Archives For Air Force Academy

Don Branum, staff writer for the Air Force Academy’s official newspaper, The Academy Spirit, was named the Defense of Defense (DoD) 2013 Civilian Communicator of the Year. The award is part of the Thomas Jefferson Awards Program, which recognizes the top military and DoD civilian journalists in the categories of print, photo, and broadcast media. This prestigious award is likened to winning a Pulitzer Prize in the civilian world.

Don Branum

Award winning journalist Don Branum [Photo Credit: Carol Lawrence/Air Force]

To win the Civilian Communicator of the Year award, entrants must submit five samples of their work from at least three categories such as commentary, a series, hard news, feature, or photojournalism. Journalists from all branches of the military, including Guards and Reserves, plus DoD civilian journalists, compete for a Thomas Jefferson award. The awards ceremony took place on May 9th at Fort Meade, Maryland.

“Essentially, Don just won the highest honor any Defense Department journalist may receive, the DOD equivalent of the civilian Pulitzer Prize,” said David Cannon, the Academy’s communication director, in an article published in the Academy Spirit. “This award tells us what we already know — that Don is an extremely talented writer, not only able to tell the Academy story, but to tell it in a way that shows the impact across the DOD and across our Air Force.”

Don Branum, a solitary Pagan living near Colorado Springs, joined the Air Force in 1999 as a computer programmer but switched to Public Affairs in 2004. In 2011 he left active duty military service but stayed in Public Affairs at the Air Force Academy as a civilian writing for the academy’s newspaper.

The Wild Hunt caught up to Branum to talk about what it’s like to win such a prestigious award and what the climate is like today for military Pagans.

Cara Schulz: You’re just back from receiving the highest award a Military or DoD journalist can earn. What was that experience like?

DB: It was a lot of fun! The award ceremony included photography, videography and radio broadcasting awards, and I enjoyed seeing and listening to clips of what those award winners had contributed. We have men and women both in and out of uniform who are telling the services’ stories in amazing ways.

Afterward, I visited a friend who taught a portion of my journalism course back in 2004 and who now works at the Defense Media Activity, as well as a fellow Air Force writer whom I admire, and I had dinner with a couple of Pagan friends who live near Annapolis. I only wish I’d gotten to stay longer, because it would have been fun to catch up with all of my friends in the area and play tourist for a few days.

CS: What would you say are the differences in standards between mainstream civilian journalists and military or DoD journalists, if any?

DB: Civilian journalists and DOD journalists both use the same tools out of the same toolkits. DOD journalists write ledes and bridges for “hard news” stories pretty much the same way our civilian counterparts do, and we follow Associated Press style when we write, just like many (if not most) civilian journalists.

But where civilian journalists write for editorial boards, DOD journalists write for the senior leaders at their unit or base. My job is to support my commander’s priorities, with the commander in this case being the Air Force Academy superintendent. So every story I write ties back in some way to something that the superintendent feels is important, whether that’s promoting the academy’s efforts to provide strong backgrounds for its cadets in both technical expertise and the liberal arts or sharing how the academy strives to create an atmosphere free from sexual harassment or assault.

CS: Do you believe winning this award will impact your career?

DB: I imagine it will … I just have no idea how!

CS: Speaking of impacting your career, do you feel your religion has had any impact, positive or negative, in your career?

DB: I think my faith has had a positive effect overall, though it’s been indirect. One of the central practices of my personal faith is listening to understand. That can mean listening to the Universe, listening to my gut, listening to my wife. Everyone has a story to share, and I consider it a privilege to be part of that sharing.

CS: Has the military, in general, changed in attitude towards Pagans since you first joined?

DB: My experience, from April 1999 onward, has been largely positive. That wasn’t always the case — I have at least one friend who had a very rough go in the ’80s because she was Pagan. But I attended Wiccan services through most of Basic Military Training, and my training instructors never had a problem with it. My personal religious item in Basic was a Tarot deck, instead of a Bible, and the instructors never had a problem with that, either. Fort Hood had an open circle as early as 1997, sponsored by Sacred Well, if I recall correctly, so Wiccan religious services on military installations was a thing even then.

That’s not to say it’s been all unicorns and rainbows. The Fort Hood circle was desecrated in 1999. That same year, George W. Bush publicly opposed the inclusion of Pagans in the armed forces in 1999, when he was governor of Texas — and possibly because of that, the Veterans Administration didn’t approve pentagrams as religious symbols for our fallen brothers and sisters in arms until 2007. And of course the academy had its own troubles with its religious climate around 2005, which I followed pretty closely.

But I think the academy’s Falcon Circle worship area — built with a $50,000 investment from the academy and established as an official part of the historic Cadet Chapel — stands as a visible testament to how far the armed forces in general, and the academy in particular, have come since 2005. In addition, Dr. David Oringderff, was invited to the academy’s religious respect conferences in both 2010 and 2012 and was very happy with the strides he saw in the academy’s religious respect education programs in just two years’ time.

CS: Do you plan to continue on as a DoD civilian journalist or do you have other plans?

