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In October 2013, the United States Air Force Academy announced that the words “so help me, God” would be optional when cadets recite the Honor Oath. In response, several GOP Congressmen proposed legislation that would force all Academy cadets to add those words back. The Wild Hunt spoke with a Pagan military veteran as well as Air Force Academy (AFA) Public Affairs officials about the proposed legislation and why they believe keeping “so help me, God” optional is important.

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. – USAF Academy Cadet Honor Oath

Background on the Honor Oath
The first portion of what would later become the Honor oath, “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does …” was created by the Air Force Academy’s first class to graduate in 1959.

In 1984, the Academy was rocked by allegations of a cheating scandal. As a result of the investigation, an Honor Committee was created. The committee’s recommendation was to turn the code into an oath, which all cadets would take. They also added “and furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and live honorably” and tagged “so help me, God” to give the oath more gravity. That same year, the cadets voted to approve the Honor Oath and have all freshman cadets swear the oath when they are accepted into the cadet wing.

In 2013, the Academy decided to make, “so help me, God,” optional.

Photo By Dennis Rogers (US Air Force Public Affairs)

Photo By Dennis Rogers (US Air Force Public Affairs)

Legislation Proposed
Reps. Sam Johnson (R-TX), Pete Olson (R-TX), Pete Sessions (R-TX), and Doug Lamborn (R-CO) have sponsored a bill that aims to force all branches of the military to seek congressional approval before they make any changes to any oath. Effectively, it seeks to force an Air Force Academy cadet to say, “so help me, God” when they recite the Honor Oath.

Johnson said that the bill, which is called the Preserve and Protect God in Military Oaths Act, is necessary to protect the freedom of religion of U.S. troops. First introduced in 2013, the bill has been reintroduced this year with the addition of Rep. Lamborn as a co-sponsor.

When The Wild Hunt reached out to the AFA Public Affairs office they said they still stand behind the statement AFA Superintendent  Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson made in 2013 when the AFA made “so help me, God” optional. They also provided background information on how the Honor Oath was created and why they made a portion of it optional.

In the statement, Lt. Gen. 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. So, in the spirit of respect, cadets may or may not choose to finish the Honor Oath with ‘So help me God.’”

Air Force Academy’s Changing Religious Culture
In 2007 the AFA made news in a string of articles showcasing the institution as the focal point for an evangelical Christian takeover of the military.  When PNC-Minnesota looked into the changing culture of the AFA in 2011, this climate of Evangelicalism appears to have come about due to an over-correction to the sexual assault cases that shocked the campus a few years earlier.

Lt Col Dan Brantingham, AFA Cadet Wing Chaplain, explained, “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.”

Starting in 2007, the Academy took steps to renew its focus on freedom of religion. 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.”

In 2008 and again in 2010, the Academy hosted the Conference on Religious Respect. Out of the 2008 conference the Cadet Interfaith Council was formed, the Religious Respect Training program was launched, and support was increased for the Spiritual Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE). 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. It includes in-depth training on the First Amendment, and the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Free Speech clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

The 2010 Conference on Religious Respect 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’s Yahoo group, Rev. Oringderff said he was impressed by the emphasis on ways to promote respect, not merely religious tolerance. He quoted Chaplain Brantingham’s 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.”

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Falcon Circle dedication ceremony, 2011 [Photo credit: USAFA]

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. While Falcon Circle is open to any cadet, Pagan cadets in the Earth-Based Spirituality Distinctive Faith Group have priority in its use. They meditate and celebrate Sabbats at the stone circle.

Air Force Veteran Reacts
Don Branum is an Air Force veteran and Pagan of 19 years who lives in Lamborn’s district. He also works as a staff writer for the Academy Spirit, the weekly newspaper for the United States Air Force Academy.*

When asked how he felt about the proposed bill, H.R. 1425, he said, “I take great exception to Congressman Johnson’s ‘So help me God’ bill, both as a Pagan and a veteran. I’m even more disappointed to learn that Rep. Doug Lamborn, who represents a religiously diverse district, has chosen to co-sponsor it. Requiring any man or woman to swear ‘so help me God’ as part of an oath of office or oath of enlistment clearly violates both the religious test clause of the Constitution (Article VI, Paragraph 3) and the First Amendment, which states, in part, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …’

“I’m happy to share the public square with people from all walks of life and all beliefs, because I believe our nation draws its strength from the diversity of its people. But I will not stand quietly while someone attempts to impose his religion on the rest of the nation.” Branum went on to say that if the bill’s co-sponsors value the oaths they took to support and defend the Constitution, they should either immediately withdraw their support for H.R. 1425 or resign from office.

 

*Don Branum’s views reflect his personal opinion only and do not in any way represent the official position of the Air Force Academy, the Air Force or the Department of Defense.

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.