You've Got to Be Carefully Taught
"Why here," Chaplain Morton? "Why do you think the Air Force Academy has become such a contentious arena of conservative Christian fervor?" It is a good question, and one I have fielded time and time again as I have spoken with interested individuals across the country. Certainly, an entire constellation of events and contemporary dynamics create the Academy's current crisis. However, one causal theme rises to the fore. The matter is not complicated or difficult to observe. It is however, true to the nature of the Air Force Academy, and essential to the zealous advancement of the religious right. Surprisingly, this keystone issue is summed quite well in a poignant lyric of Oscar Hammerstein II:
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
(Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers, "You've Got to be Carefully
Taught" from South Pacific, 1949.)
This is why the Air Force Academy is an instrumental focus of conservative Christian ideology; because, after all, "you've got to be carefully taught." And teaching, of the "drumming" type, is just what the Academy does best. The Academy is a place where, quite intentionally, the intricate regimen of military life itself, "teaches" Cadets who and what Air Force leaders are to be.
But, all is not well with the Academy's demanding form of leadership development. You see, myth is a crucial ingredient in this particular type of experiential inculcation; and myth is sorely lacking at the Academy. At fifty years old, the Air Force Academy and the Air Force itself is awash in the narcissistic insecurity of institutional adolescence. Bereft of a significant corporate history, the Air Force and the Air Force Academy are desperately seeking an easily articulated and emotionally resonant institutional foundation. In an increasingly diverse and ethically difficult military arena, the Air Force desires to find a unifying moment, a paradigmatic justification, a myth, around which it can construct and normalize effective military leadership. Therefore, in an era of aggressive conservative social construction, the Air Force Academy becomes one of those "perfect storms" of ideological opportunity.
The Academy is physically surrounded by some of the most well-financed, active, and influential institutions of conservative Christian evangelical power. This conservative Christian evangelical community, persistently and aggressively instrumentalizes the social and hierarchical structures of the Academy. Large evangelical mega-churches and nimble conservative para-church organizations purposefully target Cadets. The on-campus and off-campus activities of these organizations are appealing to Cadets because these religious marketers provide opportunities for social interaction and offer a welcome break from the tedium of campus-bound Cadet life. Cadets who become members of these churches or para-church organizations often remain members throughout their military career. The extensive mail campaigns and electronic databases of conservative Christian organizations, maintain uninterrupted contact with associated USAFA grads. These same electronic resources link graduating members and associates with conservative Christian "sponsors" and fundamentalist churches at follow-on assignments.
The Academy's revolving door of returning graduates and retired military officers populate the USAFA faculty and staff with individuals thoroughly committed to pre-packaged and sloganized conservative Christian religious themes. Through sermons and small group interaction, these same faculty and staff are encouraged to engage in on-campus proselytizing activities and urged to use the close-knit structure of military organizations to advance conservative Christian agendas.
One Colorado Springs mega-church conducted a special class focused on USAFA instructors; this class taught teachers how to use the introductory session of any USAFA course as an opportunity to proselytize students. The motivational emphasis of the class was the "Christian obligation" to "obey the Great Commission." This "Christian obligation" was presented as clearly trumping any Air Force Regulation or Constitutional norm.
In addition, conservative Christian organizations urgently and repeatedly advise graduates, faculty and staff, that these military members should "strengthen" the moral fiber of the Air Force and Air Force Academy, by diligently promulgating the moral dictates of conservative Christian ideology. The lines of official governmental power and "Christian obligation" are completely blurred in these emotive cries to "redeem the moral character of future Air Force officers." These ideological tactics create within the Academy, an institutional desire for narrowly construed morality, nostalgically based unity and patriarchal strength. Little wonder then, that this same conservative Christian structure is able to provide a ready-made mythic foundation which seamlessly resolves the Academy's now clearly articulated desires for moral stability.
So, what is the problem? The Academy needs a myth and the conservative Christians provide one. Why is that a big deal? Perhaps because, predictably so, the devil is in the details.
You see, the real needs of the Air Force Academy are quite different from those constructed and preached by conservative Christians. The pragmatic goals and cultural diversity of the Air Force are not coextensive with the morally rigid and nostalgically based socio-political agenda of fundamentalist Christianity. In reality, dynamic critical thinking, social flexibility, and a progressive appreciation of cultural pluralism are the skills essential to good and even great military leadership.
Air Force officers must shake off the dead weight of patriarchy, understand teamwork, and possess an ability to lead diverse individuals to work well toward a common goal. The technical complexities of current and future Air Force weaponry are eclipsed only by the dynamic social and intellectual skills necessary to lead the diverse teams of people that are required to maintain, transport, position and deploy these weapons.
Individual initiative and creativity are always important to military leadership; self-absorbed petulance and rigid dogmatism are not. Current and future Air Force leaders must develop a keen sense of the enterprising value of otherness.
Surprisingly, these skills can be readily acquired by diligent and dedicated Cadets from all sorts of non-religious and religious backgrounds. A commitment to duty and service may be obtained from a wide variety of personal resources, some metaphysically sophisticated and some as banal as sweaty determination.
The Air Force Academy does not need an "official" religion. Moral degradation and character collapse will not sweep the Terrazzo if conservative Christian marketers are returned to their corporations of regressive intrigue.
Indeed, Christian fundamentalism's stifling patriarchy, social fearfulness and sexual hatred must be "carefully taught," however, the Constitution and common sense dictate that the United States Air Force Academy ought not be the chosen forum for such sectarian instruction.
19 Mar 2005