What I Learned from Being Charged with Blasphemy at the Air Force Academy

Nils Haug’s recent “Misadventures of a Reluctant Convert—Another Whimsical Memoir” essay described his come-to-Jesus moment as a student in South Africa. He concludes that during this experience, “Truth had found me, dramatically changed my life, and I was never the same. My real education was complete.”

I’m a few years older than Nils, but identified with many of the times and tunes he described. However, my experiences and path through life differed considerably.

His narrative is of a wild and crazy guy basking in the unimaginable freedom of going to college and cleverly finding a way to ingratiate himself with the local hospital to gain access to many attractive and available nurses. Nonetheless, after a brief sojourn through Hinduism, he found himself unexpectedly among devout Christians, and when challenged if he would give his life to Christ, he surprised himself by saying “yes” and, consequently, was transformed completely.

His description reminded me of reports of Muslim conversions; “Islam” in Arabic means complete submission and surrender. Apparently, this experience has served him well.

My situation and experiences differed.

I was a high school student in Southern California’s wild and crazy 60s. My father, an FBI agent, was a strident anti-communist and critical of most colleges and universities—he disdainfully referred to UCLA as “the little red schoolhouse.” Nonetheless, like most of my classmates—and Nils—I found the new-age hippy lifestyle and orientation both intriguing and enticing.

My problem was that I could not ask my parents to fund my college education. I questioned the Vietnam War but had a very low draft number, and fleeing to Canada seemed a bit extreme. My solution: apply to a military academy. If accepted, I would receive two years of free education. I could then resign before beginning my junior year without further commitment and continue my education wherever I wanted.

After completing the Academy’s admission process, I was eventually offered an appointment to join the Air Force Academy’s Class of 1971. I accepted, and a few weeks before my 18th birthday, my parents signed the waiver for me to join the Air Force as an Academy Cadet. Basic training was intense, but the challenges were exhilarating. Having become an Eagle Scout and lettered in football and rugby in high school, the battery of basic training obstacles was manageable, and I delighted in success at overcoming challenges I had never imagined and finding ways to engage my classmates in subverting the ubiquitous systems of oppression intended to “build character” by inducing suffering.

Due to a rigorous high school program, academics were a welcome respite from the rigors of military training, and my first year passed quickly. Chapel attendance was mandatory on Sunday mornings. Regardless of the weather, we all gathered on the Academy’s expansive terrazzo and marched to worship under the seventeen huge aluminum spires at the west end of the cadet area. Cadet lore maintained the number of spires represented the 12 apostles and the five chiefs of staff. After the service, we were allowed to proceed individually to Mitchell Hall, the spacious dining hall, where a brunch featuring the best sweet rolls ever was prepared for us each week.

I had been raised as a Methodist, so I attended the upstairs Protestant services but was underwhelmed by the lack of substance in the services. I suspect the challenges posed by our involvement in Southeast Asia left the clergy with little to say about loving our neighbors. Some cadets smuggled books into the service and used the time to catch up on homework. Worse yet, Protestant services lasted about 10 minutes longer than the Catholic services downstairs, and by the time we got to the dining hall, all the best sweet rolls had already been claimed. The solution was obvious: “Ave Maria,” an instant—if not authentic—conversion. Same non-message from the pulpit, but despite all the ups and downs of the Catholic liturgy, I considered the sweet rolls more than just desserts.

But, lo and behold, the Air Force Academy Chapel also contained a Jewish tabernacle—tucked in behind the Catholic church. Best of all, it was vacant on Sunday mornings.

Several of us got together to consider how to use this newly discovered intelligence to our advantage. We formed a group calling ourselves The Cadet Humanist League. We met on Sunday mornings to discuss moral issues. Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet was a favorite, but so were essays by liberal theologians like Martin Buber and Paul Tillich. Our approach to inquiry was admittedly secular and quasi-scientific. We relied on evidence and rational arguments to better understand issues and our diverse points of view. We were proud of ourselves: without all the genuflecting, we could conclude our service just before the Catholic services and be first in line at the dining hall every Sunday.

All this changed one bleak February morning.

A Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel, known by a description of his super-slim dark green uniform and shaved head as the “green onion,” happened upon our clandestine “worship service.” Apoplectic does not begin to describe his response to my defense of our do-it-yourself worship service. He literally screamed that we were either Catholics or Protestants and if we did not know which, we were, most assuredly, Protestants.