DB: I’m living in a cozy little neighborhood near Garden of the Gods right now, so I’m in no hurry to pack up and move. Plus I haven’t run out of stories to share here, so for the time being at least, I’m comfortable with where I am. Of course, if the New York Times calls tomorrow asking to set up a Colorado Springs bureau, I can’t make any promises …

The five articles submitted for Branum’s DoD 2013 Civilian Communicator of the Year application are:

* Academy firefighters step up efforts to confront Black Forest blaze
* ‘Water, water everywhere’: Cadets report on biosand water filtration efforts in Mozambique
* Commentary: Opening combat positions for women essential to diversity, future Air Force
* Falcons upend Black Knights, 42-28
* LGBQ cadets discuss Academy climate

Although this is the highest award Branum has earned, it isn’t the first. In 2004 he graduated from the Defense Information School, where all military and DoD journalists and Public Affairs specialists are trained, as a distinguished graduate. He went on to win the Air Force Space Command Print Journalist of the Year and Air Force Space Command Best News Article in 2007. In 2013 he was awarded Air Force Civilian Print Journalist of the Year, third place.

 

On October 25, the United States Air Force Academy announced that the words “So Help Me God” would be optional when cadets recite the Honor Oath.  Established in 1984, the cadet Honor Oath reads:

We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God.

Photo By Dennis Rogers (US Air Force Public Affairs)

Photo By Dennis Rogers (US Air Force Public Affairs)

In an official press release Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson said:

Here at the Academy, we work to build a culture of dignity and respect, and that respect includes the ability of our cadets, Airmen and civilian Airmen to freely practice and exercise their religious preference — or not…In the spirit of respect, cadets may or may not choose to finish the Honor Oath with ‘So help me God.’

Since that October announcement several media outlets and blogs mistakenly reported that it was the Air Force itself who had made “so help me God” optional. Currently all branches of the United States Armed Forces use an official Enlistment Oath which ends with that very same phrase.  According to congressional law, this oath must be recited before serving in the military.

While there may be no legal allowance for religious difference, there is apparently some leeway in practice.  Administrating officials have been known to permit the omission of the final phrase. In fact an official U.S. Army document states: “The words ‘So help me God’ may be omitted for persons who desire to affirm rather than to swear to the oath.”

Looking beyond the Military, the word “God” permeates a great deal of American social space. In this supposedly post-Christian society, the word “God” becomes increasingly cumbersome in secular settings; its use more glaring and far more difficult to digest within a pluralistic environment.  Regardless, “God” is ever-present in both the American vernacular and United States legalese – from idioms to oaths.

Just this past week the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) debated the constitutionality of prayer before government meetings. Ironically SCOTUS opened the session with its usual phrase: “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

Photo By Jarek Tuszynski (Jarekt) (Own work) via WikiCommons

Photo By Jarek Tuszynski (Jarekt) (Own work) via WikiCommons

As with the Military the Justice department requires its judges, justices, and laywers to take an oath ending with the phrase “So Help Me God.”  The lawyers’ oath reads in part:

Do you solemnly swear or solemnly and sincerely affirm, as the case may be, that you will do nothing dishonest, and will not knowingly allow anything dishonest to be done in court …. so help you God or upon penalty of perjury…

Unlike that of Justice Department, the general lawyer’s oath is devoid of religious language.  However a few states, such as South Carolina, have opted to include that popular ending phrase.

The use of the word “God” is not limited to legal oaths and appears in many very public arenas.  All U.S. currency is inscribed with the words “In God We Trust.”  According to the U.S. Treasury, the stress of Civil War led to a marked increase in religiosity.  As a result the government received multiple requests asking for “God” to be acknowledged on our national money.  One such letter reads:

You are probably a Christian… Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION; within the ring the allseeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words GOD, LIBERTY, LAW.

In 1864 the U.S. Mint began printing coins etched with the phrase “In God We Trust.” Over time and with the necessary acts of Congress, these words began to appear on all U.S. coins. Finally in 1956 Congress made it mandatory for the phrase to be printed on all money and, if that wasn’t enough, the phrase became the country’s motto.  During the 1950s the U.S. was paralyzed by a fear of a communist take-over and as a result clung tightly to a conservative sensibility.

1in_god_we_trust

Interestingly, the words “Under God” which are nested within the Pledge of Allegiance followed a similar historical pattern.  The pledge itself was first adopted right after the Civil War in an effort to unite a broken nation.  In 1953 the Knights of Columbus lobbied to add the words “Under God” in order to combat the “godless communism.” The addition was made official in 1954.

Since their inception both phrases have been legally challenged again and again.  However the courts generally dismissed these cases.  In September atheists lost yet another lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the public use of “In God We Trust.” According to AP U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baer Jr. , “the Supreme Court has repeatedly assumed the motto’s secular purpose and effect.”  This summarizes the general position of the courts.  Despite the religious nature of the word “God,” these phrases are considered secular and, consequently, do not put a “substantial burden” on any citizen.

One term that has never been legally challenged is the phrase “act of God”  which appears most frequently in legal settings or the insurance business.  An “act of God” is a “natural phenomena whose effects could not be prevented by the exercise of reasonable care and foresight.”  Here is another situation where we are to accept “the motto’s secular purpose and effect” despite the religious verbiage.  Is this problematic? To many Pagans, tornado damage might be called “an act of the Goddess” or to an atheist, “wind.”  Should our public communication reflect these differences?

Pledge Of Allegiance 1899

Pledge Of Allegiance 1899

Language can be very interesting in that it tells the story of social change through the “colloquial residue” left by ages long gone. Think of all the idioms that are commonly tossed around  such as “God Bless You,” “God Only Knows,” “God-Given Right,” “Swear to God,” “For God’s sake” and of course all of those colorful phrases using “Jesus.”

Most of these colloquialisms have indeed lost their religious meaning.  When someone yells “God Damn it!” after stubbing a toe on a chair, he isn’t expecting the settee to spend an eternity in Hell. One of my favorite examples is the phrase: “come-to-Jesus meeting.” This is a synonym for the word “intervention” – of whatever sort.  While the secular meaning is quite clear, the undertones still remain.  The phrase clings to its origins bringing with it the story of a culture’s religious heritage.

