[Mikey Weinstein]: As readers and followers of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) know well, the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. has long been a wellspring of illicit expressions of Christian supremacist fundamentalism within the U.S. military – a fact experienced first-hand by my own family and repeatedly confirmed by MRFF’s growing client base at the academy. In recent days following our contacts with 144 U.S. Air Force Academy faculty, cadet, and staff clients, MRFF has exposed a wholly illicit, illegal, and unconstitutional pattern of exhibitionist pre-game Christian prayer stunts displayed by players with U.S. Air Force Academy’s football team, the Falcons. As we have repeatedly noted, these “Team Tebow” performances constitute a crystal-clear violation of Department of Defense and Air Force directives, instructions, and regulations, along with the U.S. Constitution’s No Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and clause 3 Article VI “No Religious Test”, while also having the calamitous side-effect of depicting (to friend and foe alike) a United States military formation that is literally possessed by fundamentalist Christian exceptionalism and religious sectarianism, with zero regard for unit cohesion, good order, morale, and discipline.
This important guest Op-Ed by former U.S. Air Force chaplain, Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) Advisory Board Member, M.S.I. Morton offers a crucial perspective on this ongoing disgrace. Indeed, when U.S. Air Force Academy cadets behave as government-paid, fundamentalist christian missionaries they are unwittingly playing into the hands of our jihadist opponents such as ISIS who seek to depict the United States Military as Christian “Crusaders” and will, no doubt, wield this humiliating disgrace as a propaganda weapon against our nation… Mikey.
This fall, football players at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA), prior to the start of games, have been encircling at the end zone and kneeling in prayer. This exhibition of Christian piety is commonly known as “Tebowing,” a reference to similar postures displayed on the football field by Tim Tebow, an outspoken conservative Christian and former NFL quarterback. In non-religious settings, the assumption of such “witnessing postures” expresses not only the pious perspective of the performer, but also projects, into a pluralistic environment, conservative Christianity’s claims of spiritual sovereignty and worldly power. This reverential posture proclaims that, not only is “Jesus my Lord” but “Jesus is Lord of all.”
As a projection of a particular fundamentalist Christian witness, “Tebowing” reflects a rather pedestrian version of other hypermasculine, attention-getting antics common on college and professional football fields. “Tebowing’s” more complex symbolism resonates with certain Christian conservatives but eludes or is purposely ignored by other spectators.
However, “Tebowing” at Air Force Academy football games exponentially increases both the civic impact of these fundamentalist claims and the far-reaching consequences of such conservative Christian exhibitions. The football players at USAFA are not the same as other college football players and USAFA home football games are not the same as other college gridiron contests. Distinctions include the difference between public space (or private space accommodating public access) and governmental space. The former may be a venue for free (i.e. religious) speech, the latter MUST be a venue for the necessary equity required by governmental action. In addition, there are distinctions between non-governmental and governmental actors. The former does not represent or express the power of the U.S. government; the latter most certainly does.
USAFA’s football players are uniformed members of the United States military. The football game is a required military formation for both players, and in the case of home games, for the entire corps of cadets. USAFA cadets (students) are required to attend these games, and they are also required to have automatically withdrawn from their military pay the entrance fee for game attendance. Football games are an official military function. Cadets who, by tradition or desire, worship on Saturday must make special requests, on a case-by-case basis, through the office of the Chaplain and up the chain of command, in order to be excused from a USAFA football game. (Few make such requests due to the difficulty of the process and the stigma associated with missing a mandatory military formation.) This means that only cadets attending to essential military duties, for example serving as "charge of quarters" or within the “command post” are exempted from attending USAFA football games. Indeed, USAFA football games are official military functions and when conducted "at home" are held in a federal government facility, at government expense. While the public is invited to these events, the stadium does not become "public space".
For conservative Christians, it is the seductive combination of a pageant like presentation of uniformed military power along with the impressive trappings of governmental authority which makes “Tebowing” at USAFA football games such an important sectarian display. Here, young virile men, future military leaders, exhibit distinctly fundamentalist, conservative Christian “witnessing postures,” while representing (in uniform) a distinct branch of the armed forces and, during “home” games, performing within one of the country’s most notable military installations. Performed by USAFA football players, “Tebowing” speaks with the voice of the United States Air Force, proclaiming, “Jesus is my Lord” and “Jesus is Lord of all.” For the Christian Right, USAFA “Tebowing” dramatically demonstrates the cultural appropriateness of seamlessly merging a Christian power discourse with militarized governmental action. By such dramatic and repetitive associations, conservative Christians promote the idea that the United States is a Christian Nation and that the power of the US government ought be deployed in support of conservative Christian perspectives.
A decade ago the United States Air Force Academy pronounced on a football locker room banner that, “We are Team Jesus”; that assertion is now paraded onto the gridiron, performed before a pluralistic crowd and displayed on television.