He wrote each of us up on an AFCW Form 10; our offense: “BLASPHEMY!” He then ordered us to form ourselves into a small platoon—as I recall, there were about a dozen of us on this Sunday morning—and marched us around the terrazzo until after the other services had ended, then released us to the dining hall.

Blasphemy is a serious offense—somewhat like “conduct unbecoming a cadet,” and our punishment would include months of restriction to our rooms and about 100 “tours”—marching back and forth with an empty but weighty M1 rifle for an hour on the marble strips that laced the terrazzo.

Fortunately, one group member was connected to a church downtown, All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church. He contacted them. As it turned out, a member of their board, a retired federal judge, had also served on the national board of the American Civil Liberties Union. He contacted the Academy Superintendent, a three-star general, and advised him that our discussion groups were, in fact, Unitarian worship services. Our integration of freedom, reason, and tolerance was central to Unitarianism’s orthopraxis. He also thought our case might be used to challenge the military academies’ compulsory chapel policy. All charges were discreetly dropped, but we were advised that if we wanted to worship as Unitarians, we would have to arrange for transportation into town each Sunday morning.

Interestingly, a class action suit against all three federal military academies filed the following year ended compulsory chapel shortly after I graduated from the Academy in 1971.

This episode was a prelude to my military and academic careers marked by free thinking and doing what I could to develop new and better ways to subvert systems of oppression to empower students and enhance learning. When I returned to the Academy as a faculty member, I joined the Unitarian Church and served on the board for several years. I retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 2001, having been confirmed by the U.S. Senate as a Permanent Professor and Head of the Air Force Academy’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. I served as Academic Vice President and Provost of a small liberal arts college for four years afterward, then as a tenured professor of psychology and general studies for another dozen years.

I realized that the heterodoxy of our clandestine services was also a part of the academic classes from which I learned the most. Just as Mr. Dooley asserted about good religions and good newspapers, a quality educational experience should both comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. A diversity of viewpoints, experiences, and perspectives in a safe and supportive academic environment allows this to happen. Academic freedom remains the defining characteristic of both research universities and liberal arts colleges. From a higher learning perspective, the most important form of diversity is not ethnographic identity; it is the impetus provided by encountering new and challenging ideas that require students to think outside the boxes into which they were born.

Ironically, suppressing such diversity in the name of critical social justice, identity politics, or Woke allegiance now poses the greatest threat to higher learning.


Photo by Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel — Rawpixel — Edited by Jared Gould

Author

  • David B. Porter

    David B. Porter, DPhil, Col, USAF (Ret), is a professor in exile in Berea, KY. He may be reached at dave.porter.berea@gmail.com.

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4 thoughts on “What I Learned from Being Charged with Blasphemy at the Air Force Academy

  1. Brilliant and elegantly written, Dr Porter is spot on about the oppressive evangelical culture which had metastasized to the AFA from its primary site of downtown C-Springs. Primary vectors seemed especially dense among officers of the military training cadre. More on this from Mikey Weinstein ‘67, his young men and “The Military Religious Freedom Foundation”. The latter organization has been an irritation to military commanders who would use their office to advance their personal delusions involving faith. Good for them. Thanks Dr Porter.
    ‘65er

  2. Right on, David! I was a 3 year old living in Douglas Valley in 1971. My dad was major David Burke – don’t know if you knew anyone in his squadron. We were a catholic family and went to church in the basement of the chapel. Dad was what I’d call a conservative humanist, quite the philosopher under the uniform. As a kid I knew nothing of this “adult Issues”. We did love the Academy with its majestic majestic hills giving way to the Rockies. Years later I went back for what I called the Nostalgia Tour. By that pint I had worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and was amazed to learn that the model for the Cadet Plaza is in MoMA’s collection of Architectural models. I returned to the Chapel after 40 years,only to realize that the alter and podium were by Finish designer Aero Saarinen. How things come full circle! Bravo to you for having the courage to subvert the system!

  3. Great article! USAFA graduate – happy to see someone speaking out. Everything I see about the Academies these days has me losing faith and angrily throwing away and laughing at the mailers asking me for donations.

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