Need another example? The full lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner include the phrase, “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’” Before the song became our official national anthem in 1931, the most popular patriotic song was “God Bless America.” As we continue move into this post-Christian world, the courts will continue to face challenges to any and all religious language used within the public sector – money, oaths, pledges and perhaps even the singing of these patriotic songs.

Congressman Pete Olson.  Photo courtesy of Flickr's euthman

Congressman Pete Olson. Photo courtesy of Flickr’s euthman

On October 30, Republican Texas Congressmen Sam Johnson and Pete Olson have introduced bill H.R. 3416 in response to the Air Force Academy’s Oath change.  If passed, the bill would require Congressional approval for all oath changes. Congressman Olson laments,

It was disheartening to see the Air Force Academy succumb  to anti-religious zealotry … The military personnel being trained to defend the rights of Americans should be able to exercise their religious convictions by affirming their oath with so help me God.

The Congressmen must have missed the word “optional” in the Air Force Academy’s release.

But the question still remains:  Can there ever truly be a secular use of the word “God?”  While their use today may indeed feel secular, does the residual religiosity subvert the growth of a peaceful and respectful multi-culturalism within the public sphere?  Does the argument have to be all or nothing, God or Godless?  Can our country reach a comfort level within its social pluralism that allows for variations like “so help me Goddess.”  Only time and the courts will tell.

“Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”John B. Finch, 1882

If you follow religion news these days, you can’t help but be inundated with the current debate over what, exactly, “religious freedom” means, and what its limits are. The most popular manifestation concerns Catholic opposition to new contraception guidelines set forth by the Dept. of Health and Human Services (a topic I’ve covered before), but a large number of enterprising souls have taken this proverbial football and are running as far as they can with it. The most recent effort to “protect” religious freedom comes from a consortium of 66 Republican lawmakers who have written a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asking for an investigation into “a series of steps signaling hostility towards religious freedom” by the Air Force.

The lawmakers outlined several instances where they had problems with Air Force policy, particularly a memo last year from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, which said that “chaplains, not commanders” should notify airmen about chaplains’ religious programs. The lawmakers wrote the memo was “suggesting that the mere mention of these programs is impermissible.” They also took issue with the suspension of a briefing that discussed Bible references, the changing of a Latin office motto that included God and removing Bibles from Air Force Inn checklists. They wrote the policy of “complete separation” between church and state is having a “chilling effect” down the chain of command.

An Air Force spokesperson responded by saying that “Airmen are free to exercise their Constitutional right to practice their religion—in a manner that is respectful of other individuals’ rights to follow their own belief systems.” Indeed, these instances the 66 Republican lawmakers are concerned about aren’t initiatives to limit religious freedom, but to instead avoid showing favoritism for any particular faith.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz

“The Air Force’s top officer has issued a stern reminder to leaders about religion and their jobs: Don’t proselytize or show favoritism toward a particular faith. Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz sent a servicewide memo Sept. 1 cautioning leaders at all levels to balance the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom and the prohibition on government intrusion. “We have seen instances where well-meaning commanders and senior noncommissioned officers appeared to advance a particular religious view among their subordinates, calling into question their impartiality and objectivity. We can learn from these instances,” said Lt. Col. Sam Highley, Schwartz’s spokesman.”

We should also remember that these corrections aren’t happening in a vacuum, and were prompted by a culture of evangelical Christian takeover within the Air Force Academy, where blatant religious favoritism was in full and open display.

…my son’s orientation became an opportunity for the academy to aggressively proselytize this next crop of cadets. Maj. Warren Watties led a group of 10 young, exclusively evangelical chaplains who stood shoulder to shoulder.  He proudly stated that half of the cadets attended Bible studies on Monday nights in the dormitories and he hoped to increase this number from those in his audience who were about to join their ranks.  This “invitation” was followed with hallelujahs and amens by the evangelical clergy.  I later learned from Air Force Academy chaplain MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran who was forced to observe from the choir loft, that no priest, rabbi or mainline Protestant had been permitted to participate.”

This was a major scandal for the Air Force, which, like all government bodies, isn’t supposed to favor any particular faith, and to maintain separation between Church and State. They’ve since made major efforts to make their branch of the military a place where all faiths are respected, including the building of a Pagan/Nature Religions worship area at the Air Force Academy.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy. Photo by: Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

Sadly, these worthy efforts towards making the Air Force a place that respects all manifestations of faith is being framed as an attack on “religious freedom” by these lawmakers. For them, religious freedom means freedom for Christians to swing their theological “arms” without any regard to whose nose might be struck. When U.S. Representatives Diane Black of Tennessee, Randy Forbes of Virginia and Todd Akin of Missouri assert that “the combination of events mentioned above raises concerns that the Air Force is developing a culture that is hostile towards religion” what they mean is hostile toward unfettered Christian expression, and little else. I cannot imagine that any of the 66 lawmakers gave one thought as to what things were like for religious minorities before the recent shift in policy and tone. Religious freedom, for them, begins and ends with their conception of America as a “Judeo-Christian” nation that exists under a single, monotheistic, God.

