jesus, feel free to contact one of us!" Revered football coach Fisher DeBerry once hung a banner in his locker room reading I AM A MEMBER OF TEAM JESUS CHRIST. He allegedly led game-day prayer "in Jesus' name." DeBerry has said he actually prayed to a "Master Coach."

The ranking evangelizer was the academy's second in command, Brigadier General Johnny Weida, a deeply religious former Thunderbirds pilot who was brought in to help restore dignity to the school after a 2003 sexual-abuse scandal. Promoting the National Day of Prayer on May 1, 2003, Weida sent a mass e-mail urging participation and noting that "the Lord is in control." He established a call-and-response routine at campus events. When he shouted "Airpower!" evangelical cadets would yell "Rock, sir!" The cheer was allegedly a reference to Jesus' words that his house is built on rock, intended to provoke curiosity among non-Evangelicals and start conversations about Christ. If so, it also verbally erased any distinction between loyalty to the Air Force and to Weida's God. (The academy has declined interview requests for Weida and other senior personnel, as well as all comment on the allegations, pending the upcoming report.)

The ethos may not have been as pervasive as some allege. "There's this idea that all evangelical Christians walk around shoving their faith down other cadets' throats, and it's not true," says academy computer-science professor Martin Carlisle, himself an Evangelical. The Air Force chief of chaplains, Major General Charles Baldwin, says the Yale team members "don't have all the facts." Yet religiosity infiltrated the school's unofficial vocabulary--cadets who did not attend chapel were known as the "heathen flight"--and presented some with down-the-rabbit-hole conundrums. As a cadet last year, Patrick Kucera, an atheist, tried filing a complaint about Christian proselytizing with the academy's Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) office. The MEO officer, says Kucera, not only discouraged the filing on technical grounds but also said he felt obliged, as a believer, "to try to bring you back to the flock."

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