"Fires of hell" rage on at Academy

I have let a few extra days pass on the Air Force Academy story, while I try to surf the waves of coverage. I think it is fair to say that several basic facts have been clarified.

(1) This is, in large part, a fight between mainline Protestants on the left and evangelicals -- in many traditions -- on the theological right. The big issue is evangelism -- by any Christian, anywhere, at any time, according to the Yale Divinity School observers involved. As such, this battle contains many common themes sounded during the ongoing doctrinal war between liturigal and mainline Protestant military chaplains and evangelical military chaplains. Several major articles have noted that the conflict is not between Christians and other groups, but between evangelical Christians and everyone else.

(2) While there continues to be evidence of abuses by individuals, the main event that everyone is yelling about involved Chaplain Maj. Warren "Chappy" Watties, an African-American evangelical, preaching in a nondenominational service for Protestants who voluntarily attended. I have -- very late in the game -- bumped into a very newsy story in the Colorado Springs Gazette that addresses some of this. Here is a crucial chunk of reporter Pam Zubeck's informative report, which, of all things, does quote people on both sides of the story:

The Air Force said Watties, the service's chaplain of the year in 2004, acted properly because Air Force regulations allow chaplains to evangelize in the performance of their duties to those unaffiliated with another religion.

"Chaplain Watties' messages and sermons were deemed to be appropriate encouragement to his congregation to share their religious convictions, when invited and in an appropriate manner, consistent with rules governing the federal workplace," the Air Force said in a statement in response to The Gazette's written questions.

The statement noted that Watties was conducting a multidenominational Protestant worship service, not an interfaith service, and "did so in a manner consistent with his ordination as a Christian minister and his training as a chaplain." Cadets were not required to attend the service.

(3) There are disputes about the accuracy of some of the charges. The best example is the claim that Watties punched the hellfire and brimstone button during one of his sermons. Here is that language, as reported by T.R. Reid in The Washington Post.

One staff chaplain reportedly told newly arrived freshmen last summer that anyone not born again "will burn in the fires of hell." Such slurs have been heard for decades on the campus, according to Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, a 1977 academy graduate who said he has repeatedly complained to the Air Force brass about the "religious pressure" on cadets. "This is not Christian versus Jew," Weinstein said. "This is the evangelical Christians against everybody else."

This takes us back to Zubeck's story -- which was way back at the start of this media storm, long before many other reporters wrote their stories offering only one side of the hellfire dispute. It seems that the vast majority of people present in the Protestant service do not remember the veteran chaplain saying what it is alleged that he said. There were 600 witnesses.

Academy spokesman Johnny Whitaker said ... that all academy Protestant chaplains have said in recent days that they didn’t make the "fires of hell" comment or hear anyone else say it.

Watties could not be reached for comment. Whitaker said Watties told chief Chaplain Col. Michael Whittington that he invites congregants to "share the word" but didn’t use the phrase "fires of hell."

"I can’t find anybody who said they said what was quoted in there," Whitaker said of the Yale report.

It really doesn't matter if Watties said "fires of hell." There would be a controversy even if he said there was a hell and that any cadet might ever want to discuss that subject with anyone other than in a dark cave. In other words, at the heart of this controversy is the traditional Christian teaching that salvation is found through Jesus Christ alone and that believers are supposed to witness to other people about this belief.

This is, in other words, an offensive-speech case. It is highly likely that there are macho born-again types who are witnessing to other cadets and making them upset. If that gets out of hand, they need to be slapped down. But they are allowed -- under faith-in-the-workplace rules -- to talk about their faith. Others have an equal right to tell them to shut up.

The controversy about Watties and his sermon raises the big question that I have raised several times on this blog, especially here. Are we really talking about doctrinally defined speech codes for what chaplains can and cannot preach to their own flocks?

Will we silence Catholics from saying that Vatican is right about its claims to be the one, true, ancient faith? Will Jews and Muslims be told to chill out? Flip this viewpoint-discrimination issue over: What would happen if a government law required Episcopalians to preach evangelistic sermons? What if Unitarian chaplains were required to speak in tongues -- I mean, against their will?

Meanwhile, the other hot story was the alleged firing of a female Lutheran chaplain who has been a strong critic of the evangelicals at the academy. This is yet more gasoline on the already raging controversy between the oldline Protestant chaplains and the evangelical chaplains. Patrick O'Driscoll of USA Today broke that story.

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