As I’ve said before, to these Christians, government-enforced secularism isn’t a neutral ethos, but a method of attacking their faith and limiting their free expression. In the minds of these Christians “religious freedom” means, in this time of demographic dominance, the right to let the majority dictate the religious norms of a society. Any deviance from that, in limiting prayer in schools, or sectarian prayer at government meetings, is a persecution of their church. We are increasingly caught in Christianity’s own crisis over its role and purpose in a post-Christian pluralistic society, and the results aren’t always pretty. This crisis will only escalate as religious minorities continue to stand up for real equality, for their voices to be heard in the public square, and as litigation starts to reevaluate what the standards for inclusion are in government-backed religious initiatives.

Whatever valid concerns Catholics, Evangelicals, and other conservative Christians might have over religious freedom in the United States, they are continually tempered by their insistence on being the sole definer of where that concept begins and ends. No one is asking Buddhists, Pagans, Hindus, or practitioners of Native religions for their input, and in many cases the same Christian leaders and lawmakers who cry persecution are the very same who ignore our concerns, or are outright dismissive of non-Christian religious expressions.

“I don’t care what the naysayers say. This nation was founded as a Christian nation. The god of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. There is only one God. There is only one God, and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words. I’m tired of people telling us as Christians that we can’t voice our beliefs or we can’t no longer pray in public. Listen to me. If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, get out! [...] We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

To me, the Catholic Bishops and Evangelical leaders who claim to be baking the bread of freedom, produce only the taste of ashes in my mouth. Have we really forgotten that Christian Republican lawmakers as recently as 1999 tried to get the practice of Wicca banned from the military? That the Catholic Church, openly hostile to non-Christian faiths, has proposed a grand coalition of the dominant monotheisms to quash the rights of faiths and traditions who want to perform legal same-sex marriages? To my mind these are not the defenders of my religious freedom, to say the least.

If religious freedom as a concept is going to mean anything, if isn’t going to just be hollow rhetoric, then it needs to apply equally to everyone. That means creating a level playing field in the realm of government, it means not privileging the Christian majority simply because it’s a politically expedient thing to do. Sometimes it even means rolling back privileges that some have mistaken for “rights.” The problem is that far too many Christians in America have grown over fond of having no limits on their arm-swinging, and every judicial decision or law that tells them that certain noses are off-limits enrages them, and feeds into an ugly persecution complex (to the point where the majority assumes the mantle of the persecuted minority). Real religious freedom starts when groups stop twisting the concept to privilege themselves at the expense of others.

There’s no rhetorical fruit that hangs lower than government waste, everyone hates it! $16 dollar muffins$600 dollar toilet seats, $131,000 dollar dragon robots for preschoolers (actually, that sounds pretty cool), all seeming evidence of a spend-happy government run amok, and an easy target for curmudgeonly columnists of all political stripes. This past year, we saw modern Pagans get sucked into this Andy Rooney-esque vortex from which no nuance or joy escapes when a LA Times report wrote about the Air Force Academy’s Falcon Circle in November, noting the $80,000 dollar price tag for the Pagan and earth-religions-dedicated worship area.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy. Photo by: Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

“Still, the academy this year dedicated an $80,000 outdoor worship center — a small Stonehenge-like circle of boulders with propane fire pit — high on a hill for the handful of current or future cadets whose religions fall under the broad category of “Earth-based.” Those include pagans, Wiccans, druids, witches and followers of Native American faiths.”

That reported cost spurred a wave of commentary about government waste and rampant political correctness, which prompted the Air Force Academy to defend the cost, and their commitment to religious plurality.

“The LA Times got the $80,000 figure from the Academy’s Cadet Chapel fact sheet. But the numbers on the fact sheet at the time were too high because they mistakenly included $26,500 that was spent to control erosion on the east side of the hill on which Falcon Circle is now situated. [...]  The scope of work in the $51,484 Falcon Circle contract included removing screws and nails from the inside of the circle and installing 1,225 square feet of flagstone. The boulders were moved in 2009 from the east side of the hill, where erosion threatened to send them crashing into the Visitors Center, where more than 500,000 people per year learn about the national treasure that is the Academy. By way of comparison, the Cadet Chapel that now houses Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist worship areas cost $3.5 million to build — in 1959. That would be more than $25 million in today’s dollars, or enough to build 500 Falcon Circles.”

Defending the cost of Falcon Circle, which was built in response to a genuine need among Pagan cadets, was just the latest in a string of challenges faced by the academy and Pagan cadets. This included the site being vandalized shortly after it first received press attention in 2010, and ignorant opinion pieces attacking Pagan religions. Sadly, the debunking of the $80,000 dollar price-tag seemed to not reach retired news anchor and Scripps columnist Truman Taylor, who decided he really needed to weigh in on this important issue.

“If you don’t agree that most government spending is quite that wasteful, a recent Gallup poll says it may be because you’re too well-educated. A conjecture perhaps, but there it is. Those in the survey with some postgraduate education don’t think that the government wastes as much money as do those with less education. You can self-test yourself on this Gallup assertion. First, think about how much education you have, then think about the $80,000 pagan stone circle that the government built at the Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo.”

Ho-ho! You over-educated eggheads, Taylor has you in his rhetorical grasp! How can any reasonable person think $80,000 dollars is anything but waste for a “Stonehenge look-alike on the top of a hill with a fire pit right in the middle of it.”

“…the fact that only three of the academy’s 4,300 cadets are actually believed to be pagans, you may think that the money spent to build the stone circle was justified to protect the constitutional right to religious freedom. You may also think that $80,000 for a fire pit for Druids and Wiccans at the Air Force Academy isn’t enough money to get too riled up about, that perhaps the academy is trying to attract more Wiccans to the Air Force — an equal-pagan-opportunity sort of thing. If these thoughts come to your mind, Gallup would probably say you may have spent too many years in grad school … not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Touche! A touch! A veritable sting! Truman Taylor can now sit back in his armchair, crack open his vintage collection of Mike Royko columns next to a roaring fire whilst enjoying a fine glass of port, safe in the knowledge he’s not only lampooned excessive government spending, but political correctness *and* people who went to grad school (suckers!). Who cares if it isn’t exactly true, it feels true, and that’s all that matters, right? I mean, why mention that the real cost was much lower and that the erosion work needed to be done anyway to protect other buildings on the base. Why trouble our thoughts with the notion that the circle isn’t exclusively for Pagans and that any cadet can use the circle for all sorts of activities, why quibble over the fact that it doesn’t actually look like Stonehenge in the slightest? People hate government spending, and so long as you check the boxes on the ready-mix instant-column, you’ll do just fine.

In truth, I don’t mean to excessively pick on Truman Taylor’s column, but misinformation can sometimes overwrite actual reality. The more people spout the $80,000 price-tag and hold it up as an example of waste, the more folks believe it, and the more it sinks in that Pagan cadets aren’t worth the expense, even though the AFA’s cadet chapel would be worth the cost of 500 Falcon Circle’s in today’s dollars. Frankly, I don’t care if there’s only one Pagan cadet, creating a culture of religious respect within our military is a vital project worthy of the cost.

“You don’t have to be scared about sharing your religion or think you need to stay in the broom closet about it,” Cadet Johnson says. “People are very understanding. We have officers in charge of us who are very understanding, the Chaplains are very understanding so it’s very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy.”

Here’s hoping that it continues to be “very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy, “ and that Pagan cadets can get back to focusing on their lessons instead of being put under a microscope by those looking to score points on “government waste”.

Ever since the Air Force Academy in Colorado unveiled the Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle, an outdoor space dedicated primarily for use by cadets and staff who follow Pagan, Native American, and Earth-based religious traditions, its been dogged by controversy. The circle, which was created in response to a genuine need among Pagan cadets, was vandalized shortly after it first received press attention in 2010. Then, after its official dedication in May of last year, a wave of criticism and ignorant opinion pieces could be found from the usual corners. Things seemed to die down after that, but comment and controversy were stirred up once again after the LA Times wrote about Falcon Circle in November, noting its $80,000 dollar price tag.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy. Photo by: Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

“Still, the academy this year dedicated an $80,000 outdoor worship center — a small Stonehenge-like circle of boulders with propane fire pit — high on a hill for the handful of current or future cadets whose religions fall under the broad category of “Earth-based.” Those include pagans, Wiccans, druids, witches and followers of Native American faiths.”

That spurred a new wave of commentary about government waste and political correctness gone amuck, which prompted the Air Force Academy to defend the cost, and their commitment to religious plurality.

Rev. Dr. David Oringderff speaks with Lt. Gen. Mike Gould during a dedication ceremony for the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle May 3, 2011. Oringderff is the executive director of the Sacred Well Congregation and represented the Earth-Centered Spirituality community during a religious respect conference at the Academy in November 2010. Gould is the Academy superintendent. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Rev. Dr. David Oringderff speaks with Lt. Gen. Mike Gould during a dedication ceremony for the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle May 3, 2011. Oringderff is the executive director of the Sacred Well Congregation and represented the Earth-Centered Spirituality community during a religious respect conference at the Academy in November 2010. Gould is the Academy superintendent. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

“The LA Times got the $80,000 figure from the Academy’s Cadet Chapel fact sheet. But the numbers on the fact sheet at the time were too high because they mistakenly included $26,500 that was spent to control erosion on the east side of the hill on which Falcon Circle is now situated. [...]  The scope of work in the $51,484 Falcon Circle contract included removing screws and nails from the inside of the circle and installing 1,225 square feet of flagstone. The boulders were moved in 2009 from the east side of the hill, where erosion threatened to send them crashing into the Visitors Center, where more than 500,000 people per year learn about the national treasure that is the Academy. By way of comparison, the Cadet Chapel that now houses Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist worship areas cost $3.5 million to build — in 1959. That would be more than $25 million in today’s dollars, or enough to build 500 Falcon Circles.”

That commentary by Don Branum, published on December 27th, movingly recounts the struggles of Pagans in the military, and declares that building Falcon Circle was “the right thing to do.” Branum’s defense trickled into the mainstream media yesterday via The Denver Post, who did note that the circle is available to all cadets, not just Pagans, and that the initially reported cost estimates are deceptively high. Whether these clarifications reach the critics who were quick to condemn Falcon Circle, or manage to change the minds of those who believe the Air Force Academy is being overrun by unholy forces is an open question.  Whatever the outcome from the latest round of publicity, this defense of Falcon Circle by the AFA is a welcome sign, and part of an ongoing initiative to create a culture of religious respect.

“You don’t have to be scared about sharing your religion or think you need to stay in the broom closet about it,” Cadet Johnson says. “People are very understanding. We have officers in charge of us who are very understanding, the Chaplains are very understanding so it’s very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy.”

Here’s hoping that it continues to be “very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy, “ and that Pagan cadets can get back to focusing on their lessons instead of being put under a microscope by those looking to prove some ideological point.

In yesterday’s link roundup I mentioned that the LA Times did a feature on Pagans in the Air Force Academy, I thought it was merely OK, but it turns out that the piece had been edited from a far more mocking tone according to Star Foster at Patheos.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy. Photo by: Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

“Because I’m an idiot, I didn’t take a screenshot of the article, which has now been edited for tone. (I will always take screenshots going forward, just in case.) Her previously snarky piece is now much calmer, yet still complains that the Air Force is spending money to be inclusive of non-Christians. While I’m glad they removed some of the cheap jokes, I don’t think you should edit an article that much after publication without an editor’s note explaining the change.”

Lest you think the alleged earlier version was simply in Star’s imagination, Mark Thompson at Time’s Battleland blog also picked up on the LA Time’s anti-Pagan snark and calls them out on it.

“The Air Force then earnestly tries to deal with – and encourage – religious diversity, and they get stung by stories like this in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times [...] It’s tough walking that careful line in don’t-offend-me America. If you hew too closely to one religion, you’re criticized; if you welcome all, you’re zinged for that, as well.”

On a more positive note, if you click that link on the word “welcome” from the Battleland blog, you’ll notice it heads to part one of the two-part PNC-Minnesota story on Pagans in the Air Force and Air Force Academy. That piece, which was reprinted here at The Wild Hunt, and was written by Cara Schulz at PNC-Minnesota, deserves that attention its getting, and I’m glad Time’s Battleland blog linked to it. While I’m not going to jump to some of the conclusions that Star did, I do think that the Pagan Newswire Collective’s piece did act in some small way to jump-start the current rush of coverage on this story, now running at places like The Telegraph in England. So kudos to Cara, and here’s to Pagan media influencing the narrative!

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

  • The New York Times does a profile of Lady Rhea, “the Witch Queen of New York.” The article focuses on how Lady Rhea doesn’t fit the profile of the fantasy witch, noting that she is “no cartoon witch. She is a no-nonsense Bronx native who drives a Ford Focus and tells it like it is. No black robe and pointy hat here. On Wednesday night, she wore slacks, a sweatshirt and designer glasses and jewelry.” Actually, Lady Rhea’s non-pointy-hat wearing fashion sense is pretty much the norm for most Pagans, and it seems strange that the fact that we don’t dress like Elphaba Thropp is still a story hook to hang a profile on. Still, it’s a positive look at a local figure, and I’m glad the NYT devoted time to doing the story.
  • Remember all my talk about Pope Benedict XVI meeting with Vodun leaders in Benin? Turns out it didn’t happen, at least according to the National Catholic Reporter. Quote: “One might think the trip afforded a chance to open lines of communication with a religious movement that enjoys a vast following, estimated at between 30 million and 60 million people worldwide — comparable to the global footprint of, say, Methodism. Yet Benedict never made any reference to voodoo, and didn’t meet a priest or other exponent. His rhetoric in Ouidah, asserting that Christianity represents a triumph over “occultism and evil spirits,” was taken by some as a swipe.” NCR reporter by John L Allen Jr surmises that the controversy over Pope John Paul II’s 1992 meeting with Vodun leaders made Benedict gun-shy about doing something similar. So much for the “importance of dialogue with practitioners of indigenous African religions.”
  • The Los Angeles Times looks at Pagans and Paganism in the Air Force Academy, focusing on the $80,000 outdoor worship center for “earth-based” and Pagan religions that was recently installed. Quote: “Witches in the Air Force? Chaplain Maj. Darren Duncan, branch chief of cadet faith communities at the academy, sighs. A punch line waiting to happen, and he’s heard all the broom jokes.” It’s a fairly decent story, but I have to say, and maybe I’m biased, but I felt Cara Shulz’s recent story for PNC-Minnesota focusing on the same topic (which was reprinted here) was better.
  • Ritch Duncan, co-author of “The Werewolf’s Guide to Life: A Manual for the Newly Bitten”, writes about the bizarre media panic that ensured after a “Satanic sex ritual” resulted in a man being hospitalized, and his book was listed as being found at the scene. Quote: “Even worse than being misrepresented in the media was how lazy it all seemed to be. If the reporters charged with covering this story actually spent five seconds looking up what the book was about (they certainly had the time to do a Google search and steal an image of the cover), they could have mentioned it was filed under the “humor/parody” section.” The piece is a great look at how moral panics are fueled just by shifts in emphasis.
  • Amanda Marcotte writes an editorial for Reuters on the “increasingly Godless” American future. Quote: “The more that religion can be pushed off into the realm of private practice and out of the public square, the better for public discourse, as we can dispense with the God talk and move on to reality-based discussions about what we want and how we can get it. The Millennials have the right idea when it comes to dismissing the belief that religion somehow improves politics. Now we just have to wait for the religious right to finish with their temper tantrum over this, and then we can move on to the future.”
  • This year the Christmas Tree at the United States Capitol was given a traditional Native American blessing by an elder from the Tuolumne Band of Me-wuk tribe, the first time such a thing has happened. Quote: “It was an amazingly moving ceremony they sang and blessed the tree and blessed the people there on site and blessed our safe journey for the tree.” You can watch a video of the blessing, and the tree being harvested, here.
  • The Guardian looks at the rise and mini-revival of “occult rock,” highlighting Rise Above Records, the return of Black Widow, and Swedish band Ghost.  Quote: “Whether it’s a heartfelt expression of devilish beliefs or simply a good excuse to wear a spooky mask and annoy a few Christians, occult rock can hardly fail to provide a welcome antidote to an increasingly soulless and cynical music world that prizes profit over atmosphere, and perfection over power. Perhaps more importantly, its newest exponents seem to have abandoned shock tactics in favour of a subtle, persuasive approach worthy of Eden’s duplicitous serpent himself.”
  • The Times of India has yet another article about the spread of Wicca in India, this time focusing on Swati Prakash, head of The Global Wicca Tradition. Quote: “In the middle and dark ages, anyone who followed any ancient belief was falsely accused of ‘consorting with the devil’ and was tortured into accepting the new faith. Ironically, you will note that male wizards are always depicted as wise old men in fiction and art throughout history while women witches were shown as cunning and ugly. Clearly, there has been a gender bias in favour of male spiritualists and gurus.”
  • The Associated Press explores American Indian reactions to the James Arthur Ray verdict, with some hoping that it will result in better safety when non-Natives try to appropriate Native ceremonies. Quote:  Bill Bielecki, an attorney representing the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation, said the trial would encourage non-Natives to focus on safety when running sweat lodge ceremonies. “They’re going to look at the facts,’’ said Bielecki, who also was party to the lawsuit, “You don’t use a large sweat lodge, you make sure people can leave and you don’t coerce the occupants into staying beyond their limits or capabilities. If you do that, then you avoid gross negligence.’’ You can see a round-up of my coverage regarding this case, here.
  • Why do Catholics think the worship of Maria Lionza is so popular in Venezuela? Why, “poverty and poor education are contributing factors,” naturally. But they better be careful what they wish for, because isn’t Catholicism’s main growth areas with the very same “people lacking education and social services?” Do I sense a double-standard here? Are the poor and uneducated Catholics actually wise, then?

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

[This is part two of a two-part story by Cara Schulz from PNC-Minnesota. Part one, dealing with Pagans in basic training at Lackland Air Force base can be found, here.]

One of the Gateways to the Air Force for future officers is the United States Air Force academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. While earning their bachelor’s degree, military cadets participate in a rigorous athletic program and are instructed in how to lead others as an officer in the Air Force. In part 1 of our series, Pagans receive warm welcome at the ‘Gateways to the Air Force,’ we looked at Lackland AFB, where enlisted trainees attend Basic Military Training. In part 2, we take a closer look at the Air Force Academy (AFA) through interviews with Pagan faith group leaders, an Academy Chaplain, and a current Pagan Academy cadet.

When Pagans think about the AFA, what often comes to mind are the string of articles in 2007 showcasing the institution as the focal point for an evangelical Christian takeover of the military.  It’s a view that appears to have come about due to an over-correction to the sexual assault cases shocked the campus a few years earlier. Lt Col Dan Brantingham, AFA Cadet Wing Chaplain, explains, “In the aftermath of the sexual assault cases in 2004-5, some leaders looked to religion to assist cadets in living honorable lives. In doing so, the leaders unintentionally promoted a particular flavor of religion as the solution.”

The accounts of aggressive proselytizing of cadets by Evangelicals at the Academy worried civil rights activists as this influences the next crop of officers, planting the seeds to change the culture of the Air Force to a more repressive atmosphere.

Since 2007, the Academy has taken meaningful steps to renew its focus on freedom of religion and religious neutrality in its policies. Brantingham says he supports the current Academy policy of religious neutrality, “As an Air Force Chaplain my responsibility is to ensure the free exercise of religion for all cadets to include the minority faith group cadets. When I protect and advocate the freedom of religious conscience for all cadets, I fulfill my oath and because of the brilliance of the First Amendment, I safe-guard my own freedom of religion as well.”

"Four Freedoms" by Norman Rockwell hangs in Brantingham's office with the quote,“Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.”

"Four Freedoms" by Norman Rockwell hangs in Brantingham's office with the quote,“Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.”

Cadet Nicole Johnson, a senior at the AFA, has experienced the willingness of AFA Chaplains to help cadets of any religion, “The Chaplains are wonderful. You can go to them with any problem. It can be just an every day problem or a spiritual problem and they are more than willing to help you out with it or connect you to the right people.”

Creating a culture of religious respect
How did the Academy change from being a perceived bastion of aggressive Evangelicalism to the open and inclusive institution Cadet Johnson is experiencing? A major step was taken when the Academy hosted the Conference on Religious Respect in 2008 and again in 2010. The conference examines how the Academy can create a climate of religious respect and equip its future officers with the skills needed to ensure religious beliefs are respected and accommodated. Out of the 2008 conference the Cadet Interfaith Council was formed, the Religious Respect Cadet Training program was launched, and support was increased for the Spiritual Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE).

SPIRE is time blocked off each Monday evening for cadets to meet and discuss spirituality. In addition to SPIRE time, Earth-Centered Spirituality cadets also celebrate the Sabbats, go on a Freshman retreat, and enjoy an annual Spring retreat.

The Cadet Interfaith Council meets once per semester and the faith of any requesting cadet is included. The Council assists the Chaplain Corps in monitoring the religious respect climate on the campus. Chaplain Brantingham says the Council, “has expressed frustration the press does not report on what they see and experience day in and day out, a climate of religious respect, and continues to unquestioningly keep slapping the Academy with the 2005 story-line.”

The third initiative to come out of the 2008 conference is what the Academy calls its “cornerstone religious diversity program,” the Religious Respect Training program for cadets, faculty and staff. The program is unique to the Air Force Academy as no other military academy or university has a program quite like it. It includes in-depth training on the First Amendment, and the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Free Speech clauses of the US Constitution. The program is modular and cadets have six hours of scenario and mission focused training on religious respect during their four years at the Academy. The Academy hopes this program assists future officers in creating a climate where airmen under their command feel free to request religious accommodation.

The Conference on Religious Respect in 2010 continued to examine and refine those initiatives. Sixteen national religious leaders were invited as panelists including Rev. David Oringderff, PhD, head of Sacred Well Congregation and sponsoring organization for the Earth-Centered Spirituality group at the Academy. In a message to the San Antonio Military Open Circle Yahoo group, Rev. Oringderff said he was impressed by the emphasis on ways to promote respect, not merely religious tolerance. He quoted Chaplain Brantingham remarks during the opening of the conference, “I don’t want to be tolerated; I want to be respected—and everyone else is entitled to that same right.”

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle
The most visible result of the renewed commitment to free exercise of religion is the creation of Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle. Falcon Circle, which sits on a hill, came into existence through the efforts of a former cadet wing chaplain, Chap. William Ziegler and former Earth-Centered Spirituality Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL), Tech Sgt. Brandon Longcrier, who is currently deployed in Afghanistan.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy.
Photo by: Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

In 2006 Tech Sgt. Longcrier and Reserve Major Kelly Ihme started a Wiccan circle at the Air Force Academy. They were able to instruct cadets because of two organizations – Sacred Well Congregation and the Air Force Academy’s SPIRE program. SPIRE was created in the early 1990’s to provide religious accommodation to faith groups not served by a chaplain of their faith. Longcrier contacted Sacred Well Congregation, which was already the Denominational Sponsor for other Pagan military faith groups, to sponsor him as a Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL) for the Academy. Sacred Well Congregation agreed and the request was approved by the Command Chaplain at the AFA. Longcrier and Ihme could now form a faith group on campus.

The faith group went through a few name changes before they settled on Earth-Centered Spirituality. Originally called a Wiccan group, they later changed it to Pagan. Major Ihme, a mental health nurse and current DFGL at the Academy, says there’s a good reason for their present name, “[Earth-Centered Spirituality] is less threatening, especially to civilians living in the Colorado Springs area. We’re also want to be inclusive of Native American religions.” Nearby Ft. Carson has a sweat lodge and Ihme like to cooperate with them, but they’re just beginning to explore the possibility.

The Earth-Centered Spirituality group met in an engineering classroom for worship before construction of Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle began in early 2010. The circle drew world wide notice when it was dedicated in Spring of this year. Some of the news articles and editorials were good, much of it was not. It also resulted in the resignation of Longcrier as DFGL at the Academy, “The Wing Chaplain and I had some very heated discussions about the name of the Circle. He kept wanting to call the Earth-Centered Circle a Chapel and also wanted anyone to be able to use it. To me, this was taking away something that belonged to us.”

Chaplain Brantingham says the decision on the name and the use of the circle was a joint decision between the Academy and Sacred Well Congregation, “I worked very closely with TSgt Longcrier’s national DFGL certifier at the time, Dr David L. Oringderff of Sacred Well Congregation. After extensive consultation with Dr Oringderff, TSgt Longcrier and Maj Kelly Ihme, USAF Reserves, I decided the best long-term solution for promoting religious respect and economy of resources was to dedicate the outdoor worship space as the Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle with the Circle being available to all cadet faith communities and the Earth-Centered Spirituality cadet community having scheduling priority. Dr Oringderff and the Academy’s current Earth-Center Spirituality DFGL, Maj Kelly Ihme, agreed.”

What brought matters to a head was the date of Falcon Circle’s dedication“The straw that broke the camel’s back was when they set a date for the dedication of Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle on a date when I would be deployed. I put my blood, sweat, and tears into the program and getting the Circle approved and built and they thought that it would be ok to dedicate it without me being there? I resigned after that, but left the group in very good and capable hands.”

Longcrier also said he was concerned over incidents of religious harassment at Falcon Circle, “We already had incidents where Christians would go up there to pray for our sins and that isn’t what I wanted to be happening up at our sacred space.”

Ihme said that although there were early incidents at Falcon Circle, that is no longer the case, “At first there was some problems with Christians praying for our sins and some acts of vandalism [at the Circle] but no one besides us goes up there now. The site is very secure now with cameras running 24/7.” Ihme said the Circle is a peaceful place that seems far more remote than the short walk up the hill should feel.

Rev. Oringderff had the opportunity to visit Falcon Circle while attending the 2010 Conference on Religious Respect, “The site is situated on the hill just above the Cadet Chapel and you immediately sense the spirit and sacredness of the place.”

Cadet Johnson describes Falcon Circle as a needed oasis of tranquility, “I go there during the day sometimes. It’s very stressful here so getting away from the academy is important. I can go and center myself and get more in touch with nature.” Johnson says in the four years she’s been at the Academy she’s never experienced a problem with religious discrimination or harassment.

Not every Pagan has had a military career free of harassment, but many have remarked that the military is generally ahead of the curve in accepting minority groups. Carlee, who left a comment on PNC-Minnesota’s article on Pagans at Lackland AFB, wrote, “Despite what people think, the military usually leads in the acceptance of minorities when the rest of the population still treats them as pariahs. Note the integration of blacks, the acceptance of women (I watched this one from 1979-1999 as more and more opportunities opened to me) and now the acceptance of gays. I am proud to have served in the nation’s military and to be one of the very few who has.”

Major Ihme wants Pagans considering applying to the Air Force Academy to feel reassured, “You don’t have to be nervous or afraid because every belief system is OK at the Academy. We will back you up.”

“You don’t have to be scared about sharing your religion or think you need to stay in the broom closet about it,” Cadet Johnson says. “People are very understanding. We have officers in charge of us who are very understanding, the Chaplains are very understanding so it’s very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy.”

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

 

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.